Donald Trump may have dodged the big one in the Middle East for now. But recent events make clear that the president and his tragic idea of leadership may yet drag the United States into a major war with Iran — and there’s good reason to believe it wouldn’t be pretty.
He may still dazzle his most avid supporters, true believers as well as those who depend on him for their own political survival. But his foreign policy is continuously inflicting deep and lasting damage to Washington’s international standing, and the nation will suffer from it for a long time to come.
Here is a leader who disdains expert advice as well as discipline, wallows in narcissism, shuns facts, history and tradition, and has demonstrated little connection between his mouth and whatever passes for his brain.
Trump holds Iran solely responsible for the current crisis, and Tehran is certainly not blameless, having launched its own campaign to inflame global instability. But so much of what concerns the US now stems from Trump’s own actions, starting with his campaign vow to pull the country out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
He has been weakening Washington’s hand at every turn since.
Let’s get real: the president’s “America First” strategy is a fiction. In fashioning policy, he does not emphasize American interests over all others as much as focus on himself and his re-election.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in his leadership on Iran, where he almost always ends up doing the opposite of what smart diplomacy demands.
A new president ordinarily would hire the best advisers available and put them to work identifying tested, potentially fruitful goals for a relationship with Iran. He and his aides would then hammer out a strategy for achieving these goals and then pursuing them with the backing of longtime like-minded powers — i.e., the other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal: Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the European Union and the UN Security Council.
Logically, this new president would study what worked in the past and what did not. And once the strategy was adopted, he or she would instruct everyone involved to stick to the plan, working quietly together in a disciplined fashion to achieve the best possible results.
Rather than randomly strike out in new and uncharted directions without warning, or call his rivals rude names in late-night tweets, he would publicly present his goals, let his partners get to work, then show up at the bargaining table when all that was left to do was to sign the resulting deal.
But Trump did none of that. From the start, he was blindly determined to turn his back on the nuclear agreement, whose first paragraph, by the way, “reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” While the accord did not curb every bit of Iranian mischief, everyone but Trump agreed that it was at least blocking the development of atomic arms as it also provided a potential hook for further diplomacy.
The deal’s defenders argued all along that it made no sense to abandon a mechanism actually preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and they have now been proven right. In a doomed attempt to promote negotiation of a better deal, or perhaps to provoke a confrontation that would justify an invasion or regime change, Washington rejected the pact in 2018 and reimposed US sanctions on Tehran. Infuriated and frustrated, Iran and its allied militant movements began accelerating their attacks in a variety of trouble spots while pushing to develop new ballistic missiles.
Then Trump assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Iraq in a drone strike — to the stunned surprise of some Pentagon officials — leading Iran to launch a barrage of missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing US and other troops.
Fortunately, rather than spark an all-out war, both sides pulled back, partly because the missile attack spared US lives. But Trump couldn’t resist imposing even more sanctions, ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran’s struggling economy. While by last-week’s end prospects for war appeared to have significantly diminished, the possibility of new crises remains a very real possibility.
One surefire way to roil the waters during a crisis is to offer conflicting answers to crucial questions. Thus, Trump’s contradictory mess of responses to this simple question: Why did the administration prevent Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif from addressing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council set for Jan. 9?
Zarif was clearly entitled to attend under an international treaty between the US and the UN. As part of a 1947 agreement setting the ground rules for basing UN headquarters in New York, Washington agreed to “not impose any impediments to transit to or from the headquarters district” of any representative of a UN member, regardless of the state of its relations with the US.
Washington nonetheless refused Zarif’s request even as it declined to tell him it had done so. Various US officials then offered a range of explanations for the action, eroding their credibility, throwing into question Washington’s commitment to its international obligations and irritating other UN members.
Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesman for Iran’s UN mission, said Tehran first applied for a visa on Dec. 20, a day after receiving its invitation to speak at the Security Council. It did not learn until Jan. 6, three days before the meeting, that the visa would not be issued. And it learned this not from the US mission to the UN — the normal channel — but from the UN, Miryousefi told PassBlue.
