Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Dear President Donald Trump:
We’ve never met, and given that you’re not much of a reader, I doubt you even know who I am. But maybe—just maybe—someone on your staff will bring this letter to your attention.
I’m writing because your Middle East policy, and especially your policy toward Iran, seems really confused at the moment, and I’d like to help you out. I’ll try to use small words — the best words! — the same way you do whenever you tweet or when you speak at those big rallies of yours.
Just between us, Mr. President, you made a mistake when you tore up the nuclear deal with Iran. I still wonder if you actually understood its provisions because you seem to get a lot of things wrong whenever you talk about it. But never mind that: I’m sure you thought it was the right move at the time, and you may even have believed it was a “terrible” deal. But here I’m afraid you listened to the wrong people. Instead of taking advice from Sheldon Adelson, Mohammed bin Salman, or Benjamin Netanyahu, you should have heeded the wise counsel of James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, all of the United States’ European allies, or your buddy Vladimir Putin. They understood that the Iran nuclear deal was pretty good and that it was achieving its main purpose: keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And they would have been happy to work with you to build on that agreement and address other concerns about Iran.
Now look where you are. The United States walked away from the deal and compounded that error by threatening to punish other states if they stuck to it and continued to trade or invest in Iran. With the situation heating up, the United States finds itself with no major power support for its position. Moreover, it undercuts the moderates who genuinely hoped to turn Iran into a non-revolutionary country—which is what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says is the long-term goal—and strengthened the hard-line forces who have long viewed the United States as irrevocably hostile and untrustworthy.
Which brings me to my second point. Your policy of “maximum pressure” isn’t working the way your advisors said it would. I’m not quite sure what the real goal of the policy is—are you hoping to get a new nuclear deal, topple the regime, or maybe just contain Iran’s regional activities?—but we don’t seem to be getting closer to any of those goals. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests Iran’s regional activities have not diminished (I personally think the report is a bit alarmist but still), and the Iranians are gradually edging away from the nuclear deal and thus getting a bit closer to an actual bomb. Given that the United States walked away first, you can’t really blame them (though of course you’ll try). Iran’s leaders also seem to be going out of their way to show you that they won’t be cowed, coerced, or browbeaten into submission, and the whole situation threatens to drag you into exactly the sort of war you always said you wanted to avoid.
Mr. President, it’s important that you understand /why/ this confrontation is playing out this way. Iran’s response might seem confusing because the United States is vastly more powerful and additional economic sanctions are undoubtedly creating serious hardships there. So why isn’t Tehran saying “uncle” and agreeing to do whatever you, Bolton, or Pompeo want? Is it because its leaders are stubborn religious fanatics who just won’t see reason?
Nope. Here’s what’s really going on. If a much weaker country like Iran let you bully it once, you might conclude that you could bully it again. And then again. Or whenever you wanted. It is therefore in that country’s interest to show you that it can’t be intimidated and get you to give it some of what it wants in any subsequent agreement. That’s what Iran’s leaders mean when they talk about the need for the United States to show “respect.” They’re not just trying to save face; they are telling you that America’s superior power isn’t enough to get them to capitulate and that you’ll have to bargain fairly, even if you hold more high cards than they do. You may have noticed that North Korea, Mexico, and some other countries are acting the same way, consistent with what some scholars argue too.
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