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Trump Talks Tough Against Iran, But His Political Options Are Limited
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A crisis in relations between the US and Iran – which has the potential to produce a military confrontation in the Middle East – is building rapidly in the expectation that President Donald Trump will withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal in just over two weeks’ time.

Mr Trump is demanding that Iran effectively renegotiate the terms of the agreement which traded the suspension of US economic sanctions for a stop to Iran’s nuclear programme.

The White House sounds as if it has already decided to exit the agreement, which Mr Trump persistently denounced before and after his election as “the worst deal in the world”.

But he has put forward no alternative to what was successfully negotiated by President Barack Obama in 2015 other than a series of demands with which Iran is unlikely to comply, and appear designed to put the blame for the US action on Iran.

US officials admit that Iran has so far abided by the terms of the 2015 accord.

A more openly confrontational posture by the US towards Iran would achieve very little, unless Washington replaces the attempt to achieve its ends by diplomacy with sustained military action. Iran is already on the winning side in the wars that have raged in Iraq since 2003 and in Syria since 2011.

It is closely allied to the Iraqi and Syrian governments and to reverse the balance of power in the region, the US would have revert to sustained military intervention on the scale of the Iraq War, something Mr Trump has always opposed.

Iran may have already decided that the deal cannot be saved. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani warned Mr Trump on Tuesday that the US must stay within its terms which Tehran signed with other great powers or face “severe consequences”.

Mr Rouhani said in a live broadcast on state television that: “I am telling those in the White House that if they do not live up to their commitments, the Iranian government will firmly react.”

The Iranian leader did not say what this reaction would be, but the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said at the weekend that it was “highly unlikely” that Iran would remain in the agreement – to which Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain are also signatories – if the US pulled out.

He added that Iran might immediately begin enriching uranium, but it would not develop a nuclear device.

European leaders are trying to save the deal which Mr Trump has denounced as full of “terrible flaws”, but this will prove difficult without radical concessions which Iran has rejected. These include stopping Iran’s ballistic missile programme, extending the terminal date of the agreement, and more intrusive inspections by nuclear inspectors.


No decision in Washington is final until it is announced by Mr Trump himself – and often not even then – but the promotion of officials with a record of hostility to the agreement suggests that it cannot be rescued. Mr Trump has said publicly that he sacked his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, because he wanted to stay with the Iran agreement negotiated by President Obama.

His replacement, Mike Pompeo, is a long-term foe of the accord, once claiming that 2,000 bombing sorties would be enough to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability. “This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” he said.

President Emanuel Macron is in Washington on a state visit, trying to save the agreement by making it more palatable to the White House. He will be followed in the US at the end of the week by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, while Theresa May will probably express her views by telephone.

All three leaders will try to reconcile Mr Trump to not leaving the accord and their arguments will revolve around supplementary sanctions and other measures targeting the Iranian ballistic missile programme and Iran’s allies abroad such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The European leaders’ mission may not be entirely hopeless: in confrontations over Syria and North Korea, Mr Trump’s belligerent rhetoric has been followed by more carefully calculated action.

His opening stance is normally bombastic and uncompromising in order to intimidate the other side into making concessions. It does not necessarily have to be taken at face value. But this periodic moderation may not come into play in the case of Iran, towards which he has been uncompromisingly hostile, claiming that it is the hidden power behind “terrorist” activity in the Middle East.

The White House is in a position to hurt Iran economically by re-imposing economic sanctions, not that these were ever really lifted after 2015, but US political options are more limited. It may talk about regime change in Tehran, but is not in a position to do much about it.

There is a further US weakness: the US, often prompted by Israel, and Saudi Arabia, has a track record of underestimating the extent to which Iran, as the largest Shia Muslim power, plays a leading role in a coalition of states – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – because of the predominant influence of the Shia in these countries. It is very difficult to defeat Iran there – the northern tier of the Middle East – but it is in this region that the US has chosen over the years to try to roll back Iranian influence.

The balance of power between Iran and its enemies is going to be difficult to shift whatever Mr Trump decides about the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Iran 
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  1. Randal says:

    The White House is in a position to hurt Iran economically by re-imposing economic sanctions, not that these were ever really lifted after 2015

    The White house is only in a position to hurt Iran to the extent that the subordinate countries of the US sphere are willing to continue to roll over and allow the US to bully and manipulate them, and their companies, into compliance with unilateral US sanctions targeting Iran. As such, this will represent another opportunity for the countries of the US sphere to break away somewhat from their subservience to Washington, and from the insidious manipulation by the Israel lobbies that tirelessly influence their own governments towards confrontation with Iran.

    Whether the poodle governments are willing or able to take such a step towards standing on their national hind legs again, remains to be seen.

