by Matthew K. Shannon
The past two years have witnessed a shift in the way that the United States interacts with the world. Although Donald Trump’s Iran policy has continuities with the regime-change mentality of the George W. Bush presidency, the current president has abandoned or threatened the integrity of a range of other international commitments.
The list includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, along with the more recent attacks against the International Criminal Court, the Postal Union Treaty, and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. As Richard Haas has explained, “the liberal world order is under threat from its principal architect: the United States.”
But the case of Iran demonstrates how, precisely, the Trump administration is unscrewing the hinges of the international system.
Dismantle Obama-Era Policies
The Trump administration has ended a brief moment of formal dialogue between the United States and Iran. That moment was made possible by then-President Barack Obama’s strategy of “engagement,” or, if you prefer, “contagement.” As Obama stated in 2010:
One year ago, I chose this occasion to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to offer a new chapter of engagement on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect.…Together with the international community, the United States acknowledges your right to peaceful nuclear energy—we insist only that you adhere to the same responsibilities that apply to other nations.
Two parts of this statement stand out. The first is the notion that, should Iran behave like other nations, it would have the sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Iran is, after all, a non-weapons state and a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The second point is that Obama was willing to open “a new chapter” by turning the page on the old “axis of evil” language. That meant engaging with the international community over issues of mutual concern—even Iran’s nuclear program.
True to form, Trump has rolled back these two Obama-era maxims. Candidate Trump campaigned against the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) in summer 2015, and President Trump has talked tough on Iran since taking office, most offensively by including Iran in his travel ban. But tensions have ratcheted up in the last six months, especially since Trump announced on May 8, 2018 the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal, Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.
Defy Allies and Go It Alone
Before May 2018, the U.S. government had, with its international partners, a verifiable 159-page deal that seemed to resolve the perennial riddle of Iran’s nuclear program. The JCPOA was inked in July 2015, implemented in January 2016 in the form of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and had the support of the P5+1 (the UN Security Council plus Germany). It allowed Iran to enrich low levels of uranium and was verifiable through teams of inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Trump’s “America First” strategy has created unnecessary rifts among allies, whether considering NATO or the so-called Iran deal. This was made clear at the UN meeting in September when the United States was the only partner to the deal to object to its terms and implementation. Many European leaders urged Trump, prior to the UN meeting, to remain in the JCPOA. In New York, France’s Emmanuel Macron denounced Washington’s “survival-of-the-fittest approach” to Iran and the application of “pressure from a single stakeholder.”
If Trump’s Iran policy has antagonized allies in European capitals, it has done even more to generate suspicion and mistrust in Tehran. On becoming secretary of state, Mike Pompeo delivered a speech titled, After the Deal: A New Iran Strategy, in which he issued demands that no government, let alone the one in Tehran, could meet. The establishment on August 16 of the Iran Action Group to coordinate “all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity” and keep State’s policy “closely synchronized with our interagency partners” and “with nations which share our understanding of the Iranian threat” was even more alarming. Three days later, on August 19, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a reminder that “65 years ago today, the US overthrew the popularly elected democratic government of Dr. Mossadegh.” John Kerry’s former negotiating partner then charged that the United States was “a rogue state and an international outlaw” whose “destructive moves” had “darkened the outlook for the international order.”
The Obama-era policy produced an environment conducive for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to, in his first term, reach out to end his country’s isolation from the international community. Trump’s policies have compelled second-term Rouhani to put aside the possibility of dialogue for the foreseeable future. More important, Iran’s supreme leader said that “if the government of the Islamic Republic was to negotiate with the American regime, at any time, it would never have negotiated with the present government of the United States.” In the case of Iran, Trump has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ignore the Experts and Invoke Myths
In addition to opposing Obama and antagonizing allies and adversaries alike, the Trump team has, as a rule of thumb, determined its own facts and fictions to undermine any semblance of international order.
Trump’s read on the JCPOA, for instance, is at odds with the scientific community. The IAEA repeatedly found that Iran was not in “material breach” of the agreement. Elsewhere in the scientific community, a group of 90 nuclear experts asked Congress to “protect” the deal, a request with which the House’s only physicist agreed. The State Department’s nonproliferation expert has since resigned in protest.
Trump’s broader Iran policy is at odds with a range of knowledgeable Iran-watchers. John Limbert may have described it best when he wrote that Trump’s combination of “bullying, threats, accusations, and unrealistic demands” only makes the commander-in-chief “look confused, small-minded, and petulant” while extending to the Iranian government “a gift,” namely “the opportunity to…defy a strong and threatening foreign power.” Analysts across the board find instance of a “tone-deaf Iran policy” and describe Trump’s go-it-alone strategy as “a high-risk gamble.”
In this sense, the policy shifts of the last six months are based on a willingness in some corners of the American population to reject any form of expertise, verifiable evidence, or the idea that there is, in fact, an international community with which to engage. In the same way that Trump and his supporters espouse myths to deny the reality of climate change, they also engage in myth-making that Iran is not a state with rational interests but simply a revolutionary idea without boundaries.
“At the heart of the Iran deal,” Trump said in his withdrawal speech in May, “was a giant fiction that a murderous regime desired only a peaceful nuclear-energy program.” National Security Adviser John Bolton, a “political blowtorch” and longtime critic of dialogue with Iran, wrote in summer 2017 about “a game plan for the president” that “like instant coffee…can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook if the administration were to decide to leave the Iran agreement.” Given the history of U.S-Iran relations, myths about Iran and references to hostage-taking, rather than verifiable facts about Iran’s nuclear program, have provided administration officials with various discursive routes around the truth and through the emotional thicket. As Bolton described his views just months before he joined the Trump team:
America’s declared policy should be ending Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary…. Recognizing a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for 444 days. The former hostages can cut the ribbon to open the new U.S. embassy in Tehran.
These views are rooted less in reality and more in American mythologies about revolutionary Iran. They are based less on a calculation of the nuclear threat than on the old Jacksonian ethos applied to the Modern Middle East: “boys go to Baghdad, but real men to go Tehran.”
Attack the Liberal World Order
For a moment during Barack Obama’s second term, the “liberal world order” seemed to offer a setting and a language that allowed American and Iranian officials to engage on issues of mutual interest and concern. In the process, the Obama administration tipped discussions away from force and toward diplomacy. Today, the Trump administration is, piece by piece, abandoning that world order and choosing coercion over compromise. It is not just the JCPOA. The U.S. abrogation, in October, of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic, and Consular Relations, served as further indication that the United States is refusing to play by the rules of its own game and is not interested in any semblance of “amity.”
The European Council on Foreign Relations has argued that “the liberal world order has become an increasingly contested idea, with rising powers…increasingly challenging Western perspectives.” The case of U.S.-Iran relations suggests that the “West,” as represented for the time being by the Trump administration, will brook no external challenge to that order. Although it is easy to write off an aggressive Iran policy as an inevitable consequence of the American political cycle, there are plenty of areas where the Iran exception sheds light on the Trump rule.
Matthew Shannon is an assistant professor of history at Emory & Henry College. He is the author of Losing Hearts and Minds: American-Iranian Relations and International Education during the Cold War.