Political commentator Mohammad Jamshidi has, in an interview with the IRDiplomacy website, offered an analysis of US President Donald Trump’s policy toward Iran. The following are his comments in full.
Washington’s policy vis-à-vis Iran is focused on three domains: regional issues, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and Iran’s domestic situation. Nevertheless, unlike in the Obama era, Iran’s domestic situation is practically not in the spotlight during Trump’s tenure. This comes as great importance is attached to regional issues. To analyze Trump’s policy on Iran, one has to consider two issues.
First, how does the US see the JCPOA strategically? It seems like Washington’s approach on the nuclear deal will remain unchanged, an approach which has its roots in the Obama administration and has not changed in the Trump administration. Second, Trump’s analysis of the issue has been a strategic one.
The JCPOA has been associated with four strategic issues.
1) Making the prevention strategy operational: If you remember, Obama said the JCPOA was aimed at preventing Iran from accessing atomic weapons. How has this prevention strategy materialized in Iran? Technically, this strategy has been realized. The White House estimates that Tehran has not yet developed nuclear arms and has not decided to build such weapons, either. This is what the US intelligence community believes in, and it was not announced from 2007 until Trump took over as president. Still, the issue is the “determination.” Americans imposed restrictions on Iran’s capabilities. They wanted Iran not to be able to reach that point even if it was “determined” to. They wanted to keep Iran from “developing” nukes. Under the JCPOA, the four stages of developing nuclear weapons have been blocked, and Iran will not be able to do so even if it is “determined” to.
2) Managing the Transition Period in the Middle East: The performance of the incumbent and previous US administrations as well as Trump’s stances indicates that tranquility will not return to the region any time soon. In other words, regional conflicts will be long-term ones and may last more than one or two decades. So, a long-term plan is drawn up. Drawing up strategies is not a fixed approach, either. Sometimes strategies are enforced with special forces and special operations. This was the tactic adopted by the Obama administration, and has remained unchanged in the Trump administration.
3) Stabilising a strong regional competition with Iran: US Defence Secretary James Mattis says Iran’s nuclear program was the potential for a “game change,” which could tip the balance in the region. If, as Americans see it, Iran is stripped of its potential, and weapons are removed from its arsenals, then the country can be tackled effectively. Based on this idea, they had predicted that a regional confrontation would emerge following the conclusion of the JCPOA. This issue can be noticed in Trump’s language, too.
4) Managing Sanctions inside Iran: This is a domestic issue which has not come under the spotlight in the Trump administration, either.
What was just said shows Washington’s strategy on the JCPOA. Of course, all previous approaches have remained unchanged in the Trump administration. Although Trump is unpredictable and should be followed on a daily basis, he follows a few specific patterns. The Trump administration seeks to heat up sensitive points to rebuild strategic relations. Trump has distanced himself from a business-oriented approach, an example of which can be seen in the China issue. Trump first rose the issue of Taiwan in order to gain trade concessions from China. But in the North Korea issue, he offered trade concessions so as to take Beijing on board against Pyongyang. He seeks to reactivate the issues of Syria and the JCPOA in a bid to reconstruct relations. After the dismissal of national security advisor Michael Flynn, the situation has changed and Trump has got closer to a traditional establishment. In my view, Trump’s team is more important than Trump himself.
In foreign policy, it is the “team” that counts. It is clear the Trump is a sort of person who fuels uncertainty. He first goes for a bitter and disruptive language. Then he says “do whatever you decide.” His opinion changes easily. Regarding Korea, Trump said his view changed after the Chinese president spoke about the history of Korea and regional policies for ten minutes. As mentioned before, Trump had no achievements during his first 100 days in office, and, hence, had to become active in the foreign policy arena. But regarding the JCPOA and Iran, we saw that nothing special happened after Flynn’s threatening remarks until Tillerson wrote a letter to Congress in which he had proposed the need for a review of Washington’s policy on Iran.
The policies that they adopted include a few points. Obama had promised Iranians, including the elite, that Tehran’s regional policy will not change if the JCPOA is adopted. But it is estimated that Iran’s regional policy became more aggressive after the signature of the nuclear deal. In fact, in the Trump administration’s point of view, the JCPOA has failed to secure a non-nuclear achievement and has only delayed Iran’s nuclear program. Second, Iran’s behavior has become more aggressive. On the other hand, the most frequent approach adopted by the Trump administration vis-à-vis Iran is that it sees Iran as the root cause of all regional problems. From the Trump administration’s standpoint, the problem with the JCPOA is that the deal has not covered all threating aspects of Iran, and has only turned to the nuclear domain.
Tillerson’s letter mentions several cases of Iran’s threats. What can be concluded is that an overarching look is required toward Iran, and an uncomprehensive look won’t do. A comprehensive look means all threats allegedly posed by Iran should be viewed in one package, and Iran should be considered within a regional context. The phrase the “spirit of the JCPOA” that Trump talked about encompasses all of Iran’s regional commitments.
All in all, the US seeks to rethink its policy on Iran. They have associated all of Iran’s obligations with the region. With its presence in western Iraq and eastern Syria, the US practically seeks to cushion Iran’s influence in the region. The second thing that American will continue to do is that they will use sanctions as leverage. The Trump administration is seeking a regional policy, and the way to achieve it is to keep Iran off regional issues. Trump’s approach is not based on war. The Trump administration believes the JCPOA can be used to put pressure on Iran. Washington believes the solution is to ratchet up the pressure and not to suspend the US sanctions on Iran.