Paul Pillar

Costs of the Clenched Fist

In his first inaugural address, one of President Barack Obama’s messages to America’s adversaries was that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  A few years later, the unclenching of Iran’s fist was marked by the election of reformist Hassan Rouhani and the entry of Iran into negotiations with the United States and five other powers, leading to a detailed agreement in which Iran accepted severe limitations on, and intrusive scrutiny of, its nuclear program and closed all possible pathways to possible acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Today, as far as U.S.-Iranian relations are concerned, the clenched fist is found in Washington, in the form of the Trump administration’s vehement, relentlessly expressed, and unqualified hostility toward Iran.  This hostility is one of the few constants in a Trump foreign policy that otherwise is laden with inconsistencies and flip-flops.  As vividly displayed in the president’s speeches at the first two stops of his current foreign trip, the hostility toward Iran has taken on the character of automatically expressed dogma, seemingly divorced from actual events in, or involving, Iran and with no apparent attention to the specific interests of each country and where they conflict or converge.

Whatever political, rhetorical, or visceral purposes this hostility serves, it has major costs.  The costs arise from the hostility itself and from policies that flow from it, either directly as established by the Trump administration or indirectly by encouraging damaging actions by the U.S. Congress and setting a tone that sustains political support for the damaging actions.  The policies in question involve rejection of any positive cooperation with Iran and support only for isolation and punishment of, and aggressive confrontation against, Iran.

The costs exist no matter what position one may take regarding the degree and nature of Iranian transgressions, or how these transgressions compare with those of other states in the Middle East.  The costs are first and foremost to U.S. interests, and to what most Americans would agree are U.S. interests.  But more specifically, the costs include damage to some of the very objectives that President Trump has enunciated.

Costs of the tightly clenched fist include the following ten.

Impeding resolution of regional problems.  Like it or not, Iran is a major player in the Middle East.  A nation of 80 million people will not go away, nor will it curl up and pretend it is not part of its region and not be heavily involved in its region.  No solutions to problems such as the highly destructive war in Syria will be possible without full Iranian involvement.  Attempting instead to isolate Iran will make would-be solutions infeasible and give Iran an incentive to be a spoiler.

Misunderstanding regional problems.  Coming to believe one’s own rhetoric is a common fault.  To the extent that the Trump administration starts making policy based on the belief that Iran really is the root of all security problems in the Middle East, the result will be policy that is misinformed and thus misdirected and ineffective.  When Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is supposed to be one of the adults in the Trump administration but has at least as much of a personal fixation on Iran as does any other senior figure in the administration, says that the three gravest problems in the Middle East are “Iran, Iran, Iran,” he is doing a disservice.  There is no one root cause or origin of the serious security problems in that region, and to preach that there is such a single cause is a recipe for bad policy.

Risking the loss of nuclear restraints on Iran.  Iran so far has complied with its extensive obligations under the nuclear agreement—a fact the Trump administration grudgingly had to acknowledge even while trying to offset that acknowledgment with as much of its anti-Iran rhetoric as possible.  The main uncertainty regarding compliance is on the U.S. side.  The anti-Iran drumbeat has encouraged some members of the Congress to march toward enacting legislation that includes provisions that would directly violate U.S. obligations under the agreement.  If the laboriously negotiated nuclear agreement were to die because of U.S. noncompliance, the alternative would not be some unicorn-like “better deal”; it instead would be no deal and a return to unrestricted Iranian ability to spin as many centrifuges as it likes and to produce as much fissile material as it likes.

Isolating the United States and estranging it from its most important allies.  The other powers that negotiated, and are parties to, the nuclear agreement—Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—are all firmly resolved to uphold the agreement and to build on it in developing more normal diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran.  To the extent the United States moves in a different direction, then it, not Iran, is the odd one out.