by Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi
Donald J. Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States has elicited both predictable and unanticipated reactions from Iranian politicians ranging across the political spectrum. First, a prominent reformist politician and former vice-president, Hojjat al-Islam Mohammad Ali Abtahi, waxed lyrical on how Trump is better for Iran, confidently stating that “a businessman is never dangerous.” Shortly afterwards the maverick principalist MP Ali Motahhari came out and explained how a Trump presidency benefits Iran because of the former star of The Apprentice’s “good” stance on the Middle East, above all on Syria.
In the run-up to the election, several pundits spoke of how Trump was the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s candidate of choice. I didn’t, however, witness an endorsement per se. Rather, Khamenei expressed both approval of Trump’s “straight talking” about the pitiful and corrupt state of America’s entrenched elites and glee at the abysmal state of a profoundly dysfunctional political system. To be sure, hard-line forces in Iran could capitalize on an American president who is virulently anti-Iran and Iran deal to blithely sweep aside their political opponents. But I doubt it’ll prove as simple as all that. Time will tell.
Nonetheless, there seems to be misplaced complacency on all sides, including numerous high-profile Iranian politicians. Trump, after all, is supposedly open to working with Russian President Vladimir Putin and disposed to good relations with Russia more generally, and, furthermore, appears to be temperamentally isolationist. Unlike Clinton, he has taken a soft position on Ukraine and Crimea, but above all, Bashar al-Assad and the unceasing downward spiralling morass in Syria. These factors, the optimists say, will somehow translate into a beneficial/constructive policy from which the Islamic Republic might prosper. I possess no crystal ball or any pretensions to be a soothsayer. But I have deep reservations about this argument. One doesn’t straightforwardly follow from the other.
Reasons Not To Be Cheerful
Trump has explicitly denounced the Iran deal as the worst deal ever negotiated in history and expressed his eagerness to tear it to shreds. He has also stated his unalloyed opposition to Iran having emerged as a new “regional power,” which he regards to be a direct consequence of the Obama administration’s successful conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
This might prove hard to achieve in practice. But given Republican control of the House and the Senate, it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Trump is undoubtedly erratic, and may reverse himself, and his “businessman’s instincts” might lead him to be transactional rather than ideological regarding the deal. This interpretation may well be right. But Trump is going to be the most powerful “Republican” president in a very long time, and a chorus of voices will call for him to tighten the screws on the Islamic Republic. He will also be able to do it with overwhelming support from Congress, who as it turns out may well be leading the charge, ally Obama did not enjoy when engaging in his own demonstrably successful diplomatic push. A very fine line determines how far such pressure might be applied without effectively undercutting JCPOA and its anticipated dividends for all the parties involved. Moreover, given Trump’s wont to deploy a blunt butter knife for microsurgery, his administration could quite easily undercut all incentives to remain invested on the Iranian side and rapidly erode the hard-won confidence painstakingly built up since President Hassan Rouhani’s election in June 2013.
Moreover, if Trump proves to be as incompetent an international statesman as he’s bound to be, we’re in for quite a ride. The question of Trump’s temperament was key throughout the presidential race, and it went far beyond merely negative campaigning by the Clinton camp. It posed real questions about how this man will conduct foreign relations, statecraft, and the art of war and peace as leader of the world’s only remaining superpower.
True, the multilateral character of the deal significantly hampers Trump’s ability to tank it. China and Russia, as well as the several European countries that have concluded trade deals with Iranian companies, will certainly not sit idly by while a Trump administration attempts to impose by diktat a political line upon them. It can nevertheless make the lives of non-American and American banks and multinational corporations fearful that the Trump administration will engage in all manner of financial threats, secondary sanctions, and penalties against their pursuing business with Iran—including the purchase of Iranian oil and gas—all crucial to the Iranian economy and the ability of the centrist Rouhani government to deliver on its electoral promises. This will simply fuel mounting Iranian frustration, rightly or wrongly, with the sluggish pace of economic recovery after years of gross incompetence by the Ahmadinejad government and one of the most unforgiving sanctions regimes in modern history.
Also, American shale production provides bargaining power to an administration that’s gradually decreasing its foreign energy dependence. At bottom, then, it is more a question of the multiple opportunities for sabotaging the Iran deal and Iran’s foreign relations with Western states than a multilateral sanctions regime with international legitimacy and backing à la Obama.
The Trump administration could also selectively exploit issues such as Iran’s human rights record (disingenuously, of course) and its ballistic missiles program and try its utmost to depict Iran as a pariah state. The idea that in an increasingly multipolar world a future Trump administration is somehow irrevocably constrained by a UN resolution isn’t convincing and doesn’t take the superpower status of the United States sufficiently seriously. It will take a great deal of balancing and coordination to dissuade an American administration from once again committing to Iran’s diplomatic, economic and political isolation. Again, a Trump administration doesn’t have to openly repudiate the deal. It can continually throw up roadblocks and make its ongoing observance so unpalatable that Iran is incentivized to walk away.
