Confrontational view of Iran reflects Trump's approach to foreign policy

Washington ratcheting up pressure on Iran has some observers worried a war could break out between the two nations. But for others, it simply shows President Donald Trump's contradictory approach to foreign policy.

After recently deploying an aircraft carrier strike group to the Middle East, US President Donald Trump's administration this week rattled observers, including traditional partners of the US, when it ordered the evacuation of all nonessential staff from its embassy in Baghdad due to unspecified security concerns related to Iran. The validity of those apparent threats could not be confirmed by US allies on the ground in Iraq.   

Politics | 16.05.2019

The evacuation has heightened worries of a potential conflict with Iran, particularly as it is part of the Trump administration's increasingly tough stance vis-à-vis Tehran. That includes Washington's exit from the US-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran a year ago and increasing sanctions.

Read more: Iraq walks Iran-US tightrope as tensions escalate

The highly visible role of Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, in the administration's Iran policy has only exacerbated concerns about a possible military confrontation with Tehran. Bolton had announced the deployment of the aircraft carrier group and ordered the update of military plans that would reportedly send as many as 120,000 troops to the region. Bolton has long been known for his bellicose views and had openly advocated military action and regime change in Iran and North Korea before joining the Trump administration.      

Politics | 17.05.2019

Mattis' exit

The administration's increasingly confrontational posture can partly be explained by the departure of former Pentagon chief James Mattis, a highly respected military leader who was widely considered a key counterweight to an impulsive president and an aggressive Bolton, said Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe.

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Are Trump's policies on Iran making war more likely?

"[Acting Defense Secretary] Patrick Shanahan is much weaker than Mattis and has no real desire to push back, and also will give the White House and the National Security Council what it wants in terms of exploring military options and generally not try to stonewall the White House," said Wright. "So I think that has changed the dynamic."

"Absolutely not," countered James Jay Carafano, vice president for national security and foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. "There never was a Trump whisperer. There never was an axis of adults that was keeping Trump in check."

Carafano argued that the president gets advice from many people but ultimately makes his own decisions. "Trump is the decider in chief," he said.

The US deployed an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf

Bolton at odds with Trump?

Wright concurred that Trump remains the most important person shaping the administration's foreign policy, but he contended that Bolton aims to manipulate the president to advance an interventionist agenda, which is not necessarily shared by Trump, who likes to push the envelope but is averse when it comes to entangling the US in another war. 

Read more: Opinion: US-Iran escalation a threat, but war unlikely

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Trump told reporters last week that Bolton had "very strong views on things," and "I temper John, which is pretty amazing," a sign of possible discontent with his adviser. That discontent with Bolton, who is the third person to serve as Trump's national security adviser, is echoed by recent media reports noting that the president has grown frustrated with what he perceives as Bolton's overly aggressive course toward Iran. Trump has disputed this on Twitter, but also expressed his willingness for direct talks with Tehran, a move Bolton would likely view as futile.   

Trump's recent comments about Bolton underscore the tenuousness of his position in a White House that is routinely reshuffled, noted the scholars. "Bolton is going to support Trump, or he is going to be looking for another job," said Carafano. "It could end with Trump actually forcing out Bolton if he feels like he is manipulating him into a conflict," said Wright.

President Trump does not like to be upstaged by advisers, including John Bolton

Foreign policy blueprint

Trump, who repeatedly criticized the US invasion of Iraq, has a deep-held aversion against sending troops into a major armed conflict. That conviction, coupled with Tehran's reluctance to trigger US military action, make a confrontation "a little less likely than people think," said Wright, an assessment shared by Carafano. But, Wright added, despite a common interest in Washington and Tehran to avoid a military escalation, an armed confrontation is still "worryingly possible because it could be inadvertent."

While the standoff with Tehran continues developing, it provides an insight into the Trump administration's foreign policy plan. The US approach appears to follow the earlier North Korea blueprint: saber-rattling followed by a presidential offer to talk.

'Unconventional diplomat'

For Wright and Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Barack Obama and now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, that approach is indicative of a more significant problem.

"I have to think that the reason there is no process, no strategy and — from what I hear and see — no one to coordinate things, is because the president himself does not want a strategy," she said. "He does not operate that way; he just does things by instinct. That's not the way you run a country's foreign policy and not the way you address national security threats."

The Trump administration does have a clear foreign policy strategy, and it is the goal "to exercise enough power and influence to force our competitors to respect America's vital interests," said Carafano. What really unnerves people, he offered, is not so much a perceived lack of strategy, but that Trump is such an "unconventional diplomat."

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

The deal breaker

President Donald Trump announced on May 8, 2018 that he was pulling the United States out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, arguing that the international accord was not in America's "national interest." The decision threw a cloud of uncertainty over the future of the nuclear accord and raised tensions with US allies in Europe.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Slap in the face

Britain, France and Germany lobbied the Trump administration and Congress to remain in the nuclear accord, arguing that the deal was working and a US violation without a follow up plan would be destabilizing. In European capitals, the Trump administration's withdrawal was viewed as a slap in the face of allies.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Iran scrap 'voluntary commitments'

A year to the day after Trump's announcement, Iran informed the other signatories of the accord that they would no longer adhere to certain "voluntary commitments." Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the signatory nations had 60 days to implement promises to protect Iran's oil and banking sectors or Iran would resume the enrichment of uranium.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Response to US pressure

The decision came after the United States deployed an aircraft, the USS Lincoln, along with a bomber task force to the Middle East. Washington said the deployment was intended as a "clear unmistakable message." Iran said it took action because the European Union and others "did not have the power to resist US pressure."

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

A triumph of diplomacy

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, was signed in 2015 by United States, China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain (P5+1) and Iran following years of negotiations. Under the international agreement, Iran agreed to dismantle its nuclear program and be subject to monitoring in exchange for the lifting of international nuclear related sanctions.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Compliance and verification

The JCPOA includes a robust monitoring, verification and inspection regime carried out by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The UN watch dog has verified Iran's compliance with the deal in 12 quarterly reports. The JCPOA allows Iran to pursue a peaceful nuclear program for commercial, medical and industrial purposes in line with international non-proliferation standards.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Obama's achievement

The Iran nuclear deal was President Barack Obama's signature foreign policy achievement. Seeking to undo nearly every Obama administration legacy, Trump came into office calling it the "worst deal ever." The Trump administration argues the nuclear deal doesn't address other unrelated issues such as Iran's ballistic missiles, regional influence, support for "terrorist" groups and human rights.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Iranians approved

The nuclear deal and lifting of punishing nuclear related international sanctions created optimism in Iran after years of economic isolation. However, even before Trump pulled the US out of the deal, Tehran blamed the US for holding back international investment and not fulfilling its end of the bargain due to the uncertainty created by Trump's threats.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

The opponents

After eight years with Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found the US president he wanted in Donald Trump. The Israeli leader repeatedly slammed the deal despite his own military and intelligence chiefs' assessment the that JCPOA, while not perfect, was working and should be maintained. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the other main opponents of the nuclear deal.

Iran nuclear deal — treaty under threat

Who's left?

The EU-3 (Britain, France, Germany) have scrambled to ensure that Iran receives the economic benefits it was promised in order to avoid Tehran pulling out of the deal. As EU businesses face retaliation from the US for doing business with Iran, many are opting to avoid Iran. This would likely be a present to Chinese and Russian businesses.