Trump’s Misguided Iran Policy

During the early hours of September 14, explosions broke out at an Aramco oil field in Saudi Arabia. As the Saudi government rushed to contain the blaze and investigate the attack, a group of Yemeni rebels, known as the Houthis, claimed responsibility for the bombing. Saudi Arabia soon began to suspect, however, that the perpetrator was likely its regional arch-nemesis, Iran, possibly with the assistance of the Houthis rebels [1]. About a day after the attacks, and amidst international oil market chaos, Donald Trump tweeted from his personal Twitter account, “Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom” [2]. This isn’t the first time that Trump has come dangerously close to attacking Iran this year, the “culprit,” nor is it the administration’s most trivial reason for doing so. And while the Saudis got their fire under control within hours, Trump’s Iran foreign policy is a fire that has been blazing for two-and-a-half years with no end in sight.

This administration’s foreign policy in Iran has been reckless and irresponsible, while completely failing to accomplish the goals ostensibly held by the President and his advisors. Trump claims that he wants to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities and avoid armed conflict if possible [3]. If peace and nuclear non-proliferation are truly Trump’s goal, his choice to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a peaceful, multilateral agreement that put strong limits on Iran’s nuclear development, is perplexing [4]. Since then, Trump’s Iran policy has been guided by a new campaign dubbed “maximum pressure,” characterized by successive rounds of tariffs and saber-rattling on Twitter and in the press room [5]. Since the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has been making several displays of aggression to indicate the leverage it has in both regional power relations and global oil markets. Just this year, Iran attacked and captured several commercial oil tankers, shot down an American drone, and now, attacked Saudi oil fields [6]. For a president who claims mastery in the “art of the deal,” Trump’s strategy of throwing out the previous deal to get a better one doesn’t seem to be working. In fact, it seems more likely to lead to war than to successful negotiations.

To be fair, it’s not just Trump being a blithering idiot; he has some understandable reasons to be dealing with Iran in the way he is. However, none of these reasons justify the risk of throwing the world into another unending war in the Middle East. First, Trump has a political incentive to declare Obama’s JCPOA a failure and to force Iran to give him a victory to place on his scoreboard. The Iran deal was just one of many Obama-era actions that Trump reversed within the first year-and-a-half of his presidency. Interestingly, the deal Trump now claims to want from Iran sounds almost identical to the original JCPOA that he rejected. Politics should never be the reason that our president acts against the best interest of the American people, especially when it involves jeopardizing our national security. 

Another pressure for Trump indubitably comes from his notoriously hawkish advisors: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Iran hawks have advocated for regime change ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis in Tehran, justifying their opposition to the Iranian regime on ideological grounds. They fear the influence of Iran’s anti-Western Islamic radicalism with Marxist influences will embolden other Middle Eastern ideologues hostile to the U.S. [8]. Whatever one’s belief about our ideological differences with Iran, it is important to keep in mind that previous American intervention to topple hostile regimes has almost always ended in disaster. There is no more poignant example than when the CIA led a coup of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, setting the pieces in place for Iran’s deep mistrust of the United States and the eventual revolution in 1979 [9].

The third, and most foolish, motivation for Trump’s Iran policy comes from the “special relationships” that we have with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The two most prominent reasons for our long-standing alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel come down to business and ideology. The danger with these relationships, however, is that we might compromise the values that are so fundamental to our identity on the world stage. In recent months, we have compromised our values for business and ideological relationships too many times. Examples include Trump’s refusal to accept the intelligence community’s assessment that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by the Saudi state, American complicity in war crimes on Yemeni civilians by Saudi Arabia, and in civil rights abuses committed by Israel against Palestinians [11]. 

The Trump administration urgently needs to change the way it approaches our relationship with Iran before war breaks out, otherwise we risk losing more credibility on the world stage. A good first step was for President Trump to fire John Bolton, one of the most vocal voices for regime change in Iran. What we need now is to reinitiate diplomatic negotiations with Iran and make sure that our values are driving foreign policy. Many of the faults I have outlined in the United States’ current foreign policy towards Iran did not start with President Trump. But unless Trump does something to change the current trajectory of the relationship, he may well be the one to end it.

Sources:

  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49699429
  2. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1173368423381962752
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/world/middleeast/trump-iran-saudi-arabia.html?module=inline
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joint_Comprehensive_Plan_of_Action
  5. https://www.mei.edu/debate-us-iran-policy
  6. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R45795.pdf
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/21/us/politics/trump-iran-decision.html#
  8. https://institute.global/insight/co-existence/ideology-and-irans-revolution-how-1979-changed-world
  9. https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-coup-mossadegh-cia-60th-anniversary/25076552.html
  10. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/jamal-khashoggis-death-made-the-saudi-crown-prince-a-pariah-trump-has-helped-rehabilitate-him-on-the-world-stage/2019/09/28/3365b8be-e13c-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html
  11. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/12/18/who-are-the-houthis-and-why-are-we-at-war-with-them
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Helaman Sanchez

HELAMAN SANCHEZ is a senior from Detroit, Michigan. He studies Economics and Political Science, and his passions include economic justice and the history of race. Helaman loves music, so he tries to practice guitar every day and aspires to have a band in his basement one day. He also enjoys reading, hiking with his wife and their Golden Retriever, and listening to podcasts on 2x speed. Proud of his nerdiness, Helaman is exactly the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to analyze his career options. He will work at a social impact consulting firm after graduating and is considering the eventual pursuit of an MBA or MPP.

Helaman Sanchez

HELAMAN SANCHEZ is a senior from Detroit, Michigan. He studies Economics and Political Science, and his passions include economic justice and the history of race. Helaman loves music, so he tries to practice guitar every day and aspires to have a band in his basement one day. He also enjoys reading, hiking with his wife and their Golden Retriever, and listening to podcasts on 2x speed. Proud of his nerdiness, Helaman is exactly the kind of person who would create a spreadsheet to analyze his career options. He will work at a social impact consulting firm after graduating and is considering the eventual pursuit of an MBA or MPP.

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