Trump and the Iran Deal: Calculated Defiance or Seismic Ignorance?

Trump surprised few with his decision to pull out of the Iran Deal. He derided the deal during his presidential campaign and promised to either change it or pull out. It is worth noting as well that Trump was not alone in his scepticism. Obama’s insistence on signing off on the treaty via an executive order as opposed to seeking congressional approval spoke volumes of the divisive nature of the deal at home. So while it is easy to pin this irreparably devastating blow to the US’s reputation on the diplomatic scene, both Trump and Obama share the blame.

Impact on Iran domestically

The real issue however is not the significance of the US pulling out, but whether anything really changes on the ground. Iran continues to suffer economically and even members of the revolutionary guard were reportedly, at least privately, cautiously optimistic over the benefits of the deal prior to Trump’s arrival to the White House. This latest economic setback will dispel all optimism over any short-term economic improvement. However it should be said that Iran is not new to handling difficult economic crises having been under sanctions for more than a decade.

Moreover, the way in which Trump pulled out of the deal, convinced by Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia, as well as his flagrant disregard for international protocol, will have tempered any renewed flaring of antagonism between the government and the Iranian people. In other words, those in Iran who argued that the West’s problem is not just with the Islamic Republic, but with Iran as an entity, from its Persian-ness and koubidehs to its undeniably powerful influence in the region challenging even that of the US, will find their message resonate even among softer members of the anti-regime movement. Rouhani braved the ire and threats of the conservative elements and hard-liners of the political establishment to negotiate the deal. It was seen as a decisive step in Iran’s emergence from obscurity.

Therefore, in the eyes of many among the Iranian people, Rouhani is blameless in Trump’s perceived impetuous decision to pull out. Trump appears to have tried to soothe the Iranian people in a tweet stating that the American people stood with them. However, Trump’s actions spoke louder, evoking sympathy among even Iran’s critics for Rouhani and his team.

The bigger picture

Iran’s reaction has been measured. Instead of responding with the aggression it suggested it would display in the build-up to Trump’s announcement, Rouhani has suggested that he will explore his options with European allies who have expressed public disapproval over Trump’s conduct. However, this attitude is not rooted in any optimism concerning the deal, but instead in a solid grasp of the regional status quo and the difficulties the US is having in maintaining control.

Iran remains entrenched in Iraq and is currently engaged in uniting the Shia blocs behind a candidate. Rumours are rife that Hadi Al-Amiri of the Badr Brigade may capitalise on his new-found popularity from his role in the Popular Mobilisation Force and seek to become Prime Minister. Amiri is the same man who professed he would fight with Iran if it ever entered into war with Iraq, and was vehemently opposed by the US when he was nominated by Iran-backed political parties in 2014 to become interior minister. A compromise was made and one of his deputies, Mohamed Ghabban, took on the position while the US took up the much weaker Defence Ministry by propping up Khaled al-Obeidi.

In Syria, Iran continues to act as the military spine of the Assad regime. For all the news on Israel attacking Iranian positions, these operations are limited to driving Iran away from the border, not out of Syria entirely (hence the silence from Moscow), and bolstering a beleaguered Netanyahu facing elections and corruption charges.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah is the clear winner in the recent elections. Hariri has lost seats, the Sunni bloc is in disarray as Saudi Arabia ponders over a possible unifying leader, and President Aoun and Hezbollah have cemented their alliance, expanding Hezbollah’s control into the foreign affairs ministry and strands of the official military.

In other words, Iran appears stronger than ever militarily and in influence despite its economic woes. Moreover, it is stronger than ever militarily and in influence in the exact places the US seeks to exert control.

Time for war?

This is significant for one reason only, and one that appears to have evaded Trump; the US will at some point have to negotiate with Tehran, particularly if it seeks to implement any meaningful policy. Although many analysts have touted war, this is highly unlikely both logistically and geographically. Russian forces are in Syria and cooperating with Iranian-backed forces. To target Iran in Syria risks an eruption in already fraught relations with Moscow that could lead to a disastrous military escalation.

Moreover, with an expanding Turkish force in Northern Syria reaching the borders of Idlib, US forces would find themselves hemmed in. Trump would not be able to coax France and Germany into assisting after his flagrant and public disregard of their efforts over the Iran Deal.

If Trump sought to fight Iran in Iraq, he would also find himself hard pressed. Iran’s militias are about to be incorporated into the flailing Iraqi army, bringing the two powerful security ministries of Defence and Interior firmly under Tehran’s influence. Even if Trump sends in US troops, they would not be greeted as they were in 2003 and would find themselves embroiled in an unwinnable guerrilla war.

Trump has suggested he will push the Arabs to fight Iran. However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman’s poor showing in Yemen is enough of a litmus test to predict the outcome of such an approach. Moreover, smaller Gulf states generally fear Iran and its domestic meddling and prefer amicable relations. It is no secret that Dubai secretly permitted trading with Iran during the sanctions years and Kuwait has hosted senior Iranian officials including Ali Larijani over the years.

In short, Trump will soon find himself sending intermediaries to Tehran to negotiate precarious issues in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. He will not do this out of desire, but out of necessity. Unable to win militarily, frustrated by Iran’s deep state politics in the region, and flustered by anatgonistic public opinion to US force, Trump will soon find that there was merit in Obama’s approach of rapprochement to secure US interests, however limited.

The problem however, is that when Trump does so, it will be a resounding sign of his own weakness that he has so flagrantly failed to understand. With the Iran Deal in place, there would have been at least a precedent or framework for talks to take place. However, following the US’ humiliating pull-out, Iran is unlikely to trust Washington again and offer anything remotely resembling favourable terms, even if Obama himself were to return to power.