President-elect Trump’s first foreign policy test could be his most polemic and one which Russia will watch carefully.
The American people are confused and bewildered by what Donald Trump is going to do in the Middle East, and should seek solace in that Trump is patently confused himself. Recently we saw a series of extraordinary appointments, which all seem to come from the c School of Oriental Studies in that they all have a shocking contempt for Iran and want the so-called Iran deal scrapped.
Curiously, Trump, who came to power on an isolationist and protectionist ticket, appears to have given Middle East positions to a gaggle of individuals who would probably like to tear up the Iran deal and would bomb Tehran for good measure. Thus crystallizing the unfettered fantasies of Dick Cheney and hurling us back to the 1980s and early 90s when things were a lot simpler.
In those days, the boundaries were not blurred, and Iran and its proxies stayed conveniently on one side of a deep line etched into a geopolitical map in hot spots, like Lebanon, for example.
Consequently, these days Trump is going to give himself a great many migraines studying how he can afford to even throw away the Iran deal and go back to the churlish policy of demonization of this rich country, which had an empire that spanned 40 percent of the world’s population at a time when the British were savages living in caves.
And as if to make matters worse, naturally this ill-conceived plan gets the full backing of the hardliners in Tehran who welcomed Trump’s election victory as they saw it as an opportunity to rejig the relationship with the West, which under Obama, created new working relationships with both Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, a state of affairs that still irks many on both sides of the Atlantic.
How long can the Iran deal hold, given the appointments of hawks like James Mattis as US Defense Secretary and the new ambassador to Israel Mike Huckabee – with Michael Flynn as national security adviser – when all three would give their back teeth to start a war with Tehran?
They might not have to wait.
It would appear that Iran’s President, a modern reformist, is struggling to keep the hardliners at bay. On December 13, Reuters reported that Iran had begun “developing systems for nuclear-powered marine vessels” that would “probably require Iran to enrich uranium to a fissile purity above the maximum level set in the nuclear deal.”
The deal is looking to be hanging by a thread, due to President Rouhani’s decision to go ahead with plans to use the uranium to power new warships, with some experts warning that Rouhani’s decision this week could be a serious juncture in the tenuously balanced deal collapsing altogether. Much lies in the detail.
The White House attempted to play down the news, saying such work could be carried out within the framework of Iran’s commitments.
“The announcement from the Iranians today does not run counter to the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a news briefing.
“Rouhani’s order breaks the ‘spirit’ of the deal, and pending knowing more details it could be a big deal breaker,” says Ali Ahmad, director of the energy policy and security program in the Middle East at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
“Rouhani seemed to have also ordered ‘Study to produce fuel for the atomic propeller in cooperation with scientific and research centers’ which is really on the borderline of breaking the deal as the typical fuel used in such naval systems is highly enriched uranium,” Ahmad told me.
Not only the production of such fuel is prohibited under the JCPOA, warns Ahmad, but also doing R&D, which is what Rouhani seems to suggest.
However, did the US decision to extend the terms of imposing sanctions on Iran push the Iranians over a line? Can Trump realistically scrap the deal, regardless of the entourage of hawks, when the geopolitics of the region are so complicated now with regard to America’s role?
“It is a vote of no trust and the Iranians seemed to have reacted. Both sides are playing on the borderline, but with no clear break as of yet”, adds the AUB academic and energy expert.
Max Blumenthal, award-winning journalist, argued this week in an on-line web TV interview show that scrapping the Iran deal and demonizing the Iranians might not be as simple as Trump’s advisers might think – despite that even Trump himself on a personal level being against such interventionism.
“So far the Iran deal has been pretty successful in accomplishing the goal of nuclear nonproliferation and that fact has to be considered by people who were calling for it to be torn up in 2015,” he said in the interview.
“There’s going to be pressure on the Trump administration from the neocons, and I think the alternative is to empower the more radical elements like the Iranian Republican Guard Council,” says Blumenthal.