A number of key supporters and advisers around Trump, most notably Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, have explicitly called on the US government to recognize and support the Organization of Iranian People’s Mojahedin (OIPM). Both men have accepted money to speak at OIPM events and have lobbied on their behalf. It would be surprising if neither one had a palpable influence on Iran policy given their prominent roles in his campaign. Gingrich, in fact, is now being tipped for Trump’s secretary of state. These men staked much of their political capital while a sizeable chunk of the GOP leadership went running for the hills.
The OIPM is an opaque, undemocratic, and cultish organization that fought against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and is committed to regime change irrespective of the consequences for the Iranian people. As a result, it is widely detested and has no popular base to speak of inside the country.
Support for the OIPM and comparable groups will almost certainly empower the deep security state inside the Islamic Republic, consolidate the demonization of political dissent as tantamount to treason, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of mutual recriminations that has continued for over 30 years. This will be a potentially huge blow for Iran’s democratic activists, workers, ethnic minorities, journalists, intellectuals, and students.
Transactions and Islamophobia
Trump’s putative penchant for “diplomatic transactionalism” is not entirely alien to U.S.-Iranian relations. Reagan was willing to sell arms to the Islamic Republic. He even sent one of his national security advisers, Robert McFarlane, to the Islamic Republic in 1986, because he believed it might secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon as well as steer the new revolutionary state away from the Soviet embrace. He also thought he could use such deals to enhance the prospect of overthrowing the ruling regime by sending weapons to empower “moderates.” The whole episode was a dismal failure, ensconced in mendacity and deceit from the very outset.
Such short-term utilitarian accommodations and transactions do not result in sustainable detente and can easily conclude in unremitting hostility. It also might end very badly for others elsewhere in the world. The Reagan administration famously used the proceeds of the arms deal with Iran to fund murderous death squads in Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinista government. Reagan and Trump are very different animals, true, but his legacy and the institutionalised propensity to abuse the “imperial presidency” runs deep.
Also, the ideology-laden notion of the “businessman-like mentality”—that of the apolitical and calculating creature of commerce always in search of the best possible deal—is highly problematic. Populist demagogues clearly have the potential to espouse highly charged and ideological sentiments laced with racism, authoritarianism, and misogyny. Trump’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran will likely reflect his populist leanings. Doesn’t the president elect’s stance on NAFTA, for instance, disprove this very simplistic, transactional understanding of his politics? As an entrepreneur and real estate mogul, Trump also reckons himself quite the “risk taker” and has a taste for brinksmanship. Just such reckless brinksmanship and abandon calls into question his capacity to sustain this landmark diplomatic achievement. Obfuscating this with talk of apolitical conceptions of “trade” and “business,” and claiming that they will determine his engagements with the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people ring decidedly false.
Although Trump did express some support for American companies seeking to do business with Iran, the Gulf states (except for Oman), which have fiercely opposed diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, have far deeper, longstanding, and integrated ties to US financial markets and institutions, not to mention the American arms industry. If it comes down to financial and purchasing power, the Gulf states will in all probability have a far healthier edge over the prospective allure of the “untapped” Iranian market. Trump might have made a couple of unorthodox comments about Saudi Arabia during the primaries. But he soon dutifully reversed himself, focusing his attention squarely on Iran and denouncing it as the world’s foremost “terrorist state” during the debates. He is no longer a lone businessman. He will have the plethora of bodies, networks, organizations and individuals at his disposal, and the military-industrial complex will be nipping at his heels. He won’t be able to ignore these voices, his pretensions to be the enfant terrible of the establishment notwithstanding.
Finally, given his deep-seated Islamophobia, Trump will see Iran’s clerically-led regime as an easy target. It won’t cost Trump politically and can be built on decades of real acrimony. He doesn’t have the evangelical zeal of a neoconservative ideologue, but if necessary he can always revive pictures of amorphous “bearded and black chador-clad crowds,” turbaned divines speaking in a strange foreign tongue, and American hostages bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Here is a readymade enemy. Ben Affleck’s Argo won the Oscar for best picture in the age of Obama after all.
Perhaps historians shouldn’t stray into speculative guesswork. But I found myself inexorably compelled to say something. More than anything else it was the slapdash and complacent reactions of Iranian politicians to Trump’s victory that led me to think a little bit harder. The stakes are just too high, and I fear for my loved ones in Iran. I hope I’m proven wrong. Nevertheless I’d much rather be prepared for the worst.
Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. He received his PhD in Middle Eastern History from Queen’s College, University of Oxford, and has lectured and taught at the University of Oxford, School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), and the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He has published on Iranian history and current affairs in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Digest of Middle East Studies, Iranian Studies, Foreign Policy, Iran Wire, Al-Monitor, and The Guardian, amongst others.
Photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.