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Trump’s Shameless Path to the Nobel Peace Prize

Getting a new nuclear deal with Iran won’t be easy—but the U.S. president’s utter lack of principle could help guide the way.

U.S. President Donald Trump wears the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal.
U.S. President Donald Trump wears the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran is a failure. It has succeeded only in raising the risk of war in the region and painting the United States into a corner. Iran’s leaders were never going to cave to U.S. pressure, in part because Washington was making unreasonable demands, but also because giving into this sort of blackmail would only invite repeated attempts. Instead, Tehran has retaliated by imposing costs on the United States and its local allies, to show that it still has options when its back is to the wall.

Now that the inveterate hawk John Bolton has left the administration, the big question is whether the Trump administration can walk this one back. At first glance, this might seem difficult-to-impossible. Having run for president denouncing the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran as the “worst deal ever,” having gone all-in with Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and having repeatedly proclaimed that “maximum pressure” was working and that Iran was dying to make a deal, President Donald Trump would seem to be undertaking an enormous climb-down were he to offer up an olive branch in the wake of the attack on a Saudi oil facility earlier this month, especially after his own secretary of state has explicitly blamed Tehran and labeled the attack an “act of war.”

To be clear, there are good reasons to question whether some sort of deal is even possible at this point. One major obstacle is Trump’s own unreliability. As I’ve observed before, the trouble with being an inveterate liar and an unpredictable decision-maker is that it leaves both friends and foes unable to trust anything you say. Why should Tehran (or anyone else) take Trump’s word for anything at this point? If Trump decide he wanted to do a deal with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he’ll have to find some way to get them to take any offers he might make seriously. And that won’t be easy.

Yet Trump has a lot of latitude here, if he chooses to exploit it. Trump has been defying the natural laws of U.S. politics from the moment he first announced his candidacy and has demonstrated more individual agency than most of his immediate predecessors, even if it has been consistently used for regrettable ends. No president in my memory has been more adept or shameless at reversing course midfield and then denying that he ever held the position he just abandoned. This is the guy who went from threatening “fire and fury” toward North Korea to falling “in love” with leader Kim Jong Un, and his supporters at home never even blinked.

Moreover, public opinion is strongly against escalating this situation. According to Business Insider, only 13 percent of Americans favor a military strike in response to what happened in Saudi Arabia. A deliberate PR campaign to rally support for war could undoubtedly boost that number somewhat, but only if the White House deliberately chose to rev up the public, and it might still fall well short of a majority. Absent a deliberate campaign of threat-inflation and war-mongering, de-escalating would seem to be pretty popular. As he heads into an election year, Trump will be more and more reluctant to roll the iron dice in a way that might make him look as hawkish as, say, his former presidential rival Hillary Clinton. I’ll bet Trump would just love to run against a Democrat who tried to criticize him on this score, because they’d be saying the United States ought to be doing more bombing in the Middle East.

There is no question U.S. allies in the region will howl in protest if Trump moves to mend fences with Tehran (or just tries to just lower the temperature significantly). This feature is the most obvious way that the situation in the Middle East differs from the confrontation with North Korea, where all of the United States’ Asian allies were alarmed by Trump’s earlier saber-rattling and happy when he chose the diplomatic path. But who cares what America’s Middle East clients think? Netanyahu is either much weakened or headed for retirement and/or prison. Mohammed bin Salman has no constituency in the United States and is increasingly seen as a serial bumbler. For that matter, neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel nor the Gulf states have obvious strategic alternatives to the United States anyway. By saying he’s not going to war on their behalf, Trump has in effect been calling their bluff all week. Why would a world-class narcissist like Trump risk his political future to help the locals out? I mean, it’s not like he really cares about any of them. Better to play the peacemaker, a role he’s always coveted.

Similarly, lobbying groups such as the ill-named Foundation for Defense of Democracies and big Republican donors such as Sheldon Adelson would undoubtedly be upset as well, and so will hawkish Sens. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton. But would Trump really care at this point? He doesn’t need Adelson’s money to run for reelection—though others in the Republican Party might—and Trump cares far less about the party’s fortunes than he does about his own. He apparently didn’t worry about upsetting Adelson when he decided to fire Bolton, but he did move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and has greenlit further Israeli annexations, something none of the Democratic candidates is likely to endorse at this point. So where are people like Adelson going to go?

