Trump and Iran: A game of poker or chess?
Whoever is advising US president-elect Donald Trump needs to remind him of the cliché that, while the Americans may have invented poker, it was the Persians who invented chess.
As he heads for the White House, Trump has adopted a conflictive stance towards those he sees as the United States’ key antagonists, with Iran high on the list.
During an abrasive campaign, Trump promised to rip up the 2015 international agreement that went into force last January to end a long-running dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme. It was among one of several vote-grabbing pledges that may or may not survive Trump’s elevation to the presidency. He has also said he might seek to renegotiate what he described as “the stupidest deal of all time”.
Either way, the uncertainty cast on the future of the hard-won deal has been enough to worry some of the United States’ close allies, which are also the deal’s architects and guarantors.
On a visit to the Gulf, British Prime Minister Theresa May assured regional countries that had originally been lukewarm about an Iran deal that it was vitally important for regional security. Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned of the consequences of scrapping the nuclear deal but also cautioned that it was unlikely that the incoming president would listen to the likes of May.
Fearing the worst about Trump’s ability to handle the Iranians, domestic critics have been even more forthright than foreign allies. CIA Director John Brennan said tearing up the pact would be “the height of folly” and risked strengthening hardliners in Tehran.
Trump’s first 100 days will show whether he can exercise more finesse on foreign policy than he displayed on the campaign trail or whether he will rely on an amateur poker strategy of bully and bluff.
One clue might be found by looking at the people with whom he intends to surround himself. The retired generals he has named to his national security team tend to echo his hostility towards Iran. In a speech in April, former US Marine general James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for secretary of Defense, described the Iranian regime as the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.
Mattis observed that the best thing about the 2015 nuclear deal was that it would provide data to target Iran if it came to a fight. “We’re going to have to plan for the worst,” he said.
The policy Trump adopts on Iran and the nuclear agreement will not become clear until he takes office. At the same time, clues to the reaction he might provoke from Iran are equally opaque.
Brennan might be right in warning that Trump’s hostility could strengthen hardliners in Tehran. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has adopted an attitude of total indifference to Trump’s election. “In the past 37 years, neither of the two parties who were in charge (in the United States) did us any good and their evil has always been directed towards us,” he said.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani has publicly expressed a similar indifference. However, as he approaches his own presidential elections in May 2017 as a potential candidate, he will be aware of the danger of rivals exploiting any heightening of tension with the United States.
Some elements in Iran are no more enthusiastic than Trump about a nuclear deal that represented a diplomatic victory for the reform-leaning Rohani. The armed forces have adopted a characteristically tough line in the face of Trump’s threats. Their spokesman, Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri, warned that “if the US warmongers and their stooges carry out an immature and unprofessional act, they will definitely face the Iranian combatants’ tough response.” He was responding to Trump’s campaign pledge that any Iranian vessel threatening the US Navy would be “shot out of the water”.
The pragmatic Iranians may decide that the best way to approach Trump is to appeal to his self-declared talents for deal-making. They did not wait for his inauguration to announce a ground-breaking $16.6 billion deal with US aircraft-maker Boeing for the purchase of 80 new aircraft for Iran Air. The deal was only made possible thanks to the nuclear agreement.
But will it survive the Trump presidency or will he or the Republican-led Congress try to kill it off?
Boeing and politicians who backed the deal have pitched it as a job-creator in a direct appeal to Trump’s platform of protecting the livelihoods of US workers. Interestingly, Iranian Transport Minister Abbas Akhoundi made a similar pitch, welcoming a “historic” deal for Iranian aviation, which, he said, would create 8,000 Iranian jobs.
The new US president may be faced with the choice of picking a fight with Iran over the future of the nuclear agreement or accepting a commercial relationship that would benefit his key supporters.
It promises to be an engaging game of poker — or chess.