Woodward tells story of Trump’s policymaking and sources of influence on Iran
American investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House” made it to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list by selling more than 1 million copies within a week.
Having read the book, one wonders why. After all, the famed Watergate reporter does not add much to what was already known about the mercurial president and his incoherent and erratic policies. A Middle Eastern audience, however, may find Woodward’s tale of US President Donald Trump’s Iran policy amusing and disconcerting.
Trump entered the White House not only as an anti-establishment figure but also as the antithesis of his immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Where Obama and Bush were considered “globalists” and “interventionists” who dragged the United States into lengthy and costly wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to defend the post-second world war American order, Trump’s philosophy was fundamentally isolationist.
He called it “America First” but it was really “America Alone” because Trump did not mind disentangling the United States from policing a world order from which it benefitted since 1945.
However, as Woodward’s discussion of the Trump administration’s Iran policy demonstrates, undoing Obama’s legacy was sometimes more important to Trump than to uphold his isolationism.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, could have served as a tool for Trump. He could have used the deal to abandon America’s allies in the Middle East, leaving them to their own devices. After all, there was a deal, and so long as Iran complied with its obligations, Washington could disentangle itself from the Middle East.
However, even as a candidate, Trump railed against the Obama administration over the JCPOA, which he called the “worst deal ever made.” Once in the White House, Trump’s obsession with undoing the JCPOA intensified.
Woodward said then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeatedly emphasised that Tehran was “not in violation” of the agreement. Tillerson was backed up in this by US intelligence services but there was little he could do about the matter when debating the issue with Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist.
Bannon used the Iran issue to discredit Washington’s European allies and NATO. “One of the things he [Trump] wants to do is impose sanctions on Iran… Is one of your f…ing great allies up in the European Union going to back the president?” Bannon said at a meeting at the Pentagon, Woodward wrote in “Fear.”
Trump liked Bannon’s argument but the chief strategist’s victory did not last long and soon he was exiled from the White House.
James Mattis, a retired four-star US Marines Corps general, whom Obama sacked as central commander in the Middle East, fared marginally better in the administration. Trump, obsessed with adding generals to the cabinet, appointed Mattis defence secretary. The Iran hardliner soon found himself a moderating factor in the administration and sought international consensus rather than American unilateralism. The “globalist” tendency loathed by the president has isolated the defence secretary in the cabinet.
Woodward’s book does not provide any insights into the goal Trump is pursuing with his Iran policy but what’s clear is Trump usually agrees with the last person with whom he has spoken.
With Mattis out of the loop, Tillerson replaced at the State Department by Iran hardliner Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who has always advocated for overthrowing the regime in Tehran, appointed national security adviser, Trump may end up receiving the same counsel on Iran no matter whom he talks to at the White House.
This should be a source of concern to the regime in Tehran. The rest of us should be concerned about Washington’s lack of preparedness for who and what is likely to replace the regime in Tehran if Washington manages to overthrow the Islamic Republic, either by design or by accident.