Trump v. Iran: Will His Gamble Pay Off?

Trump has withdrawn from the nuclear deal and lied about it, not out of moral laxity or ignorance, but to strengthen his hand in the high stakes game he has created. He has told us that his purpose is to get a better deal. Better in his mind means no nuclear Iran ever, no Iranian ballistic missiles of consequence, and dampening Iranian regional power.

Trump has in mind a peace offer from the U.S. and/or a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue along lines that are favorable to both the U.S. and Iran. Trump doesn’t want war with Iran because of the costs and disruption that entails. However, he wants Iran to believe that he stands ready to employ the military option. He hopes to have demonstrated his readiness and willingness for that by his actions in Syria and his rhetoric toward North Korea. Khamenei has to fear this threat, which Bush and Obama exercised in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. He knows, however, that the results have been mixed. Iraq is now an American victory of sorts, at very high cost, while both Libya and Afghanistan are not. He has to judge how far Trump might go militarily against Iran and how fearful Trump is of seeing the world’s oil flows disrupted or Saudi Arabia attacked or Hezbollah turned loose on Israel.

Iran’s response to date has been muted, all things considered, nothing that one may not have expected: some harsh rhetoric, some flag-burning, and some rockets fired off. The condition of the deal is a mess. Trump has said he wants the nuclear deal, i.e., the IAEA inspections, to continue without the U.S. Some Iranian leaders have vowed to stay in the deal, but Iranian hard-liners do not trust the Europeans to bypass American sanctions. John Bolton has threatened to sanction European companies that break the sanctions, but the EU may compensate sanctioned European companies for losses. The situation hasn’t settled down yet.

To achieve a deal, Trump needs to be communicating somehow with Iran’s leaders through some back channels. Khamenei has communicated in public by criticizing Trump. He has said that Trump will be “worm food” while the Iranian Republic stands. His tough talk is actually a positive thing in terms of heading toward new talks. It strengthens Khamenei’s power inside Iran, showing his firmness and intent to resist. This makes it easier for him eventually to move toward a new deal.

What can Trump offer Khamenei? That’s the big question. The general problem of an expanding empire like the U.S. is that it lacks legitimacy in the new provinces and regions it is seeking control over. Any state has domestic control by getting public opinion on its side. This takes time, effort and various methods of generating legitimacy; and even after a state’s small minority has achieved control over far larger numbers of people, it must still carefully monitor and control public opinion. With its foreign allies, current and prospective, the U.S. is constantly using and seeking ways to garner the support of those states and their peoples. It has to, in order to maintain legitimacy and avoid outright expressions of force.

The U.S. has no legitimacy in Iran to speak of. To get it, it would have to rally dissidents and other anti-mullah elements and gain the support of large numbers of Iranians. The U.S. can needle the IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran) via the MEK, but that’s not going to win the support of large numbers of Iranians. Trump hopes that sanctions will cause disaffection of Iranians with the IRI regime, but that too is unlikely to create support for the U.S. and a new form of government altogether.

The lack of U.S. legitimacy of political power among Iranians and in Iran means that the U.S. has to rely either on military conquest or tangible inducements (payoffs) to Iran. If Trump wants to avoid war, which seems highly likely, his gamble is to come up with inducements that satisfy both the U.S. and Iran. They have also to satisfy Israel and Saudi Arabia, which means Trump has to control these allies and not vice versa. There would have to be a multi-lateral regional peace conference for this to happen. Individual small steps will not cut it; a peace between Israel and the Palestinians might help. After such a peace, there would be an opening for another big deal that wraps up all the regional security issues that set Saudi Arabia against Iran. Is this what Trump is aiming for? In the past, Trump has spoken of an “ultimate deal” or a “deal of the century” that would take in an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. By disrupting the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions, Trump has actually widened the canvas. The gamble takes in the entire region.

Israel and the Palestinians remain one key problem. No way has been found to compensate Palestinians for their property losses and their loss of political control over the territory once known as Palestine.

Yesterday, a news report stated “The U.S. is in the ‘late phases’ of finalizing an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that will be presented to both parties for consideration, according to a report.”

Again, there are severe problems of legitimacy involved, not just property titles and compensation for past actions and grievances. Political control looms large. Israel doesn’t want to house a large Palestinian population that considers its government illegitimate. Palestinians cannot form a state unless it gathers a population that consider its government as legitimate. Public opinion matters greatly in both situations. The basic relations of access, roads, water, utilities, travel across borders and work are all at issue.

The chances are that Trump’s peace plan will not fly. That means that the Iranian situation will remain intractable. The U.S. has armed Saudi Arabia to the teeth. The U.S. aids Israel very significantly. Facing those realities, Iran has to look after its own security. The U.S. is not going to disarm Israel and Saudi Arabia.

There is no way that Iran can rely on the U.S. to guarantee its security, especially after breaking a deal that took 12 years to negotiate.

My guess is that Trump’s gamble will not pay off. The status quo in the Middle East will continue for awhile, but subject to more surprises from Trump. He likes to shake up situations. That’s his leadership style. Shaking up Iran is not at all like shaking up North Korea. The latter already has bombs and missiles and it has a common element of people, language and heritage with South Korea. The Koreans themselves have shaken up their relations. Trump is unlikely to shake the IRI.

The status quo has involved periods of relative quiet interspersed with limited wars and bombings, with no overall resolution of issues. The U.S. has gotten itself involved more heavily than ever, but not heavily enough to turn public opinion against its activities. This seems to suit the leaders of the Empire.


9:49 am on May 15, 2018