Trump’s mixed messages on Iran sow confusion
US President Donald Trump seems to be all over the map when it comes to Iran policy.
On the one hand, Trump wants to act as if he is the tough new sheriff in town, sending more military assets and personnel to the Gulf region and warning Iran of “obliteration.”
On the other hand, he seems to be extending an olive branch to Iran, stating on June 22 that if the Iranians agree not to develop nuclear weapons, “they are going to have a wealthy country…and I’m going to be their best friend.”
These latter comments came in the wake of Trump’s decision not to retaliate militarily after Iran shot down an unmanned US drone. Trump claimed the US military was ready for a strike but he called it off in the final minutes when he learned that the Pentagon estimated that such a strike would probably cause about 150 Iranian casualties. Trump said he thought a retaliatory military strike would not be proportionate, especially since no US citizen died in the downing of the drone.
Trump did, however, place sanctions on the Iranian political and military leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian President Hassan Rohani said in response to the new sanctions that the Trump administration has a mental disability. He added that the Americans had become “desperate and confused,” a situation that has made them take unusual measures and “talk nonsense.”
Trump responded in several tweets with very aggressive language: “Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some cases…obliteration.”
This seems to suggest that even another Iranian attack on a US drone — with no US casualties –would be met with military might. This is a reversal of Trump’s own policy from just a few days earlier.
So how does one make sense of this back-and-forth policy?
Trump’s statements on Iran reflect his own contradictory policies that he enunciated while campaigning for president in 2016.
He claimed that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, signed between Tehran and the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, but mainly led by the Obama administration, was the “worst deal ever negotiated.” He threatened to tear up the deal once he became president and did just that in May 2018. The belligerent side of Trump wants to continue this aggressive posture towards Iran to either force the Iranians to re-negotiate or foment regime change by his policy of “maximum pressure.”
But Trump campaigned against the United States getting involved in costly wars in the Middle East. This means he wanted to denigrate Iran, rip up the nuclear agreement, but not go to war.
In addition, Trump loves adulation but responds poorly to criticism. After he received kudos for not attacking Iran even from his political opponents, he stated with great satisfaction: “I’m getting a lot of praise for what I did.” But when Iranian leaders criticised him, he felt he had to double down in his verbal attacks on them.
Another way to understand Trump’s policies is his belief that he can open a new chapter with hostile countries by personal diplomacy, like his outreach with North Korea.
But Trump does not appreciate the nuances of history. Iran believes that as long as the United States squeezes the Iranian economy, particularly the halting of oil exports, there is nothing to talk about. Its leaders likely see this as a replay of the early 1950s when the United States supported Britain in the embargo on Iranian oil, which not only crippled the Iranian economy but led to covert intervention in Iranian internal affairs.
When Trump threatens Iran with “obliteration” for supposedly developing nuclear weapons, this does not make sense to the Iranians because they were adhering to the 2015 nuclear deal, which precluded such a development. In their view, why should they sit down with the US president over something that they initially did not do?
Granted, the Iranians have now said they plan to exceed limits on nuclear stockpiles and enrichment levels, but this threat comes after Trump pulled out of the 2015 deal and threatened countries from doing business with Iran.
Hence, the Iranians see Trump’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme as a ruse, believing what he really wants is regime change. The regime hopes it can play the nationalist card at home to its advantage by citing Trump’s aggressive policies and believes it can withstand this pressure campaign. On June 26, Khamenei emphasised that Iran would not back down in the face of US-imposed sanctions.
And what about American friends in the region? The Saudis and other Gulf Arabs are upset over likely Iranian sabotage of oil tankers but, at the same time, do not want a war with Iran, which could witness Tehran lashing out against them. They are wary of events spiralling out of control to the point where if there are indeed US-Iranian military hostilities, their own economic infrastructure could be hit.
At the same time, the Saudis, in particular, are probably befuddled by Trump’s soft approach towards Iran. His comment that if the Iranians give up their nuclear programme he would be “their best friend” undoubtedly caused heartache in Riyadh. They, like others, are wondering which Trump it will be going forward — the hawk or the dove?