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. Moral high ground is good but it does not and can not buy bread or stability domestically.
    Many thanks to Mr Araghchi and Mr Zarif for their hard work and their achievements. However, today these folks are preoccupied with nonsense as result of Trump’s decision of pulling out of JCPOA! You can not rely or trust the European because they will eventually stick it to Iran! Unfortunately it all goes back to walking away from the original right plan when Iran decided to change direction and not finishing the job they had started just like NK! Had they followed through with the original right plan no SOB around the world would’ve dared to bad mouth Iran or the Iranians!
    “NEVER AGAIN” was the original right idea after Iran was attacked by another SOB in Iraq with many other countries supporting that SOB with their weapons and chemical warfare in 1988! It’s not too late yet to go back to the original idea and the plan!

  2. MR Ali Mostofi, Its absolutely ridiculous that you find an urge to make a ridiculous comment on every single post here! It seems there is no view that you wouldn’t be against it regardless of how accurately and knowledgeably it written. Its so obvious that you are an agent who gets paid to muddy the waters. Its really preposterous that you think people don’t see that your motivation is based on the mission you’ve been given to act as someone who is opposed to any thing and everything that its written about Iran. Your obsession with being in opposition of the regime is all a made up facade and not genuine. Stop fooling yourself as no one buys this clownish act and give it up already! You have no expertise on any issue about Iran(you are a life insurance salesman after all) except the pro troll job that you’ve been given here and other sites. you don’t bring nothing on the table except your blind and moronic drivels! I’ll make sure I expose your nonsensical and plain stupid attempts more often from now on.

  3. @Ashkan, Please don’t waste your time! He’s troll on CIA payroll! If he didn’t say his few useless words on every posting his income will get cut off!

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