By Keyhan Barzegar
Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House has prompted a new round of antagonism against Iran. The new US President has announced that he would walk out or renegotiate the nuclear deal, trying to restrict Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate the country through fresh sanctions. What policies should Iran adopt under the new circumstances?
The main goal of Trump’s policies against Iran is a DeObamazation of the US regional policies. Ex-president Barack Obama wanted to prevent Iran’s nuclear program from entering a weaponization phase and to attract Iran’s cooperation on regional issues in return for the nuclear deal. Understanding Iran’s significance in the region, he did his best to control Iran through its involvement in the Middle East. Trump however wants to end the policy and return to US’ conventional policy, that is, to control Iran through sanctions and threats.
In recent decades, controlling Iran’s power in the region has been the main axis in US’ Middle East policy. Emphasis on the issue is based on a prevailing strategic approach in the US, which considers maintaining equilibrium among major ME powers the best way to protect US’ interests and security.
Iran’s active role in the fight against terrorism and extremism exercised by the IS and al-Qaeda, and its nuclear deal with world powers has augmented its regional influence more than ever. Obama and his State Secretary John Kerry repeatedly stressed that the nuclear deal was, beyond proliferation, a turning point for the resolution of wider regional issues. Finding that the best way to handle Iran’s influence in the region was to encourage its involvement in major regional issues, particularly in the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration turned away from George W. Bush’s policy of sanctions and threats. The shift worried US’ traditional allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and even Egypt, so much so that each of these countries, through its own specific method, called on the US to restrict Iran’s role.
On the other hand, the unprecedented growth of terrorism in the region, convinced the US and other global powers like Europeans, Russia, China, Japan, and India of the necessity for Iran’s participation in the regional order. In other words, Iran’s integration in regional issues was effectively caused by a geopolitical urge among the powers to prevent the spread of instability and extremism in the Middle East, which had wreaked great havoc on their interests, including an immigration rush, citizens who joined terrorist groups, trade, and energy.
Even though the Obama administration wisely tried to create a balance between the nuclear deal and Iran’s regional role, selling the deal and cooperation with Iran as something in the interest of US allies in the region, the political and bureaucratic structure in the US was stronger than to let the paradigm shift become fully realized. That resembles the scenario in which US allies like Japan, South Korea, and India were frustrated with US policies years after President Nixon’s deal with China in the 1970s.
Attacking Obama’s legacy, Trump has once again resorted to the old method employed by US conservatives, i.e. to use pressure in order to control Iran. He emphasizes that no option is taken off the table, implying the possibility of a military invasion against Iran.
The main problem with Trump’s policy toward Iran is the reduction of Iran relations to the nuclear deal and an absolute negligence of the Iran’s significant role in regional issues and the fight against terrorism.
But the success of Trump’s policy faces two major problems: how to fight terrorism and how to persuade other world powers. As far as terrorism is concerned, Trump has declared its foreign policy priority to be preserving US security through war with extremism in collaboration with Russia, particularly in Syria.
However, the truth is that the coalition among Iran, Russia, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon plays the main role on the ground and in the air as far as weakening ISIS, the al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups is concerned. And there is no doubt that Iran is the lynchpin of the coalition, providing ground contact. Seen in this light, Russia will not succeed in advancing peace plans in Syria and the fight against terrorism without Iran. Therefore, Trump’s likely rapprochement with Russia, aimed to isolate Iran in the region as some analysts have pointed out, will eventually fail. This will make Trump’s slogan of the fight against terrorism appear empty to American voters.
On the other hand, world powers like Europeans, Russia, China, and others agree on commitment to and legitimacy of the nuclear deal and the necessity for Iran’s involvement to participate and cooperate in regional crises and the fight against terrorism and extremism. It is in the same line that they constantly call for détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
If Trump fails to create balance between the nuclear deal and Iran’s regional role, it will cause further distrust on the part of Iran on the efficiency of collective collaboration in the region. This will doubtlessly cause rifts in US’ international position, because, more than anything, it will challenge multilateral cooperation for sustainable security and stability, encouraged by the world community.
Trump’s policy of reconsidering the nuclear deal will start a new era of bilateral political-security blocs (Saudi-US or US-Russia for instance) in the region, which will sure be seen by third parties, like Iran, to be against their interests.
Last but not least, the truth is that Trump’s policies in the Syrian crisis, the nuclear deal, ties with Russia, China, and regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and even the fight against terrorism have remained mere slogans and failed to turn into specific strategies. The American bureaucratic, political, and media structure is now vehemently standing against implementation and internalization of such policies.
In such circumstances, the best policy for Iran is to increase its legitimacy by keeping its international commitments under the nuclear deal. On the other hand, relying on its national power and geopolitical advantage, the country should adopt an innovative, multilateral approach in order to play an even more active role in the fight against terrorism and the resolution of regional crises. If so, Trump will definitely fail to form a new anti-Iran coalition based on the nuclear dossier and terrorism.