What Trump wants from Tehran?

Apparently, both sides are tightening their belts for a long tiff. Donald Trump has two major concerns with regard to Iran; one, he wants to renegotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and two; he wants Tehran to keep itself from meddling into Yemen, Syria and Lebanon if it wants to avoid the excruciating spectre of economic sanctions. On the other hand, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has ruled the possibility of any negotiations with the Americans as long as  Donald Trump is the president of the US and vowed to discard the deal "if it is no longer in the national interest". There is a definite tinge of belligerency in the response of Tehran to Trump’s decision to re-impose its economic sanctions on Iran. Reports, though still unconfirmed, have started making the rounds in international media about the Iranian ballistic missiles being handed over to its Shia proxies in Iraq and further beefing up of the military muscles of these militias by Tehran to engrain its presence in the region. This does not augur well for the long-term peace and stability in the region which is already dotted with numerous, simmering flashpoints that have the potential to push the entire region in a whirlpool of fire and blood.

This surreal amalgam of disarrayed thinking and belligerent behaviour is a very gloomy development at a time when there is a dire need for a low tone on both sides. To be fair to Khamenei and his inner circle, they cannot be entirely blamed for their current state of uncertainty and confusion. Inflation is rocketing in Iran and the local currency is getting battered with each passing day. Its value in the black market is much weaker than the official rate - a sign of waning confidence in the currency. With a fragile economy in its backyard, the Iranian regime is struggling hard to wade through the crisis by creating a balance between reconciliation and defiance. What's more worrisome for the Americans is Iran’s capability to ignite trouble in the region by using its influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon via Hezbollah, and more importantly, to impede the Strait of Hormuz, which is an important passageway for the countries in the Gulf. Though the US military has already made it clear that such an action would be immediately countered with brutal force, but still some quarters within the Trump administration are quite wary of the hawks in Tehran who are trying to convince to Khamenei to go for a show down so as to divert the attention of the public from the withering socio-economic conditions at home.

The origin of Trump’s anti-Iran theme can be traced to two factors. One, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was a direct attempt to dismantle the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama. Trump’s disdain for Barak Obama is an open secret and he has been looking for ways to unravel the Obama legacy as quick as possible. Be it national healthcare plan or Iran nuclear deal, Trump is doing all it takes to erase the fingerprints of Obama from the Oval Office.  And secondly, there is immense pressure from Benjamin Netanyahu, his closest ally, to isolate and undermine Tehran in the region where Israel is finding it hard to carve a vintage position from where it can permanently dictate the geo-political fabric of the Middle East. Trump has always proudly bragged about his pro-Israel stance and he is expected to resort to any reckless manoeuvring to safeguard the Israeli interest in the region.

Iran is still officially committed to remain in the deal, which practically inhibited its nuclear ambitions for a decade or more in return for removal of the sanctions that had stifled its economy. So is the stance of France, Germany and Britain, who favour the nuclear deal as a guarantee against the nuclear destabilisation in the region. They also fear the prospect of a trans-Atlantic trade clash as European companies face the American sanctions for doing business with Iran. China and Russia, signatories to the deal, are also vehemently supporting the efforts to salvage the deal. Not surprisingly, the European Union has been trying hard to bolster Tehran's hopes of preserving the nuclear agreement, discarded by Trump in May, with steps essentially to protect European companies having dealings with Iran from financial losses. Trump is already quite unhappy with the European Union over its planned €50 million aid package for Iran, with the stated objective of compensating for the financial impact of the US sanctions. The problem with Trump is that on the matter of Tehran his strategic outlook is in direct collision with the European Union’s economic and energy interests in Iran. That is why his gambit of economic sanction has not yet been able to deliver the desired results so far.

On the other hand, the Iranian leadership has also been overly confident that China, Japan, South Korea and India will keep buying Iranian oil even if that means inviting the rage of a tariffs-happy Trump administration. In any case, both foes and friends of the US find themselves grappling with trade wars, economic protectionism and a high dollar, leaving Iran with very few countries it can count on to come publicly to its defence. There is general consensus among the Western capitals - as well as China and Russia - that Trump’s recent move could embolden hard-line forces in Iran, raising the spectre of Iranian retaliation against Israel or the United States, adding fuel to an arms race in the Middle East and wafting sectarian conflicts in the region to a new scale. This is true to a large extent. However, Trump does not seem to be in a mood to mollify his stance, particularly at this time when Washington desperately wants Tehran to keep Bashar al-Assad from making any rash decision at this critical stage of the Syrian conflict.


The writer is a freelance columnist.

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