Costs of the Clenched Fist

by Paul R. Pillar

In his first inaugural address, one of President Barack Obama’s messages to America’s adversaries was that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  A few years later, the unclenching of Iran’s fist was marked by the election of reformist Hassan Rouhani and the entry of Iran into negotiations with the United States and five other powers, leading to a detailed agreement in which Iran accepted severe limitations on, and intrusive scrutiny of, its nuclear program and closed all possible pathways to possible acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Today, as far as U.S.-Iranian relations are concerned, the clenched fist is found in Washington, in the form of the Trump administration’s vehement, relentlessly expressed, and unqualified hostility toward Iran.  This hostility is one of the few constants in a Trump foreign policy that otherwise is laden with inconsistencies and flip-flops.  As vividly displayed in the president’s speeches at the first two stops of his current foreign trip, the hostility toward Iran has taken on the character of automatically expressed dogma, seemingly divorced from actual events in, or involving, Iran and with no apparent attention to the specific interests of each country and where they conflict or converge.

Whatever political, rhetorical, or visceral purposes this hostility serves, it has major costs.  The costs arise from the hostility itself and from policies that flow from it, either directly as established by the Trump administration or indirectly by encouraging damaging actions by the U.S. Congress and setting a tone that sustains political support for the damaging actions.  The policies in question involve rejection of any positive cooperation with Iran and support only for isolation and punishment of, and aggressive confrontation against, Iran.

The costs exist no matter what position one may take regarding the degree and nature of Iranian transgressions, or how these transgressions compare with those of other states in the Middle East.  The costs are first and foremost to U.S. interests, and to what most Americans would agree are U.S. interests.  But more specifically, the costs include damage to some of the very objectives that President Trump has enunciated.

Costs of the tightly clenched fist include the following ten.

Impeding resolution of regional problems.  Like it or not, Iran is a major player in the Middle East.  A nation of 80 million people will not go away, nor will it curl up and pretend it is not part of its region and not be heavily involved in its region.  No solutions to problems such as the highly destructive war in Syria will be possible without full Iranian involvement.  Attempting instead to isolate Iran will make would-be solutions infeasible and give Iran an incentive to be a spoiler.

Misunderstanding regional problems.  Coming to believe one’s own rhetoric is a common fault.  To the extent that the Trump administration starts making policy based on the belief that Iran really is the root of all security problems in the Middle East, the result will be policy that is misinformed and thus misdirected and ineffective.  When Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is supposed to be one of the adults in the Trump administration but has at least as much of a personal fixation on Iran as does any other senior figure in the administration, says that the three gravest problems in the Middle East are “Iran, Iran, Iran,” he is doing a disservice.  There is no one root cause or origin of the serious security problems in that region, and to preach that there is such a single cause is a recipe for bad policy.

Risking the loss of nuclear restraints on Iran.  Iran so far has complied with its extensive obligations under the nuclear agreement—a fact the Trump administration grudgingly had to acknowledge even while trying to offset that acknowledgment with as much of its anti-Iran rhetoric as possible.  The main uncertainty regarding compliance is on the U.S. side.  The anti-Iran drumbeat has encouraged some members of the Congress to march toward enacting legislation that includes provisions that would directly violate U.S. obligations under the agreement.  If the laboriously negotiated nuclear agreement were to die because of U.S. noncompliance, the alternative would not be some unicorn-like “better deal”; it instead would be no deal and a return to unrestricted Iranian ability to spin as many centrifuges as it likes and to produce as much fissile material as it likes.

Isolating the United States and estranging it from its most important allies.  The other powers that negotiated, and are parties to, the nuclear agreement—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—are all firmly resolved to uphold the agreement and to build on it in developing more normal diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran.  To the extent the United States moves in a different direction, then it, not Iran, is the odd one out.

Losing American jobs.  As the Europeans, as well as the Russians and Chinese, develop their commercial relations with Iran, American companies are losing business.  U.S. sanctions against Iran already have cost U.S. business hundreds of billions in lost revenue.  A prospective sale by Boeing of civilian airliners to Iran—a sale that Trump has criticized and that some Republicans in Congress are trying to derail—would support, according to Boeing, nearly 100,000 jobs at the company and its suppliers.

