Blogs: Paul Pillar

The Paris Agreement and Trump at his Worst

Dozing Off on the Way to Planetary Ruin

Trump Is No Realist

Costs of the Clenched Fist

Paul Pillar

Losing American jobs.  As the Europeans, as well as the Russians and Chinese, develop their commercial relations with Iran, American companies are losing business.  U.S. sanctions against Iran already have cost U.S. business hundreds of billions in lost revenue.  A prospective sale by Boeing of civilian airliners to Iran—a sale that Trump has criticized and that some Republicans in Congress are trying to derail—would support, according to Boeing, nearly 100,000 jobs at the company and its suppliers.

Directing international blame at the United States for impeding moves toward peace.  As long as the U.S. administration is the odd one out on issues such as the nuclear agreement and its aftermath, the costs go beyond the self-inflicted economic damage and specific differences with the other parties to the agreement.  There also is the wider opprobrium that comes from being the recalcitrant one.  That opprobrium will underlie suspicion and cynicism about anything else this administration says about seeking peace, especially in the Middle East.

Promoting hardline Iranian policies and leaders.  Iran, like other countries, has real politics.  Also like other countries, the politics are influenced by what is inflicted on the country from abroad.  It is foolish to pretend that all contending politicians in Tehran constitute an undifferentiated mass and that Iran will be horrible no matter who holds office within the structure of the existing regime.  It is especially foolish to cling to that assumption in the wake of the election that gave Rouhani a second term.  A strong majority---and even the supreme leader in Iran cannot ignore the election returns—supported Rouhani’s rejection of hardline policies, but his support will be sustainable only if the economic improvement that has come to be associated with sanctions relief and improved external economic relations comes to pass.  To undercut Rouhani with U.S. policies that center only on isolation and sanctions would be a gift to Iranian hardliners who support the sorts of external policies that we most dislike.

Trashing the concept of America First.  To follow the nothing-but-hostility-and-isolation approach to Iran is to outsource U.S. foreign policy to other states that do not have U.S. interests at heart, and to two other states in particular: Saudi Arabia and Israel.  Such outsourcing may make for congeniality with the local rulers during visits to those countries, but it diminishes Trump’s chances of making progress on the very matters on which he said during the trip he wants to make progress.  For Saudi Arabia, highlighting Iran as a demon, besides pushing the Saudis’ side of a local rivalry and sustaining rather than lessening tension in the Persian Gulf, is an excuse for further repression of Shia populations, and such repression makes terrorism and other forms of political violence more, rather than less, likely.  For Israel, the constant assertion that Iran is “the real” source of all trouble in the region is the best possible diverter of attention from its occupation of the Palestinian territories.  Trump’s singing from the same sheet of music makes it all the less likely that the Israeli government will feel pressure to make the decisions necessary for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever to be resolved, as Trump claims he wants.

Losing a channel for defusing of tensions.  A useful byproduct of the negotiations on the nuclear agreement was establishment of communications at the foreign minister level that could be used to address other problems, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations.  We saw the value of that channel when U.S. naval craft strayed inexcusably into Iranian territorial waters.  Addressing the situation in the foreign minister channel was key to getting quick return of the U.S. sailors.  Now that channel is gone, and the Trump administration shows no interest in re-establishing it.  The next time a similar incident occurs, the subsequent step might be escalation into a crisis rather than repatriation of Americans.

Risking a new Middle East war.  Donald Trump probably does not want a new war, and during the presidential campaign he said things that suggested to some ears that he would be less likely than his opponent to get into one.  But there are people who would welcome war with Iran and will seize on events to try to spark one.  And there are people who evidently have the president’s ear—Secretary Mattis, for one—who favor the sort of confrontational approach toward Iran that increases the chance of events spinning out of control.  The lack of a channel for defusing tensions and resolving misunderstandings—and the overall climate of hostility that the administration’s rhetoric has done so much to build up—make that chance disturbingly large. 

