Donald Trump is an American Ahmadinejad
Over the years, has sometimes played a disproportionately large part in US politics. Jimmy Carter blamed the 1979-81 embassy hostage crisis for his failure to secure a second term, and Reagan’s second term was damaged significantly by the Iran-Contra revelations.
The deal secured by the Obama administration with Iran over the nuclear question in July 2015 has proved violently divisive between Democrats and Republicans. So it was no surprise that Iran surfaced again in the debate between the presidential candidates on 26 September.
Hillary Clinton attacked Donald Trump’s maverick tendency by referring to his apparent willingness to open fire on Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf if they threw insults at US sailors. Trump hit back at Clinton for going along with Obama’s Iran policy, complaining “we lose on everything” – referring back to his theme of a US diminished by Obama’s presidency. The exchange thus summed up what each candidate saw as one of the other’s main weak points.
President Rouhani of Iran can scarcely be enthusiastic about the prospects for the US presidential election. Trump has said directly that the 2015 nuclear deal was “disastrous” and he would repudiate it, doubling and tripling sanctions (quite how, he doesn’t specify) to force the Iranians to renegotiate. Clinton has supported the nuclear deal and is more likely to follow in Obama’s footsteps, but she has consistently been more hawkish on Iran than Obama. She was enthusiastic in the drive to harden sanctions on Iran in the latter part of Obama’s first term, and Iranians have not forgotten her statement during the presidential nomination contest in 2008 that the US could “totally obliterate” Iran if it were to attack Israel with a nuclear weapon – widely reported at the time as “Clinton wants to obliterate Iran”.
Rouhani himself is engaged in an election campaign (the election will take place in May 2017) and, though still popular, is under increasing pressure because economic benefits from the nuclear deal have yet to reach ordinary Iranians. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has suggested that the US has failed to honour its commitment to lift sanctions. It is an unwritten rule of Iranian politics that Iranian presidents always get a second term, but Rouhani cannot be complacent. He has to appease hardliners, which is why he avoided meeting Obama at the UN general assembly earlier in September. Since the nuclear deal, Iran has drawn closer to Russia over Syria and the US has seemed keener to mollify its ally Saudi Arabia than to explore new opportunities for a better relationship with the Iranians. Depressingly, both Iran and the US have retreated to their familiar comfort zones of mutual hostility.
If Trump were elected and really were to follow an America-first policy, retreating from global commitments, conciliating Putin and allowing Russia a larger role (as he has hinted, bizarrely) then relations between states would shift in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia would be isolated (the folly of the UK’s support for Saudi Arabia in its sectarian cold war with Iran would be even more exposed) and the Iranian regime might rejoice. But Trump has also said those things about renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal, and has run an ad campaign saying he would “cut the head off Isis and take their oil”, which, though hard to construe, sounds like more intervention rather than less. If he were elected, a lot would depend on Trump’s advisers, but that is no cause for reassurance. John Bolton, whom Trump has spoken of as a possible secretary of state, said in March 2015 in the last weeks before the nuclear deal that the US could still bomb Iran, and that bombing was the only way to stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Another figure close to Trump, Lt Gen Michael Flynn, made a statement in July 2016 that seemed to suggest he thought Ali Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, was still alive and in office.
As many around the world look on at this election with alarm and some despondency, I remember Henry Kissinger’s infamous comment on the Iran-Iraq war – “it’s a pity they can’t both lose”. It seems to be a choice between a man whose daddy bought him a route to the top and a woman whose path was smoothed by the charm of her less intelligent husband.
Broadly, in assessing the likely direction of policy under either of the two candidates, one has to expect that Trump would follow through on his rhetoric and take a hard line on Iran. Trump is plainly populist and unpredictable – an American version of Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But even to him, a US policy initiative to tear up the nuclear deal must look like only adding to the problems of a murderously chaotic region.
Clinton by contrast appears a relatively safe choice – but would that mean following the unimaginative anti-Iranian groupthink in Washington rather than exploring the opportunities that the Iran nuclear deal should have opened up? In a statement earlier in the year she spoke in all-too-familiar terms of Iran as continuing to threaten the peace and security of the Middle East, of “Iran’s negative actions in the region” and standing “side-by-side with our ally Israel and our Arab partners”. We know from Wikileaks that she believed privately in the past that Saudi Arabia was the largest source for terrorist funding worldwide, and that the Saudi government was not doing enough to stop that funding. But a more balanced view of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation has not emerged in her public utterances.
Perhaps if, as the polls still indicate, Clinton wins the US presidential contest, greater political freedom of action will permit her to be more imaginative, bold and judicious in the Iran context. Let’s hope so.