As for the Senate hawks, Graham, Rubio, and Cotton have no national constituency, and they’ve repeatedly rolled over when push came to shove with Trump. One might argue that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and new National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien would oppose a serious attempt to de-escalate the crisis, but both of them understand that sucking up to Trump is the only way to keep one’s job. If Pompeo has political ambitions in Kansas or nationally, he’s not going to openly defy Trump the way that Bolton did, unless the president’s own political fortunes begin to plummet.

Lastly, trying to do a deal with Iran would be consistent with Trump’s long-standing playbook. Step 1: Create a problem where none exists. Step 2: Pretend to solve it, often by returning to the original status quo. Step 3: Claim full credit for having rescued the situation. A face-saving deal with Iran fits this model to a T.

The big question is what the United States would have to give up to get the Iranians to play ball. It would have to be something tangible, because leaders in Tehran have made it crystal clear that they won’t participate in a meaningless North Korea-style photo-op, and they’d be fools to change their position at this point. Their response to the maximum pressure campaign has been a steadfast refusal to capitulate—while gradually escalating their own responses—to show the United States that they will not give in to ultimatums or blackmail. Why? As noted earlier, because they know that if they let themselves be blackmailed once, Washington might conclude it can repeat the threat and get more. For Iran, it is imperative to establish that any negotiations be conducted on the basis of mutual respect, even though Iran is much weaker, and that the resulting deal cannot be a complete capitulation on their part. To reach agreement, both sides have to get at least some of what they want.

This insight is hardly a revelation. From 2000 to 2015, Iran kept building more and more centrifuges, despite ever-tighter economic sanctions. It eventually agreed to curtail its nuclear program significantly through the 2015 agreement, but only after the Obama administration dropped the long-standing U.S. demand that Iran dismantle its entire enrichment capacity. Iran did give up a lot, but it was not a complete surrender to U.S. or multilateral pressure.

The same is true today. Iran is going to have to get substantial sanctions relief in order to negotiate seriously, in part because Trump’s ham-handed approach has undermined U.S. leverage and raised doubts about whether Washington can be trusted to honor any deal it might make. So Tehran is going to insist on getting something significant up front.

Given where we are today, the easiest thing for Trump to do is to say he fully supports French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to extend a $15 billion line of credit to Iran. He could also stop threatening to sanction U.S. allies that want to deal with Iran and (maybe) suspend some of the unilateral sanctions imposed when the United States left the nuclear deal. Steps such as these are obviously much harder to do in the wake of the attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, but it’s still not impossible.

What could Trump get for a climb-down of this kind? Almost certainly not the reality show-style one-on-one meeting with Rouhani that the president is said to want, but one could imagine a meeting between Pompeo and Zarif, an agreement for additional talks, an official blessing for the Macron deal, and everyone cooling off until after the 2020 presidential election. Iran could claim to have successfully stood up to U.S. pressure, and Trump could promise a “beautiful deal” down the road. If I were Trump and I wanted a second term, that’s where I’d try to go. Otherwise, he’ll remain hostage to Iran raising the temperature every now and then (while creeping closer to the nuclear weapons threshold), which might eventually force him to take risky steps or look like even more of a paper tiger.

To be sure, it’s possible that Iran will continue to insist that the United States return to the nuclear agreement as a precondition for talks, which would probably make unwinding the situation impossible. But digging in its heels is not without risks for Tehran too, and finding a way to get the United States to ease off the maximum pressure campaign is almost certainly in its interest. Both sides have now demonstrated they can hurt the other, and in that recognition lies the possibility—however slim—of steps back from the brink.

Because Trump has repeatedly shown that he’s an inept negotiator and strategic ignoramus, he may not see things this way. And if he can’t get his photo-op with Rouhani, maybe he won’t be interested in any sort of deal at all. Even if he genuinely wanted to find a way out of the corner into which he has painted himself, I’m not sure his pitifully inept administration can walk a straight line for long enough to get there. So I’m not saying he’ll attempt any of the above, and I’m certainly not guaranteeing it would work. But he could try if he wished. And if by some miracle he succeeded—who knows?—there might even be a Nobel Peace Prize in his future. He wouldn’t deserve it, but that fact would hardly make him unique.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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