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Trump's Riyadh Speech: Bowing to the Saudi Regime

Paul Pillar

Losing American jobs.  As the Europeans, as well as the Russians and Chinese, develop their commercial relations with Iran, American companies are losing business.  U.S. sanctions against Iran already have cost U.S. business hundreds of billions in lost revenue.  A prospective sale by Boeing of civilian airliners to Iran—a sale that Trump has criticized and that some Republicans in Congress are trying to derail—would support, according to Boeing, nearly 100,000 jobs at the company and its suppliers.

Directing international blame at the United States for impeding moves toward peace.  As long as the U.S. administration is the odd one out on issues such as the nuclear agreement and its aftermath, the costs go beyond the self-inflicted economic damage and specific differences with the other parties to the agreement.  There also is the wider opprobrium that comes from being the recalcitrant one.  That opprobrium will underlie suspicion and cynicism about anything else this administration says about seeking peace, especially in the Middle East.

Promoting hardline Iranian policies and leaders.  Iran, like other countries, has real politics.  Also like other countries, the politics are influenced by what is inflicted on the country from abroad.  It is foolish to pretend that all contending politicians in Tehran constitute an undifferentiated mass and that Iran will be horrible no matter who holds office within the structure of the existing regime.  It is especially foolish to cling to that assumption in the wake of the election that gave Rouhani a second term.  A strong majority---and even the supreme leader in Iran cannot ignore the election returns—supported Rouhani’s rejection of hardline policies, but his support will be sustainable only if the economic improvement that has come to be associated with sanctions relief and improved external economic relations comes to pass.  To undercut Rouhani with U.S. policies that center only on isolation and sanctions would be a gift to Iranian hardliners who support the sorts of external policies that we most dislike.

Trashing the concept of America First.  To follow the nothing-but-hostility-and-isolation approach to Iran is to outsource U.S. foreign policy to other states that do not have U.S. interests at heart, and to two other states in particular: Saudi Arabia and Israel.  Such outsourcing may make for congeniality with the local rulers during visits to those countries, but it diminishes Trump’s chances of making progress on the very matters on which he said during the trip he wants to make progress.  For Saudi Arabia, highlighting Iran as a demon, besides pushing the Saudis’ side of a local rivalry and sustaining rather than lessening tension in the Persian Gulf, is an excuse for further repression of Shia populations, and such repression makes terrorism and other forms of political violence more, rather than less, likely.  For Israel, the constant assertion that Iran is “the real” source of all trouble in the region is the best possible diverter of attention from its occupation of the Palestinian territories.  Trump’s singing from the same sheet of music makes it all the less likely that the Israeli government will feel pressure to make the decisions necessary for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever to be resolved, as Trump claims he wants.

Losing a channel for defusing of tensions.  A useful byproduct of the negotiations on the nuclear agreement was establishment of communications at the foreign minister level that could be used to address other problems, even in the absence of full diplomatic relations.  We saw the value of that channel when U.S. naval craft strayed inexcusably into Iranian territorial waters.  Addressing the situation in the foreign minister channel was key to getting quick return of the U.S. sailors.  Now that channel is gone, and the Trump administration shows no interest in re-establishing it.  The next time a similar incident occurs, the subsequent step might be escalation into a crisis rather than repatriation of Americans.

Risking a new Middle East war.  Donald Trump probably does not want a new war, and during the presidential campaign he said things that suggested to some ears that he would be less likely than his opponent to get into one.  But there are people who would welcome war with Iran and will seize on events to try to spark one.  And there are people who evidently have the president’s ear—Secretary Mattis, for one—who favor the sort of confrontational approach toward Iran that increases the chance of events spinning out of control.  The lack of a channel for defusing tensions and resolving misunderstandings—and the overall climate of hostility that the administration’s rhetoric has done so much to build up—make that chance disturbingly large. 

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