    The balance of power between Iran and its enemies is going to be difficult to shift whatever Mr Trump decides about the fate of the Iran nuclear deal.

    Though why it would be in Britain’s, or any European country’s, or even the US’s interests to reduce Iranian weight in the region is far from clear. Iran has long been the better side in the ME, as compared with the Gulf sunni despots or the Israeli thugs.

  2. KA says:

    It can prove a slippery slope for Iran to renegotiate the deal. Next president might have 2 incentives to double down on Iran and ask for more concessions including dismantling of army, navy,demobilization of Hizbollah, transfer of the bases/territories in Iraq /Lebanon/Syria to US or UK or Israel. It can ask for Iranian oil’s ownership -sales and acceptance of 3 rd junk American arms. This attitude will endear the president to warmongering FOX CNN WSJ MSNBC and also to other .

  3. Virgile says:

    Withdrawing from the deal will impact negatively the negotiations with North Korea. Trump is stuck between his bombasting declarations against Iran and his desire of solving the nuclear issue with North Korea
    My opinion is that Trump for now can only make dramatic threats to Iran and remain in the deal.

    • Replies: @Randal
  4. Randal says:

    Withdrawing from the deal will impact negatively the negotiations with North Korea.

    Maybe, but maybe not. My impression is that NK involvement in these talks is probably driven by Chinese pressure – specifically the Chinese adherence to the latest rounds of draconian UN sanctions. In that case, it seems unlikely new evidence of US untrustworthiness will change anything, given the wider US track record in Libya and elsewhere. It’s hardly as though the NKs aren’t fully aware of US perfidy and military aggression, after all.

    • Replies: @myself
  5. turtle says:

    unless Washington replaces the attempt to achieve its ends by diplomacy with sustained military action.

    You mean, “initiates a war of aggression,” do you not?

    A war of aggression, sometimes also war of conquest, is a military conflict waged without the justification of self-defense

  6. William says:

    Mr Cockburn starts off with major, although common, error, which is that there is a conflict between
    the U.S. and Iran. That simply is not true.
    First, the U.S. has no Iranian policy. What it does have is an Israeli plan, pushed by traitors such as John Bolton and fools like Lindsey Graham, and hundreds for extremely dedicated Israeli supporters throughout our government.
    Second, the U.S. congress is a joke. Most of the world laughs at the foolishness and corruption and cowardice of our “Parliment of Fowles,” or congress of whores, bought and sold by hundreds of lobbyists with cash to make their arguments cogent.
    The U.S. is crippled by a flawed system and will eventually go the way of all flesh.

    • Agree: Miro23
  7. Don Bacon says:

    in confrontations over Syria and North Korea, Mr Trump’s belligerent rhetoric has been followed by more carefully calculated action.

    Carefully calculated to. . . increase the war effort, including greatly increased aerial bombing of Afghanistan, that poor tribal country on the other side of the planet, and a reversal of a Syria pull-out coupled with senseless missile attacks.

    And Iran is in a higher category, the arch-enemy of Israel (and thus the US) and Iran’s support of “terrorist” (Hezbollah) activity in the Middle East which is why the US has had a consistent (excepting the puppet Shah) anti-Iran policy for fifty years. Why change it? Especially now when Iran is a big winner in Syria and Israel is a big loser (along with the US).

  8. Uncle Sam says:

    I did not vote for Trump to make Israel great but to make America great. He is betraying a large segment of his base. His options are very limited. Contrary to what Pompeo says, his military options, if exercised, would lead to America losing at least half its planes and half its ships. The American military know this and as a result are opposed to any military attack. They would do everything they could to prevent such an attack. After their very poor performance regarding the missile attack on Syria they would be even more adamantly opposed.

    Trump really has no alternative to the current agreement. If he is stupid enough to break this agreement, how can he expect the North Koreans to take him at his word.

    Iran does not need the so-called “West”. She can get everything she needs from Russia and China.

  9. Eighthman says:

    So, Pompeo thinks 2000 airstrikes will solve the problem? I regularly read about US fighter aircraft falling out of the sky or being out of service for maintenance issues. Time for China to invade Taiwan? Or Russia to settle Ukraine permanently?

    And does Hezbollah just idly stand by, holding 1000’s of missiles against Israel? What does Iraq (mostly Shia) do? Allow their nation to be used for bombing? Or bases?

    And the Gulf? Can the global economy survive \$100 a barrel oil? Can the US afford total control and sweeping of this huge waterway?

    The big question now is, do the EU poodles show some courage?

  10. myself says:

    All of which lead me to believe that China has guaranteed that it will intervene in full force, should outside forces launch an attack on North Korea. And that North Korea believes them – after all, exactly that scenario played out in 1950.

    This, along with Chinese economic pressure, has pushed the North Koreans to agree to de-nuclearization talks.

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