How Trump's bungled Iran policy predictably backfired — and proved that his presidency is as dangerous as we feared
Installing an absolute moron in the Oval Office has, as it turns out, international repercussions. Donald Trump insisted on withdrawing the United States from a multilateral treaty intended to limit Iran's ability to manufacture the highly enriched uranium required to construct nuclear weapons. He did so almost exclusively because Barack Obama had backed the deal, which has been reason enough for the rattlingly insecure Trump to toss aside countless other extant regulations, deals, laws, and policies. Trump, surrounded by a team of neoconservative policy hacks whose only foreign policy advice, in any situation, is escalation, instead imposed hardline sanctions and threatened allies who remained in the treaty.
Trump now appears completely stumped as to why this approach has not resulted in a submissive Iran acceding to whatever demands his advisers have told him to insist on. He un-negotiated the only extant deal to check Iran's nuclear capabilities, and is now out of ideas. The New York Times reports that “the past few weeks have cast doubt on Mr. Trump’s campaign promise that his occupancy of the Oval Office would so restore respect for American power that adversaries would give up their nuclear weapons programs.”
Ah, yes, the dangerous moment when the narcissist comes close to realizing that the world is not, in fact, so overpowered by his genius that it cannot help but take up a subservient role. The realization will never quite come, but the sparks of fury cast off as his broken brain attempts to reconcile what he thought would happen with what actually has happened make his next actions unpredictable. (That excerpt from The New York Times highlights another of our most dangerous current foibles: pretending that transparently delusional bluster from a perpetual liar at any point amounted to a "campaign promise," rather than the gross hucksterism it so obviously was.)
Trump withdrew from the deal; Iran responded by allying itself with all the other deal's signatories, casting the United States as the aggressor. Trump imposed stiff and crippling new sanctions; Iran has now responded by asserting that the resulting economic pain has required it to step up nuclear fuel production to meet internal needs. Trump dispatched his top officials to document alleged violence by Iran and Iranian "proxies"; Trump's top officials have found that the administration's history of dispensing bold and egregious lies has caused the rest of the world to greet those claims with suspicion.
There you go, sport. A fantastic plan you and your team of hardline neoconservative Iraq War advocates has concocted there.
The fundamental problem of neoconservative foreign policy is that it ignores the notion that other countries, when confronting new foreign demands, may act in their own self-interest. It is hardly baffling that nations long at odds with the United States would conclude from the last half-century of history that America is aggressive in seeking to overthrow nonnuclear hostile regimes (Iraq) but acts with deference toward nuclear-capable enemies (North Korea). Nuclear capability may make the difference between the United States taking action to wipe a terrorist-protective regime off the map (Afghanistan) or engaging in only limited, surreptitious strikes (Pakistan). Any nation that has found itself at frequent odds with the United States might see in the extraordinary delicacy with which each administration has handled North Korean leaders a flashing neon sign urging it to develop nuclear weapons with all possible haste.
The neoconservative view is that negotiations with unfriendly but militarily weak powers are pointless, because military action can simply be used to force compliance with U.S. demands. The logical foreign response from such countries is a renewed urgency to develop a means to inflict maximal damage on the United States if it makes any attempts—not so they can use such force, but to be removed from the list of countries interventionist American policymakers consider to be straightforward targets. (There may yet come a bizarre day when some world power gifts a single intercontinental nuclear weapon to each of the world's nations, granting every country single-use nuclear defense, and offense, in an effort to impose catastrophic new costs on another world power's too-successful program to expand its influence by picking off less capable foes. It would not be much stranger than many of the other possible futures that await us.)
Trump expected—in fact, demanded—that Iran abide by the conditions of the nuclear deal even after the United States withdrew from it and imposed sanctions. The notion was to cause the nation enough pain that it would agree to whatever new demands Trump insisted on; that the United States, not Iran, might be seen by third parties as the aggressor seems not to have occurred to anyone in Trump's orbit. After assuring remaining signatories that it would attempt in good faith to adhere to the deal, Iran is now signaling that it, too, may break the deal if it is going to be hobbled by sanctions insisted on by the U.S. in either case. It announced that its stockpile of low-enriched uranium will soon top treaty limits; if the country chooses to develop highly enriched fuel suitable for a potential weapon, it would be able to do so in about a year.
Predictably, Trump's team continues to urge him to respond to this offensive and, apparently, unforeseen Iranian defiance with further escalation. National security adviser John Bolton and other movement malcontents want a military strike regardless of limp allied support, and have long wanted such a strike regardless of any actions Iran has taken or might take. Trump has repeatedly groused that U.S. military interventionism is stupid, wasteful, and should be ended, but his narcissistic drive to be seen as one-upping Obama and other past leaders will easily serve to coax him onto the most dramatic, "strength"-projecting path available.
He is a child, in other words, and will be led to whatever conclusion the hosts of his favorite television shows declare to be the choice a big boy wearing big boy pants would make. We are at the whims of Trump's incapacity. Again.
That may mean that Trump is led by the nose into a new war, for no other reason than to appease the same group of talking heads that insisted on all of the other recent wars. And it may mean that future presidents, assuming the current crisis is somehow diffused, will have little further luck in convincing Iran that the path to peace lies in abandoning nuclear programs—not after the last American president treated nuclear rogue state North Korea with pomp and deference he has been unwilling to grant even to Canada.