With Iran, a Reality-Show President Finally Confronts Reality

Trump says he doesn’t want another war in the Middle East, but this one would be entirely of his own making.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, speaks to media next to debris from a downed U.S. drone in Tehran on June 21.
Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, speaks to media next to debris from a downed U.S. drone in Tehran on June 21. Meghdad Madadi/AFP/Getty Images

With the Iran crisis, the reality show of Donald Trump’s 2-and-a-half-year presidency has at last collided with reality.

Until now, the real-world consequences of Trump’s actions have been limited. One by one, he has condemned previous international deals as fatally flawed and then junked them because—as seen through the narcissistic lens that defines his presidency—they were not negotiated by him, the supreme artist of the deal. In the playroom of his mind, Trump thinks he can put the tinker toys together better than anyone else. (Trump himself once admitted he was basically still a first-grader in temperament and outlook.) And he’s mostly gotten away with this approach, in part because there have been no immediate repercussions. 

After all, when you withdraw from the Paris climate pact, the environment doesn’t suddenly overheat. When you blast NATO as irrelevant and belittle your allies, a 70-year-old alliance of 29 nations doesn’t abruptly disband. And when you casually discard the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a painstakingly negotiated state-of-the-art trade deal intended to prod China into better behavior—in order to strong-arm the world’s largest country all by yourself, the world economy isn’t going to suddenly blow up, even if you fail. There may be serious issues down the line, but it takes a lot of tariffs, tampering, and tantrums to start a global recession.

The Iran crisis is different. This time, there were real matches in Trump’s playroom, and he has lit them without apparently understanding very well how combustible the situation was. Trump barged into the most volatile region of the world—one he’d previously said he wanted to get out of—and blew up a vastly complex nuclear accord years in the making with a little-understood, fractious regime in Tehran that, history shows, doesn’t react well to outside hostility.

As Trump himself made clear in numerous remarks and tweets, he did it all because he thought he could drive the Iranians back to the negotiating table and, once again, cut his own deal. Since pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear pact last year, calling it “the worst deal ever,” Trump has all but begged Tehran to come back to him. Last July, he said he would meet Iran’s leaders “anytime they want” and without preconditions. And in September, on the same day that he condemned the Iranian regime before the world as the authors of “chaos, death, and disruption,” he tweeted that he was “sure” that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was “an absolutely lovely man!” (The Iranians, who are no slouches when it comes to irony, have had considerable fun with this: The Iranian animator Soroush Rezaee recently posted a short clip of Trump waking to a phone call in the middle of the night, exclaiming, “It’s the Iranians! They finally called!” But when he picks up the phone, the voice attempts to sell him a hair-loss treatment.)

Meanwhile, thinking he could scare them to the table (despite the bulk of previous U.S. intelligence saying that such pressure doesn’t work with Tehran), Trump has signed off on every provocation backed by his regime-change-happy national security advisor, John Bolton. This includes sanctions that would nearly choke Iran’s oil economy to death and a military buildup that may have included a close probe of Tehran’s air defenses by the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone shot down this week by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.

But there appears to be no clear plan at all for how to get from here to … anywhere.  On Friday, Trump tweeted that he called off a planned retaliatory strike at the last minute, apparently after he was told belatedly that it might kill a lot of people (though expected casualties would normally be near the top of any brief for a military operation): “We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Trump added: “I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”

But much of the world, especially the Europeans, Russians and Chinese who were also parties to the 2015 nuclear deal, is standing with the Iranians on this issue, not with Trump. The current crisis is entirely of his own making. And some Iran experts—even those who opposed the 2015 accord and have generally supported Trump’s approach—were baffled by the 11th-hour stand-down by Washington, which was accompanied by a report that Trump again reached out to Tehran looking for new talks (though both U.S. and Iranian officials later denied this). Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has refused to negotiate as long as Iran is under new sanctions. In calling off the strikes, Trump defied a consensus for military action that included Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel, according to Reuters.

“It is theater. Somewhere between Vaudeville and the absurd,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He told Foreign Policy in an email that the Iranians “are gloating, of course. But behind the bravado, confused. Who wouldn’t be?”

Seth Jones, an expert on Middle East extremism and unconventional warfare,  said the Iranians likely view Trump’s recent actions, and his increasingly frequent declarations that he doesn’t want war, as appeasement. “At the end of the day, it’s not clear what the U.S. strategy is toward Iran,” said Jones, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But whatever it is, it’s not working. Iran is raising its enrichment of uranium, the IRGC-QF [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force] has a larger number and more capable set of partners in the region (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.), and Iran has a large arsenal of missiles. The sanctions have certainly impacted the Iranian economy, but Iranian behavior has not changed.”

No doubt Tehran is doubly confused by mixed signals from Trump about what he really wants—indeed, what his entire administration is after. Bolton has hinted that he desires regime change while his boss has talked only of new negotiations. Last month, after a year of insisting that the 2015 nuclear deal was too narrow and must also address Iran’s behavior in the region and around the world, Trump suggested that, no, he really just wanted to stop Tehran’s nuclear program. Many nuclear and security experts—including Israeli officials—had said that was already happening as a result of the previous deal, which Iran was observing. “What I’d like to see with Iran—I’d like to see them call me,” Trump told reporters again in May.

But contrary to Trump’s declaration that he has plenty of time, with each passing month, saving the old nuclear deal or achieving a new one gets much harder. On Monday, Iranian atomic agency spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi said Iran would surpass, within 10 days, the amounts of low-enriched uranium it was allowed to stockpile under the agreement. He also hinted at further enriching uranium closer to the level needed to make weapons.

In the end, Trump’s presidency is following the pattern of his entire career, which has been all about self-branding. Deal by deal, he wants to knock down the old structure of the global system—just as he used to do with his real estate—and build a new Trump-branded one in its place. “They all wanna make a deal,” he told New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi last October. “China wants to make a deal. …  Iran wants to make a deal.”

But Iran already made a deal. And blowing it up may prove to be a deal-breaker.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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