September 22, 2017

Trump Is Conflating Pyongyang With Tehran. The Results Could Be Catastrophic.

President Donald Trump took a page out of the George W Bush playbook at his UN address on Tuesday. To justify confrontation with Iran, conflate it with Pyongyang. To justify confrontation with North Korea, conflate it with Tehran.

This is the latest gimmick in Trump’s desperate efforts to kill the nuclear deal with Iran: by focusing on Tehran’s objectionable non-nuclear policies and false claims of the unevenness of the Iran deal, Trump is arguing that sustaining the international accord can no longer be justified since it doesn’t address the totality of America’s concerns with Iran.

Problem is: there is no deal that could address the totality of US-Iran tensions unless Trump is willing to engage in extensive diplomacy with Iran for such a grand bargain. Thus far, Trump has shown zero interest in negotiations with Iran. And mindful of how he has conducted himself on the world stage, significant doubts exist as to whether his administration has the capacity and competence to face Iran diplomatically.

Instead, the contours of Trump’s Iran policy are crystallizing. Rather than a new deal with Iran, Trump is reigniting the US-Iran cold war that the nuclear deal began to cool down.

On the international stage, Trump calls for Iran’s total isolation, accuses it of being the main source of instability in the Middle East, and describes it as a new North Korea in the making. At home, he plans to give the nuclear deal a death knell by decertifying it on 15 October and leave its fate in the hands of the US Congress – as he did with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (Daca). (The likelihood of the Republican Congress showing restraint and opting to not kill the nuclear accord is minuscule.)

The only countries on the world stage that would welcome Trump’s reigniting this cold war with Iran would be Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They prefer that the United States resurrects Pax Americana in the Middle East and re-establishes strong American hegemony there in order for the region to return to its pre-2003 equilibrium – before, ironically, Iran was unleashed by George W Bush’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Only by having America by their side as a full military partner can these countries balance Iran. The end result would either be a military confrontation at worst or at best a tense cold war-like standoff between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US on one hand, and Iran and its allies (including Russia) on the other.

What this wouldn’t achieve – and isn’t designed to achieve – is stability in the Middle East. Rather, Trump would further inflame the Middle East and intensify the existing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. More arms would be poured into the region, while diplomacy would become an increasing rarity. Nor would this cold war with Iran make America or Europe any safer as instability in the Middle East has a way of finding its way to the west.

All eyes are now on Europe. Strong European leadership may succeed in preventing Trump from destabilizing the Middle East and killing the Iran deal. European leaders have already recommitted themselves to the nuclear deal and pointed out that it is thus far an astounding success.

The deal has blocked all of Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon and the IAEA has eight times certified that the Iranians are in compliance with the agreement. In fact, the deal has been such a success that Germany’s Angela Merkel has on numerous occasions urged the Iran negotiations to be used as model to find a solution to the North Korean crisis.

Though it did its utmost, Europe failed to prevent the Bush administration from launching the disastrous invasion of Iraq. On Iran, Europe can still stop Trump from following the footsteps of George W Bush. It is not just the nuclear deal that is at stake, but the entire stability of the Middle East.

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

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