The Trump Administration’ Policies towards Iran
The United States of America’s foreign policy is undergoing a significant overhaul since President Donald Trump entered office. Especially with regards to the Middle Eastern affairs, many aspects should be considered before a new policy is adopted since, after several unsuccessful interventions in the region, the implications of such expeditions should finally be assessed and used to inform future policies. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the Bush Administration unleashed chaos in the broader Middle East, which was notably accelerated by the Arab revolts of 2011 – the so-called Arab Spring. There were two major trends: the dismantling or near collapse of the Arab republics (Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen) and a more visible sectarian rhetoric that deepened the gap between Iran (the Shiite powerhouse) and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf (with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, as the Sunni powerhouse). Such events reinforced the sectarian tensions and fueled the extremism that plagues the whole Middle East.
There were two major trends: the dismantling or near collapse of the Arab republics (Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen) and a more visible sectarian rhetoric that deepened the gap between Iran (the Shiite powerhouse) and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf (with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, as the Sunni powerhouse).
President Donald Trump has wasted no time in adopting several plans that can impact Middle Eastern affairs. The executive orders he has announced have stirred controversy. Nevertheless, he tried to prove that he will be true to his word and keep his campaign promises, such as some form of non-citizen Muslim restrictions in the US. As a result, President Trump signed on Friday, 27 January 2017, an executive order temporarily preventing travel to the US for citizens of several countries which had been listed in a prior 6 month ban by the Obama Administration in 2011. President Trump took pride in the executive order he signed and announced that the crackdown was working “very nicely”, despite being condemned as direct discrimination[i]. The US has traditionally presented itself as the promoter of freedom and civil rights worldwide and it is to be expected that the travel ban would not be welcomed by countries with liberal views on immigration and travel (most of them being US allies). The executive order can be read as inconsistent with the American views on freedom (liberal market, human rights ideology and democratic values).
It can stop all travel to the United States of citizens from the Muslim-majority countries of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for at least 90 days. One has to highlight that the most populous Muslim countries - such as Indonesia or Pakistan, or the most populous Arab country – Egypt, are not listed. So it cannot be seen as an order that encompasses a total Muslim ban. Through exclusion or inclusion of some Muslim countries in particular, the President’s moves complicate rather than consolidate efforts to counter political violence by offering the perfect excuse to extremist and jihadist narratives that war is being waged on Islam by the West. Such extremist movements might even use, in this context, fighters from the countries not listed, infiltrate them with a view to commit illegal activities (terrorism, assaults) in the US in order to take revenge on the American decision.
The following months are of the utmost importance and will clarify the application of the order and those that follow. Passport-holders from the countries listed that have American visas, but are currently outside the US, will not be given the right to return. The Trump administration will wait during a 90-day period to see if the foreign governments on the list are providing enough information about citizens seeking visas so that the US can assess the terrorist risk. If the governments do not cooperate, they will be given 60 days to do so; by failing to do so, it means their citizens will be forbidden from entering the United States. Given that the order can give impetus to a wave of anti-Americanism, the governmental cooperation can be weakened. Also, it can be expected that the countries listed will respond in the same manner, banning American citizens from entering their territory.
The nuclear deal
Saudi Arabia (a long-standing ally of the US in the Gulf region) hailed Donald Trump’s election, expecting him to adopt a hard stance on rival Iran. This was despite campaign allegations on behalf of Donald Trump of overt support from Saudi Arabia to his rivals and his Twitter spats with Prince Bandar. There has already been a dilemma for the Kingdom, which promotes itself as the guardian of Islamic interests. Saudi Arabia might have been happy with the decision that Iran will be covered by the 90-day visa moratorium, but so are some of the friends of Saudi Arabia. Similar expressions of perplexity are expected from other Middle Eastern countries, as well.
One has to highlight that the most populous Muslim countries - such as Indonesia or Pakistan, or the most populous Arab country – Egypt, are not listed. So it cannot be seen as an order that encompasses a total Muslim ban.
Among the countries listed, it is probably Iran which sends most people to the United States yearly, around 35,000[ii]. The majority of them are coming on student visas and there is already a large community of Iranians in the US who are dual nationals (dual nationals being also affected by the executive order). The last time Iran was faced with such a ban was in 1979, when President Carter responded to the US Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran by cancelling thousands of visas, turning away travelers and not releasing new ones.
When it comes to Iran, Donald Trump promised during the presidential campaign that he will tear down the nuclear deal, as he considers it to be “the worst deal ever”. This assumption can be worrying for Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani. The Iranian President will be running for a second term in May 2017 and he promotes the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) as his main legacy.
Inside Iran, hardliners are mounting pressure on Rouhani administration, presenting the results of the nuclear deal as meager in order to convince the undecided side of the population that the deal was a blatant mistake. Even the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, added strains on the current administration in November 2016, referring to the US Congress’ renewal of sanctions on Iran, as if imposing new sanctions is no different than renewing existing ones. Hardliners are likely to be most displeased with the Trump Administration’s decision and will exert additional pressure on the current Iranian executive.
