January 21, 2018

Predicting Iran is as challenging as predicting Trump

All points to the steady erosion of US influence in the field of international diplomacy.
A portrait of US President Donald Trump burns during a demonstration in the capital Tehran on December 11. (AFP)

US President Don­ald Trump would dearly love the Iran nuclear deal he loathes to fail but does not want the responsibility of destroying it himself. Hence his reluctant decision to extend the life of the Obama-era deal in which Iran limited its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

Some in Washington hoped the president would use the wave of protests across Iran to dare a bold move. This was the most wide­spread public dissent in the Islamic Republic since the 2009 Green Movement after presidential elec­tions returned hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Trump’s patience, however, is clearly run­ning out and he warned European leaders that he would not again waive sanctions to stay in the deal when the issue next comes up in three months.

Both US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis urged Trump to stay in the nuclear deal and attest to Iranian compliance with its terms, adding that the US president could take tougher action on Iran outside the narrow terms of the arrange­ment. By decertifying the deal but not pulling out of it, Trump mud­died the waters in what is already a very difficult problem.

Three months ago, he said he would work with the US Congress and European allies to force new conditions on Iran but there is lit­tle sign of a broader policy review on how to counter Iran across the Middle East being agreed with Congress, let alone the other signa­tories to the nuclear deal.

Indeed, tensions between the United States and its Western al­lies are growing. French President Emmanuel Macron was very clear that he and his European peers, not least Germany and the United King­dom, see no reason to break away from “the existing and positive mo­mentum that has been achieved,” in the words of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

A year after he moved into the White House, Trump’s foreign policy remains unpredictable if not capricious. It is so unpredict­able that one of Washington’s seers, Dennis Ross, an adviser to presidents in both parties, said: “Predicting Donald Trump requires more humility than anticipating developments in the Middle East.”

Washington today is no longer certain of its judgment on Iran. Until Trump’s election, a good observer could, to some degree, predict what policy path the US president would follow.

Today, the protests inside Iran play into a narrative that suits at least those who advise the presi­dent — that one cannot do transac­tions with political entities that are inherently evil. In other words, the very nature of the Iranian regime is so flawed that it is not worth pursu­ing any dialogue on Syria and Iraq. The protests in Iran comfort Trump in his stated belief that attempting regime change might be worth the game.

What if regime change is not the order of the day? What if the protests, genuine though they are, do not signify on the part of the Ira­nian people a desire to topple the regime but to gain more jobs and freedom, reduce corruption and get more jobs?

Predicting Iran is quite as chal­lenging as predicting Trump. Many seasoned Iran watchers were caught unaware by the revolution of 1979 and 30 years later they were surprised by the uproar that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-elec­tion.

The CIA got it fundamentally wrong in 1979. In the Middle East, there is no end of the number of times the US, French or British se­cret services and diplomats utterly failed to anticipate events that changed the face of a given country or the region.

Trump faces a further difficulty in dealing with Iran as efforts by his administration to build a strong international response to Iran’s crackdown on anti-government protesters appeared to backfire as members of the UN Security Council instead used a special ses­sion called by the United States to lecture the American ambassador on the proper purpose of the body and reaffirm support for the Iran nuclear deal.

As one might expect, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya was blunt, ask­ing rhetorically why the Security Council had not taken up the issue of Black Lives Matter protests in Missouri, which were also met with a violent police response.

More significant was the warning from French Ambassador Francois Delattre against any attempt to “instrumentalise protests from the outside. We must be wary of any attempt to exploit this crisis for personal ends, which would have a diametrically opposed outcome to that which is wished.”

British representative Matthew Rycoft said Britain remained fully committed to the nuclear deal, describing it as one of the great diplomatic successes of recent memory. The Bolivian ambassador pointedly remarked that “it needs to be crystal clear that the situa­tion in Iran does not belong on the agenda of the Security Council.”

Such reticence to support the American position is the latest evidence of growing international resistance to the Trump adminis­tration’s foreign policy priorities, particularly at the United Nations. Last month, a large majority of UN members voted for a resolution denouncing the US announcement recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and a plan to move the US Embassy there.

If Trump persists in conflating the protests with the Iran nuclear deal, arguing that financial benefits received by the Iranian authorities as part of the accord had fuelled the corruption that the country’s people were protesting, he will simply run into a brick wall with US allies in Europe, Russia and China. All points to the steady ero­sion of US influence in the field of international diplomacy.

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