US President Donald Trump’s attitude towards Iran spells disaster, not just for relations with Iran, but for peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
16 January 2016 marked the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. Under this agreement the number of Iran’s nuclear stockpile will be drastically reduced; research and development at both of Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities will be drastically limited in exchange for the reduction of extensive UN sanctions on Iran. Controversy surrounds the deal however, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it a “bad mistake of historic proportions”.
The deal itself is not perfect: much of it expires after 15 years, leaving Iran with a large increase in wealth from the abandoning of restrictions and working nuclear enrichment facilities, potentially a recipe for disaster. However arguably more important than the deal itself was the fact that it saw cooperation between countries on the UN Security Council and Iran. The willingness of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate a deal with the west is a positive for international relations. As long as peace in the Middle East is a key objective for both the US and the UK, alienating Iran is a dangerous move. If not shown in Syria or Iraq, Iran has extremely strong influence and links with Shia militias and Shia followers in the Middle East. As pleasant as it would be to appear principled and oppose all forms of terrorism, when lives are at stake realpolitik must take priority. Any hope of settling the Shia-Sunni involves or dealing with conflict all over the Middle East will involve Iran.
In an idyllic post-Islamic State world, any political settlement in Syria or Iraq will involve negotiations with Iran, an ally of current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider –al Abadi and a key supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When US-supported former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in an attempt to crush al-Qaeda called upon thousands of Shia militias under the “Sons of Iraq” movement, any hope of US support from these militias would have been unlikely if tensions with Iran were highly bitter at the time. In order to actually save lives, preparation for every future eventuality in the Middle East requires cooperation where possible, and this includes Iran.
However, hope for US-Iranian cooperation after the JCPOA were rising. January 2016 alone saw the release of 10 US sailors by Iran; four American prisoners released in exchange for seven Iranian prisoners and the resolution of a dispute at The Hague. Working to defeat Islamic State, ensuring a peaceful process afterwards with Shia militias and stabilising the Middle East is made far easier if we are on speaking terms with Iran. The deal in itself limits the nuclear stockpile of Iran and demonstrated an opportunity to work collectively towards peace. Then in November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president.
Iran recently tested a new ballistic missile; however whether it violated the terms of the JCPOA was not clear. The US called for an immediate consultation as a result. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani however denied the test violated the UN resolution, having carried out several similar nuclear tests since 2015. Though this would mean inevitable contention, the administration of Donald Trump quickly moved to announce further sanctions on Iran. In Donald Trump’s eyes, President Obama was being too “kind”, and he will be different.
The response of Iran was to simply launch another missile. Hassan Rouhani remarked that Donald Trump would not tear up the JCPOA, yet hopes for the deal are weak. After the extension of the Iran Sanctions Act in December 2016, tensions between the US and Iran were already on the rise with Iran drawing up plans to build nuclear-powered ships as a result. Therefore the time for wise diplomacy is now, otherwise the US faces reversing positive steps made towards peace in the Middle East. Yet wise diplomacy is the opposite of what Trump stands for.
Donald Trump is considering designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IIRC) a terrorist organisation. Only one such example of heavy anti-Iran rhetoric recently, his diplomacy is anything but tactful. The reaction of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was to say that this shows the “real face of America”, and to pass this off as nothing but rhetoric is myopic. Shia supporters and militias all across the world look to Ayatollah Khamenei as a source of authority. The seemingly inevitable distrust Trump’s foreign policy will cause in Iran will only lead to disenfranchisement with the US from Iranian supporters worldwide.
Widespread disenfranchisement from Shia militias and supporters worldwide only means an increase in radicalisation. The international community is already facing a huge problem with Sunni radicalisation leading to those joining Islamic State. Angering a nation with an important role in defeating Islamic State is short-sighted enough, and to risk increasing tension with Shia Muslims across the Middle East greatly adds to the danger. Where the US already believes Iran sponsored terrorism to be such a problem, with Donald Trump’s brash policies, such as putting Iran “on notice”, he only further encourages it. The rhetoric used by Ayatollah Khamenei was not only that Trump was a poor president, but his own words were “he has proven what we have been saying for more than 30 years — we would always speak about the political, economic, moral and social corruption in the U.S. administration”.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech was a dangerous omen for the future. Trump’s policies will lead to fundamental disillusionment with the president and the US itself. It does not just increase radicalisation and our chances of defeating Islamic State, but a situation where the thousands of Shia militias left over afterwards are all strongly opposed to the US is extremely dangerous. Where tensions are already rising, what we cannot afford is to destabilise international relations, and the attitude of Donald Trump towards Iran are extremely detrimental. In attempting to appear a strongman against Iran, Trump is only making the world a more dangerous place for years itself.