The European countries are in favor of sticking to the nuclear deal, arguing that during a period when Great Power competition has generally weakened international cooperation, two significant exceptions – the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate agreement –fueled hope that multilateral diplomacy is still possible[iii]. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, already delivered the message of support for the nuclear deal to congressional Republicans during a speech at their annual retreat in Philadelphia on 26 January 2017. She defended the deal in front of Republicans who voted against it[iv]. In addition, the IAEA insists that no country has ever been more closely monitored than Iran.
President Trump vowed to dismantle both the nuclear deal and the climate agreement. If the US decides to withdraw, or objects to complying with either deal, the global governance system that relies on multilateral agreements to put an end to international conflicts will be undermined. This is why it is not likely that he will renounce these agreements right away, as such an action can place the US in a risky political zone.
There are variations around the denomination to be attributed to the new Middle Eastern group which calls itself ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fīl-ʿIrāq wash-Shām, with Arabic acronym Da'ish or DAESH. The group renamed itself Islamic State (IS) (ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah) in June 2014. It is also referred to as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) by the international community.
In the meantime, President Trump has declared the eradication of terrorism and extremism as primary objectives of the US’s foreign policy. In view of fulfilling this goal, he might revive relations with Russia. A phone conversation between the Presidents of the two states was already initiated (on January 28, 2016) over the prospects of cooperation in the fight against terrorism and extremism, ending with the possibility of maintaining contact over the matters at their earliest convenience. Russia took advantage of the unclear policy of the Obama Administration in the case of Syria and has the upper hand on the Syrian situation at the moment. Russia partnered with Iran in the fight against Daesh/IS, as they provided information from the field in Iraq and Syria. Russia – Iran - Turkey have promoted a plan in order to stabilize Syria. In the case of dialogue being eased between the US and Russia, it is likely that Russia would lobby for Iran being accepted by the US as a regional power in the Middle East, even though the distrust is mutual. Nevertheless, the US being the world’s foremost global power, and Iran, being a major regional power in the Middle East, would benefit immensely from having a positive relationship. If such a partnership is realized, it would contribute greatly to enhancing the stability and security of the Middle East.
Overall, President Trump’s election is a sign of uncertainty in Tehran. However, this is not necessarily negative in the view of Iran. Therefore, all options are on the table. Donald Trump might ultimately decide to live with the deal and with Iran. Or if he decides to start a campaign against Iran, Iranians are ready to adapt. They are already skeptical about the US engaging with them, because, after striking the nuclear deal, they expected a greenlight from Washington which never came. The US maintains the system of financial sanctions and hampered banking transactions with Iran. Iranians can adjust business plans and target the European markets and companies, as the European are more inclined to be open for business with Iran than the US at the moment.
Iran is maintaining its level of distrust. Iran never put a bet on a particular outcome in the US election. Clinton was perceived in Iran as a warmonger with regards to Syria, given that the former Secretary of State was a fervent promoter of regime change in Damascus when compared to anyone else in the Obama Administration. Iranian officials also view Clinton as much more experienced in foreign policy than Trump, which can be counter-productive to Iran’s regional interests. They expect that Donald Trump will adopt a transactional view of world affairs and Iranians can find the tools to adapt. Nonetheless, Iran is cautious with regards to Trump’s foreign policy advisers, especially National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Some of the staff in the Trump administration are considered very strong ideologues against Iran, which again can be challenging for the Iranian side.
Another President, another strategy?
Iran’s presidential election, in May, will be a significant test for the moderate camp in Iran, the pro-nuclear-deal coalition and proof of whether the conciliatory stance adopted by Iran in the past years can survive during the presidency of Donald Trump.
One has to mention that the future months are important in Iran. Iran is commencing a presidential election campaign, while reeling from the death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President and one of the main contributors to the nascent Islamic Republic. Iran’s presidential election, in May, will be a significant test for the moderate camp in Iran, the pro-nuclear-deal coalition and proof of whether the conciliatory stance adopted by Iran in the past years can survive during the presidency of Donald Trump. It is expected that the race for a second mandate will not be smooth for Hasan Rouhani, given the mountains of pressure within Iran and the new external challenges. President Rouhani said publicly on 28 January: “Today is the time for peaceful co-existence, not the time to create distance among nations”[v]. However, he made no direct link to the order enacted on 27 January 2017 that enables the US government to adopt a harsh approach to immigration. It means Iran is trying not to heat up debates and be confrontational to President Trump. Only time and future developments can tell if this approach has a chance to survive.
[i] The Middle East Eye, EU nations express alarm after Trump closes door on refugees, 28 January 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/eu-nations-alarmed-after-trump-closes-door-refugees-1236324723
[ii] The New York Times, Thomas Erdbrink and Jeffrey Gettleman, In Iran, Shock and Bewilderment Over Trump Visa Crackdown, 27 January 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/world/middleeast/trump-visa-muslim-ban.html
[iii] Javier Solana, Trump, Iran, and Stability in the Middle East, 23 January 2017, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/trump-iran-stability-middle-east-by-javier-solana-2017-01
[iv] Al Monitor, Julian Pecquet, British leader defends Iran deal in meetings with Republicans, 26 January 2017, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/01/british-leader-theresa-may-iran-deal-meetings-gop-trump.html#ixzz4X4pVqlRY
[v] Reuters, World News, No time to create walls between nations: Iran's Rouhani, 28 January 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-rouhani-idUSKBN15C07Y