North Africa, West Asia

US Iran policy is driven more by psychology than geopolitics

Could Trump’s mark of a successful term in office be the degree to which he erases Obama’s presidency?

Negin Shahiar
11 May 2018
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A man watches the news broadcast on U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal at a teahouse in central Tehran on May 8, 2018. Picture by Ahmad Halabsiaz/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. My visit to Tehran in July 2015 overlapped with a critical juncture in U.S.-Iran relations. Iranians poured into the streets to celebrate when the P5+1 and Iran struck a nuclear deal after twenty months of negotiations. Men and women danced in the middle of traffic, whilered, white, and green fireworks lit up the streets. 

For the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the U.S. and Iran had successfully engaged in diplomacy. No one in the crowd that day could have known that within just three years, the deal, and U.S.-Iran relations, would again unravel.

Since his election to office, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly denounced the nuclear accord as “the worst deal ever negotiated,” and he spurred headlines around the world on May 8th with his decision to reinstate sanctions on Tehran. Such a move violates the JCPOA and signals U.S. withdrawal from the agreement. As the world waited in anticipation of Trump’s announcement, I spoke with several U.S.-Iran experts to hear their insights into why diplomacy succeeded, and why it may now fall apart. My interviews led me to the troubling finding that U.S. policy toward Iran may be driven more by psychology than by geopolitics.

Under Barack Obama’s administration, the U.S. pursued diplomacy, because as Iranian policymaker and scholar Seyed Hossein Mousavian pointed out, the alternative may have been conflict. Interestingly, Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry’s personal backgrounds may have driven the administration’s decision to eliminate the possibility of war. 

According to former White House staffer and advisor on the nuclear deal Ben Rhodes, Obama opposed war due to his upbringing in Indonesia, where “power was not some abstract thing,” given the brutal dictatorship of President Suharto. “I don’t think there’s ever been an American president who experienced power like that at such a young age,” Rhodes remarked.

Trita Parsi, who is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, contended that Kerry, likewise, was determined to pursue peace over war because of his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Speaking with tears in his eyes after the signing of the nuclear deal, Kerry shared with U.S. and Iranian officials, “when I was 22, I went to war. I went to war, and it became clear to me that I never wanted to go to war again.”

While the personal backgrounds of Obama and Kerry may have shaped the success of the nuclear deal, Trump’s own psychology is now determining its unraveling. Although Trump claims that he opposes the accord because it is a “disaster,” senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Karim Sadjadpour argued that Trump’s antagonism of the agreement is unrelated to its clauses. “He clearly hasn’t read the deal, because his criticism is never specific,” Sadjadpour noted. 

Instead, as Sadjadpour, Mousavian, and Parsi agreed, the decision against re-certifying Iran’s compliance with the accord is related more to Obama than to Trump. “Trump absolutely hates the idea of re-certifying an Obama-era accomplishment,” Parsi remarked. Mousavian agreed, contending that U.S. policy on the nuclear deal is driven by Trump’s “passion to undo Obama’s legacy.” 

Trump’s decision is rooted in his determination to reverse his predecessor’s legacy

Could Trump’s mark of a successful term in office be the degree to which he erases Obama’s presidency? Notably, Trump has undone several of Obama’s accomplishments, as he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord. He even entered the political scene by attacking Obama, questioning his birthplace as well as his level of education.

In his seminal work The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, U.S.-Middle East analyst Kenneth Pollack points to the absence of a coherent U.S. policy toward Iran since the 1979 Revolution. Unfortunately, fifteen years after the book’s publication, U.S. policy, and now the future of the nuclear deal, remain unclear. 

My interviews suggest that the inconsistency may be a result of the impact of the psychology of U.S. presidents and their cabinets on foreign policy. That is, Trump’s decision to reinstate sanctions is not rooted in the U.S. national interest but in his own determination to reverse his predecessor’s legacy. 

Such a finding is not only troubling but dangerous, because it implies that the relationship between two international powers, which plays a key role in ensuring the stability of the region as a whole, is at one statesman’s mercy. As Parsi pointed out, U.S. withdrawal from the accord will be disastrous not only for Iran but for the U.S., too. “Why would you trust the U.S. when it walks back on its own word?” Parsi remarked. “More importantly, why would you trust the duration of any agreement with the U.S. when it is only going to last as long as a presidential term limit?”

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