the national interest

Why Trump Is So Confused About His Own Iran Policy

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s policy on Iran is laser-focused on a singular objective: preventing the regime from obtaining nuclear weapons. “We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon,” President Trump told reporters this weekend. “And when they agree to that, they are going to have a wealthy country, they’re going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend.”

In a tweet this morning, Trump added a second objective:

So, Trump’s Iran policy is laser-focused on two objectives: no nukes and no sponsoring of terrorism.

Also, speaking to reporters at around the same time as this tweet, Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway added the goals of preventing Iran from disrupting global oil markets and terrorizing its own people:

So our one goal is preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, or funding terrorism, or disrupting oil markets, or terrorizing its own people. (Terrorizing the Iranian people is our job.) In negotiating with Iran, our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and fear.

It is possible Trump has cleverly designed an intricate diplomatic plan to confound Iran with an array of ever-shifting demands. But the best explanation of Trump’s behavior on almost any issue is usually the dumbest one. It is far more likely that Trump himself is simply confused, and what he wants is to rebrand the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran as his own.

The premise of Obama’s agreement with Iran was that the United States was going to prioritize halting Iran’s nuclear-weapons program over everything else. In return for a deal that nuclear-nonproliferation experts hailed for its rigor and enforcability, Iran would get sanctions relief.

Opponents of the deal hated it for this reason. They didn’t want Iran to be able to trade its nuclear ambitions for economic strength or diplomatic recognition, because they feared this would allow Iran to continue throwing its weight around the region. Republican critics of the deal denounced it for giving Iran a “multibillion-dollar windfall” and for granting “legitimacy” to the regime — which, to a degree, was a fair criticism. The deal, like any deal, contained a give and take, and the cost of ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions was to permit it more wealth and international legitimacy.

It is not clear that Trump ever truly grasped the conservative reasons for opposing the agreement. He surely understood at an instinctive level that any deal made by Obama must be bad and that Donald Trump could make a better one. He also seems to have absorbed the dumbed-down, Fox News version of the case against the deal. Obama “made a horrible deal, giving $150 billion, giving $1.8 billion in cash, in actual cash, carried out in barrels and in boxes, from airplanes,” he told Fox News two months ago. “It is inconceivable, $1.8 billion and all they do is scream death to America, death to America.”

Trump repeated this in a recent interview with Time:

When I took over Iran — when I took over as President, when I became President and then took over Jan. 20, Iran was a much different country 2-1/2 years ago. They were unbelievably hostile. They were truly a nation of terror … Look at when they were signing the agreement, they were all screaming death to America as they’re signing the agreement? What’s that all about?

Obviously, actual Iran hawks in the Republican foreign-policy elite didn’t design their policy around the objective of reducing anti-American chants. The chants were just an easy way of stoking resentment among the Fox News audience. What they didn’t quite count on was that one of those angry couch-potato grandfathers in their target demographic would be elected president.

So Trump hates the Iran deal. But he’s also not onboard with the actual conservative policy alternative, which is to use threats of war to force Iran to give up not only its nuclear program but also its support for militant proxies and possibly also (depending on which version of the strategy you listen to) its entire theocratic system of government.

Trump is now publicly describing his own national security adviser as a dangerous warmonger. “John Bolton is absolutely a hawk,” he tells NBC. “If it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time, okay?”

What seems to be going on here is that Trump just assumed he could cut a better deal with Iran than Obama did, just as he assumed he could design a better health-care-reform law than Obama did. Just as Trump didn’t realize the actual Republican health-care plan was to take insurance away from people who couldn’t afford it on their own, he also didn’t realize the actual Republican Iran policy is a conflict ratchet that requires him to at least be willing to start a massive war.

So he’s trying to get out of his own mess with the strategy he used with NAFTA. Step one is to call the existing deal the worst agreement of all time and cancel it. Step two is to negotiate small tweaks. Step three is to declare the tweaked/rebranded deal to be the greatest treaty of all time.

The notion that Iran would become rich was the chief conservative complaint about the nuclear deal. Now it’s Trump’s promise.

Why Trump Is So Confused About His Own Iran Policy