Then came three conflicting explanations. The first came from National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien: “I don’t think Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo thought that this was the right time for Mr. Zarif to come to the United States, and whenever he comes to New York, he spreads propaganda,” O’Brien said.
Pompeo, talking later with reporters, contradicted O’Brien, implying instead that there had not been enough time to process Zarif’s request. “We don’t comment on visa matters of those traveling here to the United States on visas, so I can’t add much more on this issue,” he told reporters. “I’ll say only this: We will always comply with our obligations under the UN requirements, the headquarters agreement, and we will do so in this particular instance and more broadly.”
US Ambassador Kelly Craft, meanwhile, seemed to be missing in action.
As it turned out, the decision had been made by the White House, diplomats familiar with the deliberations said. But it was somehow the office of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres that got stuck with notifying Iran. He had spoken by telephone with Pompeo earlier in the day.
There were other ways in which Trump’s unorthodox diplomacy worsened the Iran crisis:
• He tweeted out of the blue that Washington was prepared to bomb 52 sites, including “cultural sites,” should Iran retaliate for the targeted assassination of Suleimani. The threat set off a firestorm because the bombing of cultural sites would constitute a war crime. That prompted US Defense Secretary Mark Esper to acknowledge that attacking cultural sites would violate international law, so it was not on the agenda. Trump, however, ignored Esper and doubled down on the supposed plan, leaving it to Pompeo to reiterate that Washington would observe international law. Did Trump’s targeting list even exist? Some Pentagon officials called it fiction. The episode highlighted the president’s psychotic approach to policymaking, even when bombing targets are the issue.
• He showed his disdain for congressional Democrats by waiting until Jan. 4, two days after Suleimani’s murder, to notify Congress of the drone strike. The president had placed phone calls to key Republican supporters days earlier.
• Trump officials stressed repeatedly that Washington had moved quickly to kill Suleimani because of solid intelligence showing that he planned “imminent” attacks on US targets. But the administration never disclosed the evidence, even in classified briefings to top lawmakers. Several officials, including Pompeo, then fell back on gibberish, insisting that the hard evidence consisted solely of the existence of earlier attacks.
Trump has repeatedly argued that a supertough approach to Iran was needed to somehow break Tehran’s resolve and lead to fresh talks on an improved nuclear agreement. But US allies, while stressing Suleimani’s bloody past, concluded that the drone strike had been too rushed, too aggressive and ultimately ineffective in altering Iran’s behavior.
In fact, it appears the killing has ruled out any new negotiations on a better nuclear deal, a possibility made even less likely by Trump’s imposition of additional sanctions. Worse, the murder also ended up emboldening Iran to further withdraw from the deal’s restrictions on nuclear bomb development.
This brings us back to the original question: What was Trump smoking when he concluded that the only way to make the nuclear deal more effective was to withdraw from it?
More apparent after Trump’s latest romp is his foreign policy team’s lack of interest in Ambassador Craft and the UN.
The UN is above all meant to function as a forum for national self-defense and justification. During a crisis like this one, Ambassador Craft would normally adopt a high profile, offering explanations, lobbying fellow ambassadors for support, convening the Security Council and making frequent appearances before the international press corps on duty at UN headquarters.
But she seemed instead to be in hiding from the start of the new year until Jan. 9, seven days after Suleimani’s murder. During this period, the word “Iran” did not appear once in her Twitter feed.
While Pompeo spoke with the UN secretary-general by telephone on Jan. 6, Craft waited until Jan. 8 to provide the Security Council with a letter on Iran; Tehran submitted its own letter on Washington’s actions a day earlier.
Finally, Craft emerged in public, showing up for the Jan. 9 Security Council meeting that Iran had been invited to attend. But she showed up 20 minutes late, snubbing Guterres in the process.
The meeting’s theme was “upholding the UN Charter” — which had obviously taken on new meaning in light of the Suleimani assassination and the retaliatory Iranian missile attacks. Craft’s remarks in the Council were nonetheless bland and invoked mostly generalities. She waited until the 10th paragraph of her 11-paragraph statement to bring up Iran. What, me worry?
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.