Congratulations, Mr. President. It took an extraordinary effort, but you finally managed to spark a serious global crisis. I know you don’t like to share credit, but don’t worry. The current mess in the Middle East centered around Iran is all yours.
It will go down in history as a textbook example of replacing a pretty major peace accord with pretty massive problems. Sure, the deal limiting Iran’s nuclear activity forged during the Obama administration was far from perfect. Tehran was still up to no good inSyria, Yemen and Iraq. But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified that Iran was honoring the terms of the agreement made with world powers and had frozen its nuclear program.
Still, the Trump administration bulldozed and then backed over it for good measure. President Donald Trump employed his traditional bombast and bluster about the bad guys in Tehran. He withdrew the U.S. from the international agreement and pulled out his go-to move, slapping on sanctions. The administration threatened any country or company that continued to do business with Iran. This has pushed their economy to the brink. The problem is, pressure only works when there’s an obvious outlet you’re pushing toward, and it’s never been clear what exactly Washington wants, though the administration has vaguely referred to a tougher deal.
Iran rejected Trump’s overtures to renew negotiations — and instead predictably lashed out, most recently by firing cruise missiles on major Saudi Arabian oil sites,damaging a key part of the world’s oil supplies. And those were just warning shots. We are now precariously perched on the precipice of a deeply destructive conflict. Combustible fuel has been spread across the Persian Gulf, and one wrong move could set off a considerable conflagration that even savvy, strategic leaders would struggle to contain. Trump has proven himself to be neither.
This dangerous downward spiral is what happens when the U.S. throws out the international relations primer. The central rule — if it’s not broken, don’t fix it — can be found in Chapter 1 of “Diplomacy for Dummies.” Chapter 2 covers how, if you choose to break it, you better have a darn good plan for how to put it back together. It would also be helpful to mention that Chapter 3 gets into why it’s not advisable to break all the china at once. In the case of Iran, the White House threw caution to the wind and chose to heed none of these wise warnings.
Some might say Trump derives his power from tossing out the rulebook. Maybe domestically that can be the case, but on the world stage he has almost nothing to show for his unorthodox tactics. And his worst offense isn’t ignoring common practice or just plain common sense. It comes from compromising our credibility. By abandoning the deal with Iran, Trump surrendered the precious potent power of America’s word. As he is discovering, it is now much more difficult to get Iran, North Korea, China or anyone, really, to believe we will honor our commitments.
You could call his latest approach an attempt to apply the good ole’ Pyongyang Playbook: insult, increase pressure and then extend an invite. But that hasn’t worked any better. North Korea continues to have and actively test new nuclear technology. They, too, have lots of unseemly extracurricular activities, including sharing some of their latest techniques with Tehran. As Trump has now discovered the hard way, it’s a heck of a lot easier to hammer someone else’s deal than it is to hammer out your own.
And in the case of Iran, even the minimal factors that work in favor of that approach toward North Korea mostly don’t apply. Iran isn’t internationally isolated. They had a deal and knew none of the other signatories, including America’s close allies in the European Union, were on board with tossing it overboard. America’s “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran has gotten minimal support. Companies complied with the sanctions under threat of losing access to the U.S. market, but countries continued to look for ways to support the deal. And the maximum publicity push that worked to some degree with Kim Jong Un was not appealing in the least to Tehran. Their leaders don’t need a photo op to boost their brand on the world stage.
Indeed, Iran knows how deeply unpopular Trump is around the world. Its plan to break the blockade imposed by the sanctions centers on exacerbating those tensions, ones already stoked by the White House when it issued unilateral threats and demands rather than rallying allies behind a common plan on how to end Iranian bad behavior.
Having not gone to the trouble of gaining agreement from allies on areas of concern before pulling out of the deal, the American president finds himself in a weak position — and Iranian leaders know it. Iran believes that by increasing the pain and consequences for European countries and other allies who want to see quiet in the Middle East and an uninterrupted supply of oil, it will be possible to change their calculus.
For much of Trump’s time in office, there were few consequences or counterattacks resulting from his crude, careless and critical comments about others. Many nations were conflict averse or generally pursued an avoidance strategy when it came to these adversarial tactics. Some, like the Saudis, tried flattery and flat out bribes to buy his affinity. Others, such as China and Canada, have largely opted for a controlled, conventional response to his tantrums on their business practices, believing they could ultimately negotiate a settlement on trade. Even those who have managed to reach a deal with the Trump administration, such as Mexico and Guatemala, have been subject to ongoing attacks. There’s seemingly no good deal to be done with Trump.
In Iran’s case, the U.S. backed out of a deal it was abiding by. I have yet to hear anyone in the Cabinet articulate a cogent and clear case of what a better deal with Iran actually looks like. So why would it be the right or rational move for Iran to believe in an American leader who has proven himself to be so unreliable and incoherent?
Backed into a corner, with no credible course forward, Iran has chosen to lash out. The attacks on the Saudi oil facilities follow months of seizures of foreign ships, downing of American drones and breaching the limits the deal imposed on its enrichment of uranium. Yes, their actions are wrong and reckless. They were also quite predictable and preventable.
Why did Trump lead us here? First, we need to recognize that Trump desperately needs a deal. North Korea is stalled, peace in Afghanistan has eluded him. There is currently no major foreign policy accomplishment he can point to during the 2020 election campaign. That’s a problem for a man who came into office by claiming that he was far better at big deals than any of the politicians.
For Trump, Iran initially seemed like it would be a pretty simple fix. Similar to NAFTA, he could add a few superficial touches and hail it as a great breakthrough. Unfortunately, just as on North Korea, Afghanistan and pretty much every other international issue, the president seems to have badly misjudged his foreign counterparts.
And unlike those other situations, Iran isn’t going to just slap tariffs on soy beans or test-fire rockets. It’s going to hit back hard, knowing how leery the president is of war and weary the world is of his antics. With no international support, no strategy and no good options, Trump has finally tweeted himself into some real trouble. I only hope he’ll crack open a copy of “Diplomacy for Dummies” before things get really dangerous.
- Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He currently runs crisis communications agency the Global Situation Room and teaches crisis management at Georgetown.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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