Donald Trump’s Iran policy and the global order

This is a conversation between Dr.Sajad Abedi from Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth and Dr.Payam mohseni from Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Dr.Payam Mohseni is Iran Project Director & Fellow for Iran Studies in Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Are you surprised by the choice of Donald Trump?

The election of President Donald Trump was never out of the question and he clearly presented a strong electoral threat to the American political establishment–whether to the Democratic or Republican parties. His election, therefore, while surprising, was always in the realm of possibility especially as popular disillusionment against the current state of affairs grew. While the election was shocking to the majority of political analysts in the United States and the world, a longer view of America’s history reveals that anti-establishment candidates have been elected at critical junctures, including perhaps most prominently Andrew Jackson who features on the $20 bill and whose portrait Trump displayed in the oval office shortly after assuming the presidency.

Trump was anti-establishment in both the primaries and the final elections. We have to remember that Trump was spurned by the Republican political elite and opposed by most of the top leadership yet was able to sweep the primaries within his own party, defying the odds against him, before moving on to the general elections where he was financially and institutionally outmatched by Hillary Clinton by a wide margin. That being said, Trump did lose the popular vote by about three million votes and his election does reveal a serious divide within the American electorate and increasing polarization of world views in the country.

Finally, Trump also represents a unique blend of populism and capitalism which is specific to the American context. Historically and even in contemporary times, populism and capitalism do not run hand in hand but Trump was able to simultaneously show himself as champions of both.

What is the meaning of this choice for America’s role in the world?

Trump strongly critiqued American commitments abroad, including the war in Iraq as well as America’s security subsidies provided through NATO. He also critiqued global trade agreements such as NAFTA passed under the Clinton administration which he saw as betraying the American worker for cheaper labor abroad. He promised to put “America first” which means have other countries bear the costs and burdens of upholding global security. However, at the same time, he has surrounded himself with hardline advisors and appointed officials to head the Defense Department and CIA who are known for their aggressive posture towards Iran and policy in the Middle East.

In short, Trump’s policies are partly contradictory and not fully cogent. His critique of American involvement in the sovereign affairs of other countries and anti-liberal cultural stance contradicts his privileging of a hawkish foreign policy team and much of his other bellicose rhetoric. These are currently competing elements that must find an uneasy equilibrium in his administration. I suspect that his policies will be largely ad-hoc and shifting with a strong tilt towards brinkmanship in the Middle East but with a simultaneous desire not to get bogged down in yet another expensive war in the region. His balancing act of these two sides will be determinative of his overall foreign policy.

What is your biggest worry about global stability due to this choice?

This is an important stage in global order and security and the long term effects of Trump’s policies will not be seen for a while. For the near future, global institutions are here to stay: the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and IMF are still supreme players, the world’s largest economic powers (America, China, the EU, Japan, etc.) have stable relations and capitalist-based economic systems, and American security umbrellas stretch across the entire world including SE Asia, the Persian Gulf, and much of Europe.

Trump believes that America is subsidizing this system at far too steep a cost and wants his global partners to share more of the burden. Whether this will fundamentally deter and undermine the current international order is yet to be seen but it seems unlikely that Trump’s policies alone will contribute to the undermining of global stability as it is currently understood. There are larger forces at play than Trump’s election which will affect global stability in the near future. In addition to the structural implications the Trump presidency will have on global order, there is also the ideological implications in terms of US values. Trump has moved away from liberal discourse and has prioritized US interests over the spread of US values such as democracy and human rights. He is not restrained from working with autocratic partners as long as it serves US interests. This will have global implications as to the future of American values in the world and the rise of other political and cultural thought systems.

Is the ISIL threat becoming more serious with regards to Trump’s election?

Irrespective of the election of Trump, ISIS is on the decline and will be defeated in its current state. However ISIS-like mutants very well could reemerge over the long run due to chronic state breakdown in large swaths of the Middle East, the funding of radical proxy groups by outside powers, and the incentive for the remnants of the Baathist regime in Iraq to create instability in the region.  In the areas which have Iranian influence and partnership, salafi-extremism will be largely stifled as we have seen the trend in Iraq and Syria–however its threat will remain in the short term. The larger question is what will happen to the future of US-Saudi alliance and the stability of the Gulf States. So far Trump seems to have given a prominent signal of support to Saudi Arabia in his recent trip to the region. But how this will play out in Syria and in regional posturing and proxy warfare against Iran is still unclear.

What will be the response and reaction of Iran?

Iran has paired with its local partners in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen to turn back the tide against ISIS, and other extremist salafi groups. Under the umbrella of the “Axis of Resistance,” an organic ground up structure is being built to create order and stability in the Middle East and overcome the conditions that breed extremism and instability. The continuation of this policy will see Iran’s power and influence grow in the region as it fills in the vacuum left by a defeated ISIS and the vacuum of state power in the Arab world. Due to the trend line of increased instability and weak state power in the Arab world, the potential for conflict as well as for the potential of Iran increasing its influence by supporting local popular armed movements is high.

What is Trump’s policy on Iran sanctions?

Trump has been very vocal against the Iran deal and routinely has questioned it in public. He believes it should be renegotiated or scrapped.  As such the Trump administration does not oppose the furthering of sanctions against Iran and in fact sees them as a necessity to constrain Iran and keep the country in check. In particular, sanctions will be increased regarding Iran’s ballistic missile program, regional activities, and human rights–however this is not because of Trump but there is nearly united elite consensus for this in the United States. A Clinton victory would have very likely resulted in increased non-nuclear sanctions as well on Iran. Trump however more anti-JCPOA than Clinton is and will try to find ways to undermine the agreement.  It is possible that Trump will not continue verification of Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, but it is less likely that he would not continue waiving nuclear sanctions as agreed to in the terms of the JCPOA. The White House would like to increase pressure on Iran with the hopes that Iran itself will break out of the agreement and will thus be blamed for violating the JCPOA. The bigger question is thus how Iranian elites will react to the continuing series of sanctions against the country and what their toleration will be of such moves.

Sajad Abedi
Sajad Abedi
National Security and Defense Think Tank