Trump`s bluff on Iran

October 20, 2017

“That’s our boy! He’s done it again!” He must have been suffused with a warm feeling of pride, Donald Trump, when he announced late last week his decision to de-certify the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (JCPoA) on Iran, reserving the right to end it altogether. In other words, the U.S. president is fully prepared to take the United States out of the multilateral deal with Iran signed in July 2015.

Trump’s joy at pulling off such a stunt, however, may prove very short-lived. He is only a short step away from letting the Iranian genie out of the bottle – and he wouldn’t be the first U.S. president to stumble on Iran and break his neck (Jimmy Carter is a famous case in point). As a self-proclaimed macho, Trump would squeamishly brush aside any such parallels – especially with an ancient and flaccid Democrat from the 1970s. He would probably bristle at any comparisons even with a much more kindred spirit, Ronald Reagan, who was injured severely (though not fatally) by the Iran-Contra affair.

But Trump, you see, is a gambler. And for some reason, he believes he has been dealt all the trump cards in this game. He imagines that he only needs to put a little bit of pressure (or maybe bluff a little, why not?) for Iran to break. He expects Tehran to chicken out and let him play his own game. Dump its missile program – well, maybe not all of it, that wouldn’t be very sporting – but the part of it that is the biggest headache for the Americans. Fold in Syria, leaving its military partner Russia to deal with ISIS and the radical opposition without any allies. Stand down in the Persian Gulf, and cause no more trouble for the U.S. Navy. “We have chosen a very opportune moment,” Trump’s confidants must be telling him. “Turn the screw on Iran just a little bit more, and they’ll accept our grand bargain – a much better one than Obama has achieved. We’ll force them to dump their ballistic missile program, and in return, they’ll give our companies unprecedented access to the Iranian market.”

All I have to say to Trump, abandon this reckless game before it’s too late! You are deluding yourself if you think you’ve been dealt all the trump cards. Your imaginary perfect is the enemy of the good. The JCPoA is a good deal. Signed not only by the United States, but also by six other countries (including Russia), it is working well. All the parties are abiding by their commitments. There can be no deal with Iran without Iran itself. Your imaginary grand bargain is a folly; it has no basis in reality.

Or perhaps your people are already hammering out the details of a new deal with Khamenei’s people at secret meetings somewhere in Muscat, just like Obama’s people did five years ago? Perhaps the deal is already close, and your coveted grand bargain is just a matter of time? Well, in that case, my hat’s off to you. But somehow, I doubt it. You put too much faith in your “trump cards” to stoop to the boring technical details of nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy.

So, what is actually going on? There are four possibilities.

One. Trump doesn’t just pretend to have some secret trump cards. He actually has them. I was wrong. The Chinese, the Germans, the French, and even the faithful Brits – they were all wrong as well. Trump really has the cards to pull this game off. Secret bilateral talks with the Iranians are well under way. The Iranians are backing down. Trump is about to win big. New swords will be beaten into new plowshares. A new grand bargain with Iran will be announced shortly – not in addition to, but instead of the JCPoA. The Saudis and the Israelis give Trump a standing ovation. A détente in the Middle East is finally achieved. It’s a happy end. It’s also – and I hate to be the bearer of bad news – a pipe dream.

Two. Trump is bluffing – but Iran calls his bluff. The European parties of the JCPoA, Russia, China, and the U.S. Congress explain to Trump how things stand. The Europeans even fall on their knees and beg. Trump is given the chance to save his face. Congress does nothing. The deal with Iran is saved. The end.

Three. Trump is bluffing. Iran decides to ignore his antics so as to save at least some part of the deal. The United States pulls out of the JCPoA, but Russia, China, and the Europeans remain. Iran comes out the hero: it has not stooped to Trump’s level. The barriers erected on the path of its progress to the nuclear powers club bend and creak, but stop just short of crumbling. That is the flimsy home of the Europeans (who are, as we know, “from Venus”). But here in Moscow, we have been taught to hope for Venus, but prepare for Mars. Stay tuned for the next episode of this thriller.

Four. Trump is bluffing. Iran calls his bluff – but Congress plays its own game in the next 60 days that have been given to it. Trump or no Trump, it imposes new sanctions on Iran. The deal collapses. Despite European lamentations and the IAEA’s spirited defense of the JCPoA, the game is over – because what’s needed here is a multilateral accord, not a monologue from Washington. In short order, the Iranians get back to where they were before the JCPoA. Efforts to demonstrate that international diplomacy can be effective against nuclear proliferation collapse in a resounding fiasco.

Meanwhile in Pyongyang… they learn the lesson, and instead of shelving their riskiest and most ambitious plan, they give it the go-ahead. Because there’s no-one left to negotiate with.

This text is a translation of a blog entry, published by Kommersant-Daily.