The Tone of Trump’s Iran Policy

The article by Georgetown University Professor Hunter takes the position that Trump’s election is bad news for Iran and is possibly even a preface to the deliberate destabilization of the theocratic government. One reason that Hunter cites for her conclusion is the support that some of Trump’s close advisors have given to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. But even in absence of known relationships with the leading Iranian resistance organization, other advisors have made it abundantly clear that they have hardline attitudes about the Islamic Republic and may even support a policy of regime change. 

President-elect Trump himself had suggested on the campaign trail that he would tear up last year’s Iran nuclear agreement soon after taking office. Since the election, he has focused instead on the concept of renegotiation, but previous analyses have pointed out that in practice this could thoroughly undermine the deal, perhaps compelling the Iranians to cancel it on their end. It is widely understood that any outcome along these lines would revive the threat of American military action. 

That same article recommends that Tehran seek to avoid this by avoiding provocative responses to any preliminary action that might be taken by the incoming American president. Even the Iranians dealings with the arguably conciliatory Obama administration have tended toward provocation, with incidences of close contact between Iranian and American naval vessels more than doubling after the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

But various other commentators have pointed out that Trump may not tear up the agreement, but simply enforce it more rigorously, in which case an aggressive Iranian response may result in its failure and justify additional punitive measures by the Trump-led US government. 

However although the aggressive stance of the Trump administration may encourage that rhetoric and thereby make global reintegration more difficult for Iran, some analysts insist that this situation will not necessarily lead to American confrontation of Iran’s activities in the Middle East. This was the position taken by an article that appeared at the Huffington Post on Monday. It argued that Trump may not decide to exert pressure on Iran over such things as its interventions in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. Indeed, Trump intimated in the presidential debates and elsewhere that he would cooperate with Iran and with its allies including Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, in the interest of pursuing a policy focused on the destruction of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. 

Putting it more bluntly, the Huffington Post article suggested that Iran could be “the first beneficiary from Trump’s policies in Syria.” If this is true, it may mean that Tehran is actively anticipating permissiveness from the Trump administration, with regard to Iran’s interventionist policies. This would in turn serve as one explanation for why Iranian armed forces’ Chief of Staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri recently announced that the country was considering the establishment of permanent naval bases in both Syria and Yemen. 

The Associated Press quoted Bagheri as saying that the establishment of such bases is “10 times more important” than Iran’s nuclear program, and a source of deterrence against foreign pressure. And contrary to the analysis provided by the Huffington Post, remarks like Bagheri’s can easily be interpreted to mean that the Iranians are in fact anticipating increased pressure from the US and its allies under the Trump administration, and are making last-ditch efforts to shore up their foreign influence before that pressure comes to bear. 

Whatever the current impetus behind it, this strategy of foreign influence does not begin or end with Syria and Yemen. It also includes Iraq, where the Islamic State is also flourishing, partly as a result of the conditions created by longstanding Iranian influence, which previously encouraged the marginalization of Sunnis under the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As Iran and Iraq work together in the fight against ISIL, they are also working together to promote Iran’s broader foreign policies. 

For instance, Iran and Iraq have both publicly decried the Turkish presence in the northern, predominantly Kurdish region of Iraq. Turkey insists that its deployment of advisors across the border was a response to requests by local populations, while Iran and Iraq describe it as a violation of sovereignty, being unauthorized by the Iraqi national government. 

This conflict reflects long-standing tensions in the relationship between Iran and Syria, but those tensions diminished in the wake of Ankara’s domestic crackdown following an attempted coup. Iran offered support to the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and has since been trying to leverage the situation for greater cooperation between Ankara and Tehran. Such cooperation would presumably include both a withdrawal from Iraq and an end to Turkey’s commitment to the moderate rebel groups fighting against Assad in Syria. 

In the run-up to his election, President-elect Trump also expressed support for the Erdogan government, questioning the Obama administration’s condemnation of the crackdown. This naturally leads to additional questions about the actions that Trump will actually take in the region, especially if Iranian-Turkish cooperation is firmly established by the time he takes office. And the Iranians may even have this in mind as they continue to push for that cooperation. 

Reuters pointed out on Monday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had received a visit from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and had declared, “If major regional powers stand together, problems in Iraq and Syria will be resolved without the need for foreign powers.” 

Rouhani’s comments came in the context of a specific request for regional cooperation between Iran and Turkey, but the generalized language was no doubt an intentional effort to include a range of other potential subjects of Iranian influence. On Monday, Fox News featured an interview with military analyst and retired General Jack Keane, in which he expressed a common assumption about Iran: that it would continue to try to dominate the region in the months ahead. 

Keane went on to say that this would keep Iran policy as a high priority on the agenda for the incoming Trump administration, and would likely lead to increased pressure, including economic sanctions. Keane also speculated that this might be enough to push the Iranians into canceling the nuclear agreement, thereby effectively fulfilling Trump’s campaign-trail promise. 

If events do take this course, the question will then remain as to whether the Trump administration will take more broad-based aggressive actions. The makeup of his advisory staff may suggest that he will, but certain other entanglements may suggest otherwise. For instance, President-elect Trump maintains business relationships with Russia and has promised to improve relations between the US and its former Cold War adversary. 

Regardless of those relationships, Professor Hunter argues that Russia and China would both use the failure of the Iran nuclear deal as leverage to seek other concessions from the US. If these efforts are successful, they may cut against the Trump administration’s generalized hostility toward the Iranian regime. That is to say, both Russia and China have been enjoying steadily improved relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as partly evidenced by a recent Wall Street Journal report implying that Russia is still defending the Iranian position in negotiations with OPEC. 

The 14-member oil cartel, with support from non-member Russia, will be pursuing an oil output agreement on Wednesday, although previous such efforts failed as a result of Iran’s unwillingness to participate. Russia is now parroting Iran’s commitment to freeze but not reduce output. And although it is generally understood that OPEC cannot afford to go without an agreement, it remains to be seen whether the organization’s Saudi leadership will be satisfied with the arrangement being held over it by Iran and Russia.  

Ordinarily, one would expect the US to stand by its traditional Saudi allies if it were to wield any influence over such negotiations. But in light of Trump’s relationship with Russia, his possible willingness to cooperate with Iran over regional conflicts, and his previous insistence that the Gulf Arab states will have to pay for continued friendship with the US, nothing of this sort can be taken for granted.