Problems with President Trump’s Iran policy
President Trump’s decision to engage with North Korea and hold a summit once Pyongyang had developed a threatening array of nuclear missiles, while simultaneously punishing Iran which had not gone so far, seemed odd at the time.
It is easy to see why the President decided to engage with Kim Jong-un. North Korea had become a clear and present danger. With Pyongyang in possession of nuclear warheads and missiles which can reach US soil, America is clearly under threat. No previous US president had prevented this dangerous situation from arising and it was therefore time to engage.
The situation in Iran is somewhat different. Iran is not a present nuclear danger. Accordingly, President Trump can adopt a tough posture towards Tehran. This is not a morality play; it is foreign policy à la Trump. The second worst doesn’t necessarily get treated better than the worst. Each situation gets what it needs to have a reasonable chance of yielding an optimal result.
It would be misleading, of course, not to refer also to the likely influence of President Trump’s allies – Saudi Arabia and Israel – who have never liked the Iran nuclear deal anyway.
What may have been missing from the US calculation is that Iran has some non-nuclear ability to respond to the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Tehran has very clearly warned that Washington would be surprised by the diverse ways in which Iran could respond.
Iran’s first reaction to the prospect of the ending of the nuclear deal was its volte face over its previous support for the Afghan government. Instead it started to train Taliban fighters. Iran has always been a force in Afghanistan. Normally the Shi’a state would have had no truck with the extreme Sunnis of the Taliban. However, with the appearance in Iran of the even more extreme Islamic State, the Taliban looks almost like a moderate force worth investing in.
Second, aiding the Taliban may persuade its fighters to damage dam construction in the country’s west where the rivers normally bring Afghan water into Iran.
Training the Taliban also creates a high annoyance factor for the US. President Trump would like to exit the Afghan War. Iran’s training and supplying of the Taliban makes that harder to achieve.
Tehran is also wooing Pakistan’s newly-elected leader, Imran Khan – with some apparent success – to become closer to Iran. Taking advantage of Washington’s coolness towards Pakistan, this could open the way to an Iran-Pakistan-China axis with Russia that could generate different results in the region from those desired by Washington.
Although Khan has offered to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, he had earlier criticized the decision to send Pakistan troops to the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in the Yemen. Khan has said after the election that his government “will expand all-out cooperation with Iran and reconsider its relations with the United States”. US pressure on Pakistan could facilitate this new alignment.
In a third theatre – Syria – there are also possibilities for causing difficulties for the US. Despite its behavior towards its Palestinian citizens and neighbors, Israel is treated by Washington as an ally. Iran sponsors Hezbollah in the Lebanon which frequently acts against Israeli military behavior.
Hezbollah is now estimated to have 25,000 trained fighters and 100,000 rockets, much more than a few years ago. It is quite possible that Iran may encourage Hezbollah to take action against Israel as part of Iran’s calculated response to the re-imposition of sanctions.
There may be other less likely Iranian-related reactions we might see. One is that Russia may find a way to invest in the resuscitation of the Iranian oil fields, while carefully avoiding purchasing the oil. The threats of Washington imposing sanctions on Indian purchases of Russian arms and Iranian oil may also set back the US relationship with India for a while. There is a risk of the whole of Southern Asia from Myanmar to Turkey – where an increasing number of countries are out of favor with Washington – becoming sullenly hostile towards the US.
It is important for the US administration to ensure that when it applies ‘maximum pressure’ on countries which are not doing what it wants, it has covered every aspect of the issues at stake. Otherwise there is a real danger of unintended consequences. One of the dangers of being a great power is not always appreciating all the influences at work on states to which diplomatic pressure is being applied.
In the case of Iran, it is likely that Washington will have some surprises from the chain of actions it has set in motion.