Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Iran and Trump

Iran is one of the most interesting geopolitical threats facing President Trump. The new president has expressed strong distaste for Iran, mostly relating to the nuclear deal reached between the P5+1 and Iran during President Obama’s term. At the same time, Trump has expressed a strong preference for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Russia and Iran have complementary interests in the Middle East, especially regarding Syria, while Russia has habitually nominally supported Iran in an effort to undermine the United States’ hegemony. 

Trump appears to believe that a better deal can be reached with Iran, one abrogating the previous one. For this to be possible, the United States would need to reach a superior bargaining position. Whether the current position is weak or strong, at least one party (Iran) does not wish to give up more. Therefore they would need to be convinced that they are worse off than they believe, or to change the situation to the advantage of the United States. 

Iran, as always, has its own domestic concerns, mostly relating to keeping the population docile, and solidifying regime control over the economy and political system. At the same time, they are active in Syria, Yemen, and the Gulf. Their goal is to establish regional clout, and like Russia, to undermine the United States.

Iran has been making deals with European, and Asian countries since the nuclear accord was finalized. Countries like Greece and Italy, who already have massive financial troubles, benefit from Iranian crude. China always demands more, and other major purchasers like South Korea and India are also interested. 

Trump is faced with a situation where everyone except the United States (and Israel) is happy with the deal, or doesn’t care enough to make a fuss. The United States has virtually no leverage. The only path forward would be to enact coercive measures, forcibly preventing other countries from doing business with Iran. It would the United States versus the world. 

Iran knows this, and they have made a point of pushing in various ways. They ramped up their antagonist actions, especially in the Gulf after the nuclear deal was signed, and continue to act out. General Michael Flynn (Ret.), put Iran “on notice” recently after they test fired a ballistic missile. While not technically a violation of UNSC Resolution 2231 (the text is very poorly worded and unspecific), this test certainly “violated the spirit” of the nuclear agreement and the resolution. 

Today Iran fired another (short range air-defense missile) from the same location. This clearly is not a violation, as it is not ballistic, but it is provocative. While this is much less antagonizing than the previous launch, it is still a clear message to the Trump administration. Iran knows that the United States does not have the same global coalition Obama managed to wrangle, and they are betting that Trump, despite his erratic behavior, won’t be able to do anything to substantive. 

I expect limited provocations to continue, namely in the Gulf as I mentioned a week ago (, but is possible they try to find another dual-citizen hostage, or harass US navy vessels or commercial shipping. They realize how bad Trump looks globally with his inability to control his emotions, and how hypocritical some of his policies are. They are betting that he will be hamstrung by his inability to create a coalition, and to conduct effective diplomacy, while bogged down with domestic concerns.