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What is Trump’s Iran end game?

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Among the biggest mysteries of the Trump administration’s foreign policies is its end game with Iran. 

Is the objective, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated, a new Iran deal more advantageous to the U.S. than the one fashioned by his predecessor? Is it regime collapse or even change, as President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has intimated?

And what exactly is desired by Trump, a president who has vacillated between threatening Iran with obliteration on one day and repeatedly offering to meet with the Iranian president on the next?

The most likely answer is that Trump doesn’t know what he wants to do with Iran—and if he does, his administration hasn’t made it clear, let alone been singing off the same sheet of music.

What he does know is that getting into a military conflict with Iran, or a risky negotiation that might require U.S. concessions, is bad politics: bad for his base and bad for his face-off with the Democrats, especially as he gets closer to 2020. 

Like most of Trump’s foreign policy, his approach to Iran was driven by the intersection of domestic politics and his own vanity and ego.

During the campaign he railed against the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, using it to separate himself from his predecessor, to bash Hillary Clinton, to rally Evangelical voters, conservative Republicans and the pro-Israeli community, and to set the stage for stronger ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of which hated the deal. 

All the while Trump touted his negotiating skills and claimed that he would never have agreed to what he labeled the worst accord in human history. 

His first set of advisers – sober men all: Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster – persuaded him to stay in a deal that he clearly wanted to exit. And last May, eager to fulfill his campaign pledge and encouraged by his new harder-line advisers – Bolton and Pompeo – he unilaterally left the accord.

The problem was that other than a campaign of maximum pressure – squeezing Iran with more sanctions, especially trying to reduce its lifeblood of oil exports to zero – Trump had no Plan B. The administration seemed not to have baked into its hardline approach that Iran, now under pressure, might respond—which it did last month, by mining oil tankers in the gulf and shooting down a very large, expensive unarmed U.S. drone. 

This week Iran violated another provision of the accord by exceeding the amount of low-enriched uranium that it is allowed to keep, and is threatening within 60 days to enrich at even higher levels.

Today, in view of the very real possibility of an escalation with Iran in the gulf, Trump has gotten himself into a pickle. Bolton pressed for a military response to the drone shootdown. But Trump drew back, apparently at the 11th hour. On the other hand, if he wanted to engage Iran, he’s sending all the wrong signals by sanctioning the Iranian supreme leader and ratcheting up the pressure. And in any case, Iran has made clear that it’s in no mood to talk. 

Trump knows that getting into a new war when he’s promised his base that his strategic goal is to get out of unwinnable ones, especially as he enters election season, isn’t a smart play. And higher oil and, thus, gas prices – almost certainly a built-in feature of a sustained shooting war with Iran – isn’t going to play well as an economic talking point. Nor would negotiating with Tehran toward some kind of new deal be cheap or easy. The Trump team is kidding itself if it believes it can negotiate with Iran without giving up something consequential in return, let alone returning to a status-quo accord that Trump has described as the worst in history. 

I suspect President Trump wishes the Iran issue would just disappear. War with Iran is costly; an agreement is probably unrealistic. And besides, Iran isn’t Trump’s conception of his big win. It’s a deal with North Korea that he’s after—a feat that would likely win him a Nobel Peace Prize and a ticket into the history books, and separate him from all of his predecessors.

Iran was Obama’s deal, and a bad one at that. Why else would Trump flatter and court a brutal, ruthless dictator with a worse human rights record than even the Iranians?  

More than likely, Trump will try to avoid either a risky political breakthrough or a serious military breakdown with Iran. He’ll keep up the pressure, perhaps even try to open a channel to Iran but try to avoid a military confrontation. 

Whether Iran will play by his script remains to be seen.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author most recently of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (And Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

Tags Diplomatic Relations Donald Trump Hassan Rouhani Hillary Clinton Iran Iran nuclear deal James Mattis John Bolton Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Mike Pompeo Rex Tillerson Trump

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