The world has become so numb to the words of the President of the United States that it even dismisses threats of war as either a political distraction or a Trumpian negotiation tactic.
Indeed, Donald Trump’s threat to inflict on Iran “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE” may very well have been an effort to divert attention from the Russia investigation. Others have dismissed the danger of the tweet since Trump did an about-face on North Korea, going from calling the North Korean dictator “rocket man” to a “very honorable” man. And, on Tuesday, Trump stated once again that he’s “ready to make a deal” with Iran.
But there are five reasons why a pivot from threats to diplomacy with Iran will be much harder — and why Trump’s reckless threats may trap the United States in yet another war.
1. Saudi Arabia and Israel oppose diplomacy. Japan and South Korea advocated it.
The geopolitical circumstances around North Korea differ vastly from that of the Middle East. In the North Korean case, America’s allies — and even its Chinese competitor — strongly opposed any military confrontation with Pyongyang and pushed for diplomacy. In fact, the pivot to diplomacy with North Korea had far more to do with the South Korean President’s maneuvering in the background than Kim Jong Un fearing Trump’s “fire and fury” or his sanctions.
In the Middle East, the situation is the opposite: American allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long opposed US-Iran diplomacy (with an impressive track record of sabotaging attempts at US-Iran dialogue). Mindful of their influence in Washington and the Trump administration’s deference to them, any attempt by Trump to pivot to diplomacy with Iran will likely face a formidable challenge by these Middle Eastern powers.
Moreover, there is no obvious “South Korea” in the Middle East today that can quietly do behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy to bring the United States and Iran together — at least not one Trump would engage.
Former President Barack Obama needed a go-between to make diplomacy with Iran bear fruit. In that case, it was the country of Oman, which helped establish a secret diplomatic channel with Iran, paving the way for the historic nuclear deal of 2015. But Trump is unlikely to turn to Oman precisely because Obama did so.
2. Trump thinks pressure will force Iran to negotiate. He’s wrong.
Trump has stated that verbal escalation and sanctions will force Iran to come to the table. The logic is based on a misread of what brought about the nuclear deal of 2015. The conventional Washington narrative reads that Obama crippled Iran’s economy till the rulers of Tehran grudgingly agreed to negotiate. But the secret negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman reveals a very different picture.
While Obama’s sanctions were truly crushing — Iran’s GDP contracted more than 35% between 2012 and 2015 — Tehran did not lack leverage of its own. Its response to the sanctions was to double down on its nuclear program and move ever closer to a nuclear weapon. Just as sanctions put pressure on Tehran, more centrifuges put the squeeze on Washington.
It wasn’t until the Obama administration secretly made a major concession to Iran — agreeing that Iran could continue to enrich uranium on its own soil — that diplomacy started to bear fruit.
In other words, a policy solely centered on sanctions and pressure did not bring about the desired breakthrough in the talks. Ultimately, it was American flexibility that ended the standstill and elicited Iranian flexibility.
Two conclusions can be drawn from America’s past diplomatic experience with Iran. First, pressure alone will not work. Second, Iran will meet pressure with pressure. And herein lies the danger of Trump’s approach: Even if he does not intend to draw this to a conflict, he may quickly lose control over the situation once the Iranians decide to counter-escalate by, for instance, reactivating their nuclear program.
3. North Korea has a one-man dictator. Iran has politics.
North Korea is run by a one-man dictator with the political maneuverability to dramatically shift policy from testing nuclear weapons to sitting down with the man who hurled insults at him — without facing any domestic political consequences. Iran, on the other hand, has a complex political system where power is dispersed and not controlled by any single person or institute. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader — the most powerful man in Iran — cannot act alone without taking into consideration both public and elite opinion.
Iran’s fractured politics and factional infighting renders any dramatic policy shift — particularly involving diplomacy with the United States — all the more difficult. President Hassan Rouhani is already paying a political price for having been so “naive” as to negotiate with the “untrustworthy” Americans. The political space needed to restart negotiations, particularly after Iran adhered to the previous deal and Trump pulled out of it, simply does not exist right now and Trump’s rhetoric is not moving matters in the right direction.
4. Don’t forget: Trump hates Obama.
As Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group has pointed out, Trump’s antipathy toward Obama and his obsession with undoing Obama’s policy legacies should not be underestimated. As a Trump official told the Atlantic, “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine,” he explained. “We’re the ‘F— Obama’ Doctrine.”
On Iran, that may not just translate into Trump killing the nuclear deal against the advice of his Secretary of Defense. It may also mean that Trump will pursue a nuclear deal with North Korea at almost any cost (a problem Obama left largely untouched) while rejecting a deal with Iran (the country Obama decided to negotiate with). More than striking a “better deal” with Iran, Trump may think that truly sticking it to Obama necessitates burying diplomacy with Iran altogether.
5. Trump advisers don’t want a deal; they want regime collapse.
The members of Trump’s inner circle have changed dramatically over the past few months. The so-called “adults in the room,” who had a moderating effect on Trump, have largely been replaced with ideological hawks, such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And uber-hawk Tom Cotton has emerged as one of the senators whose advice and viewpoints Trump pays close attention to.
All three of these have a long track record of advocating confrontation with Iran. Bolton famously penned an op-ed in the New York Times at the height of the nuclear negotiations titled “To Stop an Iranian Bomb, Bomb Iran.” As a congressman from the state of Kansas, Mike Pompeo quipped that bombing Iran would only take 2,000 fighter jet attacks, which he said “is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.” Cotton, in turn, is the author of the unprecedented letter in the midst of the nuclear talks, telling the leaders of Iran not to trust the President of the United States.
Going forward, the moderate voices inside the Trump White House will essentially be absent, while new advisers will likely egg on Trump to escalate tensions further — even though the Trump administration continues to claim that its goal is not regime change.
All of this amounts to a sobering reality: Trump is embarking on a path of escalation without having the exit ramps he had with North Korea. The danger now is not to overestimate the risk of war, but to underestimate it.