Almost the entire world supported the nuclear deal with Iran, including the large majority of America’s allies. But Trump has shown time and time again that he is only interested in one audience — his Republican base. A recent CNN poll indicated that 63% of Americans support the Iran agreement whereas 29% oppose it — but the more important statistic is that 51% of Republicans, mostly comprising Trump’s base, are against.
Practically the entire world is questioning Trump’s strategy — if there is no deal then what is the path to curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions? By all accounts, Iran was living up their end of the bargain — the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European and Asian signatories, even the US authorities all agreed. The US press pointed out that there doesn’t seem to be a strategy in Trump’s announcement. Despite a loose indication of openness to a new deal, no steps were taken towards this, and Trump announced severe sanctions as a starting point.
But it would be a mistake to assume that Trump has no idea of where this may lead. Though probably of average intelligence and possibly functionally illiterate, Trump does have a fairly clear idea of what he is doing. He may be short on specifics and the logic may be ill thought through. But the general direction is clear — Trump wants to actively push regime change in Iran. His National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has been lobbying for this for many years. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is well known to be an Iran hawk. And possibly his two closest international allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are already engaged in conflict with Iran, and have actively lobbied the US to pull out of this deal.
Trump probably never understood the details of the deal — rather he decided he didn’t like it and then found reasons why. His objection seems to be that the deal doesn’t curtail the ballistic missile capabilities of Iran, its international support for America’s perceived enemies (particularly Hezbollah and Bashar al Assad) and that it has a sunset provision in 15 years. His renunciation speech also sought to create the completely unfounded fear that American cities were under threat from Iran’s missiles. Never mind that no Irani has ever been implicated in a terrorist attack on American soil. Trump wants to mislead the American public into believing that the Mullahs in Tehran could contemplate a direct attack on the USA. That, of course, would be national suicide.
And what is America’s record of regime in the Middle East? Ironically the troubles with Iran began when the USA played an instrumental role in removing the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh for nationalising the oil industry in the 1950s. And the recent record is even worse. Afghanistan is a complete mess. Iraq is the same. Libya is wracked with turmoil and insecurity, with Gaddafi’s son Saif planning to stand in the 2018 elections (there is nostalgia for the old days of stability before the US and Europe helped remove his father). And the attempted regime change in Syria (initiated under Obama) has pretty much wrecked the country. So despite all these failures, which Trump is fully aware of, and his disdain for “stupid wars” in the Middle East, why would he seek to engage in a conflict with Iran?
It is true that Trump never liked the Iran deal, and also simply wishes to undo all aspects of President Obama’s legacy. But we should also pay attention to the story in Wag the Dog, a film where the US president fakes a war to distract from a sex scandal. Trump understands that with a Mueller investigation in full swing, and an unfolding sex scandal, international conflict could help change the topic and rally the country around him. The US president is intentionally keeping the door open to another war in the Middle East.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 10th, 2018.