How Trump Gave Iran the Moral High Ground

Abbas Araghchi (Wikimedia Commons)

by Daniel Amir

It is not yet time to sign the death warrant of the Iran nuclear deal—for Iran at least. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the watchdog charged with inspections of the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), confirmed last week that Iran continues to abide by its terms. This may arguably be a show of good faith and Iran’s positive intentions towards the West. But what lies at the root of this compliant image is another battle over reputation and public image that rages between the Islamic Republic and the United States, a battle that Iran is currently winning.

Secretary Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands for a remolded Iran received mixed reviews from analysts and policymakers in the US and Europe. Critics highlight Pompeo’s lack of artful delivery and vision. He presented a set of faraway destinations without a roadmap and struggled to answer questions over the practicalities of a “Plan B” for the deal he and others had worked long to abandon. As a result, European and Iranian confidence in the diplomatic savoir faire of the United States plummeted.

This plays perfectly into Iranian hands, of course. Long since filled with a sense of foreboding about Trump’s exit from the deal, Iranian officials have been broadcasting a mix of threatening and conciliatory messages on the subject. But the onus was on Trump to move first. Now that the president has decertified the deal and failed to supply a replacement, he has placed Iranian politicians in the same camp as the deal’s American defenders and EU politicians. In effect, he has ceded the political high ground to Iran.

In the wake of Pompeo’s demands, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued his own. Khamenei’s demands, spoken boldly, addressed only the EU. They included protection of oil and trade with Iran and a stop to demands for negotiation on Iranian regional activities. In painting the United States as the erratic and “theatrical” party, the religious leader found himself firmly on the front foot. Iran went from a shadowy belligerent to a justly aggrieved party on the international stage, and it was Trump’s doing.

Meeting in Vienna the day after the IAEA’s announcement of Iranian compliance, Iran clearly held many of the cards. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi was visibly confident. To him, the negotiations rested on whether Europe “can provide us with a package” suitable to Iran. Having complied with the nuclear deal, Iran is emboldened to negotiate more forcefully.

Europe, in contrast to the cocksure and hawkish team inthe White House, fears the future nuclear Iran more than the present belligerent in Syria and Yemen. It has no appetite for conflict in the short or long term. Its relations with Iran are more personable and buttressed by (albeit diminishing) economic ties. Iran is attempting to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies in order to secure gains whatever the outcome of current negotiations over the JCPOA and firmly under the aegis of Trump’s foreign policy

And none of this could come at a better time. Flip-flopping on the North Korea talks, Trump has become the subject of redoubled criticism for his unpredictability. In this context, the Iranian narrative resonated better than ever with those willing to listen. Every discrediting of the president’s diplomatic prowess is another point for Iran. As these stack up, Syria and Yemen float further away from the policy agenda as Iran appears wide-eyed and well-wishing.

The Twitter president clearly has a sense of the importance of public relations and a show confidence. But without a meaningful message on Iran—one that is implementable, inclusive, and detailed—he will only continue to embolden his enemy and alienate his allies.

Daniel Amir is a graduate of Oxford University in Persian Studies and an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. He has extensive experience in counter-terrorism and foreign policy research in Jerusalem, London, and Washington. @Daniel_Amir1. 

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  1. Daniel Amir is a graduate of Oxford University, and yet talks of the criminal Ayatollah regime, with blood on their hands, in having the moral high ground.

  2. @ D. Amir

    It is too early to judge the outcome – the European union, including Britain, despite their lip service have not yet decided as how to respond to Trump’s demands. Trump and Pompeo too are undecided; their initial plan was based on the premise that Iran’s hasty reaction would strongly defy not just the US but the UN that would allow the US, Israel and Saudi the excuse to attack Iran to further destabilize to dominate the region as a pretext for ‘security’ and ‘regime change’, just like the Suez crisis and the unlawful invasion of Egypt by the UK, France and Israel in 1956; but then faced with their critics Pompeo changed his tactics, instead of stressing the US-Israel’s military attack he shifted the weight of his post 12-demand argument to ‘the Iranian People’ who, in his opinion, would bring about the ‘regime change’.

    But, as we have seen in the past, the US Administration can be quite unpredictably reckless and suddenly in the middle of negotiations launch savage military attacks on Iran’s nuclear sites and start the nightmare that many critics and analysts have been dreading, and to protect their own interests the Europeans might as well change positions and support the military attacks – after all, Europe like the US and his allies, are more the followers of Machiavelli than moral principles; the invasion of Iraq is the best example.

  3. Thanks; completely agreed. But the problem is that the notions of ‘morality’, or even the rule of law or adherence to signed contracts, currently have no traction, in US-mediated international arrangements.’The powerful do as they will; the weak suffer what they must’, shall be (and is) the whole of the law. Even the fiction of a fig leaf is long gone; all we’re left with is naked power.

    I have no idea how this will all resolve itself. The prime driver is currently Trump’s terminal self-obsession, whose care and feeding constitutes US ‘policy’ in all fields. Nero, or Caligula, would have understood perfectly.

    the ‘Great Man’ version of history is currently in eclipse,, rightly or not. But the Great Swamp Bully theory of history has strong current evidence. Once more.

  4. Iran had the moral high ground when defending itself against US-complicit chemical warfare by Saddam or when backing Nelson Mandela when the US had labelled him a “terrorist” (and and Israel was trying to sell nukes to the racist pariah Apartheid state of S Africa)
    Lets remember, Iran has found Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, AlQaeda and ISIS, while the US and regional allies have at some point or another backed/armed/financed/supported each and every one of them.

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