Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections has terrified many within the United States; economists fear his business incompetence and cavalier attitude to borrowing and debt obligations; Hispanic-Americans fear stigmatisation and deportation; the African-American and Muslim communities have already experienced vicious attacks against them; LGBT suicide hotlines have seen a huge spike in calls; and women fear that Trump’s rampant misogyny (not to mention the simple fact that a man with multiple sexual abuse accusations – including the rape of a child – has become president) will embolden abusive men across the country.
However, the group of people who have perhaps the most to fear do not reside in the United States. The Trump victory has the potential to smash the delicate balance of relations between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation home to over 77 million people.
Donald Trump addresses the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, by Lorie Shaull
The history of relations between the US and Iran has always been tense. Tensions rose to perhaps their highest under the George W. Bush administration, when plans for an invasion were only called off after Hezbollah’s successful resistance against the technologically superior Israeli Defence Forces in the 2006 Arab-Israeli war (for more details, check out David Hirst’s Beware of Small States). However, the story of the last few years has been one of diplomacy and negotiation, culminating in the July 2015 nuclear deal. Under the terms of the deal Iran was forced to allow snap International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of all its nuclear facilities, as well as negotiated access to even its most top-secret military sites. It also has conceded to freezing all its civilian nuclear development for at least a decade, and abiding by the UN arms embargo on it for another five years.
In return, sanctions were lifted on Iran and the country had over $100 billion of its own assets returned to it, which had been frozen in foreign accounts. However, the bigger implied benefit to Iran was the promise of peace, with the Obama administration regarding the diplomatic deal, rather than a military intervention, among its greatest foreign policy achievements.
However, as Trump’s own professional history has shown, for some people, deals were made to be broken.
The announcement of the Iran deal was immediately met in the US with condemnation from the Obama administration’s opponents. Not a single one of the seventeen original contenders for the Republican nomination (remember Jim Gilmore? No, neither does anyone) supported the deal and most condemned it in strong terms, pitching it as a concession to the Iranians that “endangered US safety and security” in the words of Ted Cruz. Trump himself said, in classic Trumpian style, that the deal was a “bad deal” and that he would get a “much better” one. In another characteristic move, he declined to describe precisely how his deal would be better. Maybe he would make it out of gold.
Beyond mere rhetoric, President-Elect Trump has a history of unconventional decision-making when it comes to negotiation, to say the least. During one of his many, many bankruptcies, Trump allegedly stormed out of negotiations in a fury after rejecting a proposed compromise, simply because it had not been him who thought up the deal. By the way, this is no dubious smear on the man, the report comes from Trump’s own legal team. Trump has promised to bring his business acumen to the White House, and if he brings his attitude to deal-making, the years of negotiations that led to the Iran deal could have been pointless.
The Republican Party has not suggested a peaceful alternative to the Iran deal. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton was the deal’s main detractor, drafting a famous open letter from Senate Republicans to Iranian leaders, describing how a Republican executive could reverse the agreement. His idea of an alternative to the deal is “Something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days [of] air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities.”
Republicans have proposed air strikes on Iranian facilities
Cotton has also talked about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities “back to day zero.” Opponents of the GOP immediately pointed out the flaws in Cotton’s simplistic narrative; Iran is immensely stronger today than Iraq was during the Clinton Administration, with the ability to retaliate against American targets with its own military and through its proxies throughout the Middle East and beyond. They also point out that US relations with the Saddam Hussein regime did not culminate in the bombings in 1998. Instead, in 2003 the George W. Bush administration launched the invasion of Iraq – ostensibly to neutralise the risk of weapons of mass destruction – which has so far cost almost 4,500 American lives, and over 30,000 wounded.
Tom Cotton is among those tipped to be part of the Trump administration. When asked about the Senator in the summer, Trump said “I’ve gotten very good, you know, very good statements from Senator Cotton, whose parents I know and met. I think he is a very talented guy. He’s also a very popular, a very popular person. So…[he is] high on the list for something at least. That I can tell you.” This level of incoherence is only one of the issues facing Iranian experts trying to predict the future direction of American policy.
Other prominent tips for Trump’s cabinet should send Iranian leaders into a panic. Top neoconservative John Bolton is a favourite for the position of Secretary of State. Bolton used his role as an official in the Bush State Department to push for the Iraq War, falsely claiming that the Hussein regime were developing nuclear weapons. Bolton insists to this day that “the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.”
One potential candidate for the Department of Defence (or potentially National Security Advisor) is retired general Michael Flynn. Flynn retired early from his post in the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in April 2014 amid claims that his leadership was “chaotic and disruptive.” During the election campaign, Flynn publically stated that the world needed to fear America’s might. He also wrote a book describing Islam as “a cancer.” hardly good news for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Perhaps the worst potential pick, from the Iranian perspective, is the man expected to become head of the CIA, Jose Rodriguez. Rodriguez actually has experience dealing with Iran, although not the sort he’d put on a resumé; he was investigated by the FBI in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. He played a direct role in the torture programme of the Bush administration, and was also responsible for the destruction of evidence documenting the torture of detainees. The CIA’s torture programme never led to any actionable intelligence, and was lied about by CIA officials; nevertheless, Rodriguez remains unapologetic of his role in the programme. Given how intrinsic the ‘evidence’ given by detainees was in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Iranians must be fearful that a reboot of the torture programme will inevitably lead to ‘evidence’ vindicating a war against Iran.
There is no real way out of this conundrum for Iran; they made a deal with the USA and the world powers in which they gave enormous concessions, but it according to America’s next president even that wasn’t good enough. Iran is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it does nothing now, it will have little defence if the US attacks it; but any preparation for war will be taken as aggression and an excuse that may bring war on its own.