Directing international blame at the United States for impeding moves toward peace.  As long as the U.S. administration is the odd one out on issues such as the nuclear agreement and its aftermath, the costs go beyond the self-inflicted economic damage and specific differences with the other parties to the agreement.  There also is the wider opprobrium that comes from being the recalcitrant one.  That opprobrium will underlie suspicion and cynicism about anything else this administration says about seeking peace, especially in the Middle East.

Promoting hardline Iranian policies and leaders.  Iran, like other countries, has real politics.  Also like other countries, the politics are influenced by what is inflicted on the country from abroad.  It is foolish to pretend that all contending politicians in Tehran constitute an undifferentiated mass and that Iran will be horrible no matter who holds office within the structure of the existing regime.  It is especially foolish to cling to that assumption in the wake of the election that gave Rouhani a second term.  A strong majority—and even the supreme leader in Iran cannot ignore the election returns—supported Rouhani’s rejection of hardline policies, but his support will be sustainable only if the economic improvement that has come to be associated with sanctions relief and improved external economic relations comes to pass.  To undercut Rouhani with U.S. policies that center only on isolation and sanctions would be a gift to Iranian hardliners who support the sorts of external policies that we most dislike.

Trashing the concept of America First.  To follow the nothing-but-hostility-and-isolation approach to Iran is to outsource U.S. foreign policy to other states that do not have U.S. interests at heart, and to two other states in particular: Saudi Arabia and Israel.  Such outsourcing may make for congeniality with the local rulers during visits to those countries, but it diminishes Trump’s chances of making progress on the very matters on which he said during the trip he wants to make progress.  For Saudi Arabia, highlighting Iran as a demon, besides pushing the Saudis’ side of a local rivalry and sustaining rather than lessening tension in the Persian Gulf, is an excuse for further repression of Shia populations, and such repression makes terrorism and other forms of political violence more, rather than less, likely.  For Israel, the constant assertion that Iran is “the real” source of all trouble in the region is the best possible diverter of attention from its occupation of the Palestinian territories.  Trump’s singing from the same sheet of music makes it all the less likely that the Israeli government will feel pressure to make the decisions necessary for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever to be resolved, as Trump claims he wants.

Losing a channel for defusing of tensions.  A useful byproduct of the negotiations on the nuclear agreement was establishment of communications at the foreign minister level that could be used to address other problems, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations.  We saw the value of that channel when U.S. naval craft strayed inexcusably into Iranian territorial waters.  Addressing the situation in the foreign minister channel was key to getting quick return of the U.S. sailors.  Now that channel is gone, and the Trump administration shows no interest in re-establishing it.  The next time a similar incident occurs, the subsequent step might be escalation into a crisis rather than repatriation of Americans.

Risking a new Middle East war.  Donald Trump probably does not want a new war, and during the presidential campaign he said things that suggested to some ears that he would be less likely than his opponent to get into one.  But there are people who would welcome war with Iran and will seize on events to try to spark one.  And there are people who evidently have the president’s ear—Secretary Mattis, for one—who favor the sort of confrontational approach toward Iran that increases the chance of events spinning out of control.  The lack of a channel for defusing tensions and resolving misunderstandings—and the overall climate of hostility that the administration’s rhetoric has done so much to build up—make that chance disturbingly large.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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  1. I too am deeply dismayed by Trump’s ill-considered hostility toward Iran. Rather foolish, in my view.

  2. A comprehensive and clear representation of the situation which any sentient being should understand. However, such beings seem thin on the ground in the present “Administration” and not only among Republicans. The constant fawning upon Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose actions and interests deviate strongly from the true interests of the USA and the rest of us allegedly rational people has led to this dangerous and counterproductive behavior. Trump’s sole good points in his campaign, from many voters’ points of view, were avoiding wars and conflicts, but his enemies and others (MSM, for example) have disallowed any détente with Russia or change for the better in other policies.

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