[Prefatory Note: The following interview with the Iranian journalist Javad Hieran-Nia was published in Iran together with Middle Scholar’s Statement on Trump’s Iran Policy. The links below on the Iranian publication in Mehr News and Tehran Times.
What follows here is an English version of the interview, somewhat modified.]
Q 1: Do you think that the maximum pressure campaign on Iran will have the intended outcome sought by Trump?
We have learned that it is impossible to predict where Trump will go with Iran policy. Judging from relations with other leaders, he is likely to be more forthcoming if the foreign government and its leaders are receptive to his often enigmatic diplomatic initiatives, sometimes proposing out of the blue face to face meetings.
It is quite unlikely that this Trump diplomatic pattern will be followed in relation to Iran for several reasons. First of all, Trump has himself taken a number of unilateral provocative steps for which there was no justification, starting with the withdrawal from the Nuclear Program Agreement followed by the imposition of a harsh sanctions regime that unlawfully overreaches by seeking to coerce other countries to refrain from trading with Iran. Such punitive initiatives are flagrant instances of economic aggression in violation of international law and the UN Charter.
Secondly, Trump’s chief advisors seem determined to push the US Government over the brink by escalating tensions, threatening military action, and demonizing Iran. Thirdly, U.S. military capabilities have been provocatively increased with the obvious bullying goal of posing a threat to and exerting pressure on Iran, or as anti-Iranian militants allege to deter Iranian moves against American regional interests. Fourthly, the anti-Iran policy has been pushed hard by Israel and Saudi Arabia, which exert excessive influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East.
At the same time Trump’s unpredictability could suggest that a more hopeful future. Trump has at time indicated his willingness to talk with Iranian leaders, backed down at the last minute a week ago at the dangerous verge of authorizing a military strike, and has seemed reluctant to initiate wars as distinct from his disposition to make threats and impose sanctions. We know that in 2016 Trump was highly critical of Democrats (and even Republicans) for regime-changing wars in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Libya, and may believe that a military confrontation with Iran would hurt his reelection prospects in 2020. The. American people seem opposed at this time to any kind of military undertaking that risks war with Iran.
Q2, It looks as though we are approaching closer to the American presidential election, Trump seems to be increasingly willing to talk with Iranian authorities. Some believe that this readiness to talk is more for electoral advertising than as an expression of a new foreign policy approach to Iran. What is your opinion?
As my prior response suggests, it is always difficult to grasp Trump’s political motivations accurately, and he is quite capable of thinking that peace talks with Iran will help his reelection plans one day and think the opposite on the very next day. His positions are adopted and abandoned in a manner that reflects his calculations of advantage at a particular moment in time.
Trump knows very little about the substantive issues relating to Iran. All he seems to know and rely upon is that his friends in Tel Aviv and Riyadh dislike Iran and that his nemesis, Obama, reached a normalizing relationship with Iran in 2015 that he has repudiated in one of his worst displays of irresponsible. statesmanship.
It is quite likely that if Trump thinks that if he could achieve a new agreement on Iran’s nuclear program then he could promote the outcome as hi personal diplomatic victory, and claim as a great achievement of his hardline approach that shows skeptics he knew what he was doing all along. Trump probably believes that such an outcome would bring him victory and a second term in the White House, and he could be right about this.except that it is close to inconceivable that his desired outcome will happen. The Iranian government, while seeking normalization with the West, including the U.S., show no sign that it willing to give any further ground with respect to its position on key questions pertaining to its nuclear program.
Q3. If the maximum pressure against Iran does not reach the result, then what? Would you imagine a change in Trump’s national security team, including the dismissal of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo by way of forced resignations?
As with the. earlier questions, we cannot confidently predict how Trump will handle high officials in his own government whom he thinks disagree or obstruct his policies. It seems that most often such officials soon resign or are fired, but not always. Yet if he claims victory with respect to his Iran policies, even if it seems to most observers as ‘a defeat’ he would probably praise Bolton and Pompeo for their contributions rather than complain about their performance.
We cannot know at this point whether the hard line advocated by Bolton and Pompeo is seeking results by exerting maximum pressure via threat diplomacy or is a prelude to war if Iran does not give in to the demands or retaliates in some way. The tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman can be understood either as a possible effort by the intelligence agencies and Bolton/Pompeo to trap Trump into authorizing a ‘decisive response’ or maybe just an effort to mobilize public opinion in the US and Europe to become more supportive of the current Washington approach based on belligerence and provocation. We do know that much evidence and objective assessments point to false flag operations in these tanker attacks, and if so, it suggests that whoever is responsible clearly intended to raise tensions and set the stage for a further escalation of the conflict.
- Given that Trump’s trade war with China will have unfavorable effects on the US economy in the coming months and the economy it could have an effect on the 2020. Presidential elections. Trump. What do you anticipate to be the outcome of the US elections in 2020 if the trade war with China. continues?
As far as we now know, the Trump trade policies are producing a trade war with China that will not end soon, but whether its negative effects will alter the 2020 national elections is highly uncertain at this time. As long as the American stock market remains high and the unemployment levels remain low it is not likely to be a major factor as compared to health, immigration, security, and most of all, a test of Trump’s degree of popularity with the American voting public.
There is a broad American consensus that China had been acting unfairly in international trade, which justified some efforts to resurface the playing field in relation to trade and intellectual property rights, but among economists there seems wide agreement that raising tariffs on Chinese imports are not an effective tool for reaching this goal. Tariffs are seen as counterproductive to the extent that they drag down the world economy, remind Americans of the Great Depression, and end up hurting the United States. As your question suggests over time a trade war will produce a downturn in the American economy that then drags has negative effects on the world economy, but I doubt that it will have much of an. Impact on the forthcoming presidential elections, which seem dominated by sharp disagreements on the domestic policy agenda.
- A poll of voter preferences was recently arranged by Fox News, the chief media sponsor of Trump, that shows that Trump has less voter support than five Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Given the fact that the poll was held by Fox News, how do you evaluate such results? I recognize that there have been some differences between Trump and Fox News recently, which may make these resulting less important than they seem.
Fox News continues to be mainly supportive of Trump, and this presidential popularity poll may have been released to energize Trump support groups to work harder, warning of. a strong challenge from a candidate of the Democratic Party.
These early polls are not reliable. I do not expect that either Sanders or Biden to end up as the choice of the Democratic Party to oppose Trump in 2020. I believe Biden will be seen as too weak a candidate that would self-destruct if facing Trump, while Sanders is seen as too divisive, old, and narrow in his focus. What is true is that Trump remains an historically unpopular president, and is definitely vulnerable to defeat if the Democratic Party puts forward a candidate that unifies its moderate and progressive factions while offering progressive programs on the main domestic issues and proposing a more constructive foreign policy.
Such a Democratic candidate would certainly announce an intention to restore the Obama nuclear agreement with Iran and reinstitute the staged removal of sanctions in accord with the agreement, which would also achieve a restored consensus with Europe, Russia, China, and Germany. If such an eventuality occurs, Iran would be expected to renew its commitment as to an agreed level and quantity of enriched uranium and an acceptance of limits on the annual production of heavy water. Such a positive expectation would be reason enough for me to vote in favor of whomever the Democratic Party ends of nominating. I hope it will be Elizabeth Warren, but several others would be acceptable to me.