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Trump’s Approach to Foreign Policy is Similar to the Way he Approaches Reality Television: Q&A with Perry Cammack

Many journalists, academics and foreign policy experts consistently raised concerns about Donald Trump’s lack of political and foreign policy experience during the presidential campaign. Were their concerns justified?

Perry Cammack (@perrycammack), a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says President Trump has “a singular genius for self-promotion” and his approach to foreign policy represents his approach to “Manhattan real estate or reality television.”

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, popularly known as the Iran deal, is a multilateral accord between Iran and the European Union represented by France, Germany and the United Kingdom, Russia and China and previously by the United States, which ensured that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons and keep its nuclear programme under international safeguards. In return, Iran enjoyed relief from the grueling sanctions that had crippled its economy for over a decade.

With Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and his promise to impose the “toughest sanctions” on Iran, the future of Iran-US relations and the future of Iranian nuclear disarmament seems bleak.

In an interview with Perry Cammack, we focused on relations between the United States and Iran and the reasons President Trump scrapped The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Mr. Cammack worked on issues relating to the Middle East as part of the policy planning staff for Secretary of State John Kerry. From 2003 to 2006, he worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of then senator Joseph Biden, Jr. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal the same way he is dismantling many other multilateral or international agreements signed under President Obama. What is the driver behind such decisions?

It’s natural to try to understand the drivers behind leaders’ decisions. But in the case of Donald Trump, this approach doesn’t get us very far. President Trump has a set of core impulses, encapsulated by “Make America Great Again” – nationalism, protectionism, mercantilism, unilateralism. But that’s all they are, impulses. There is no underlying governing philosophy that might put these impulses into a coherent policy framework.

Trump has a singular genius for self-promotion. He approaches foreign policy the same way he approaches Manhattan real estate or reality television. Create a crisis, solve the crisis, declare victory, move on. We saw this pattern last week at the NATO summit in Brussels and in his dealings with Kim Jong-Un.

We see it in his approach with the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA, as well. He calls it the “worst deal ever,” and makes a half-hearted effort to fix it. Then he blames Europe, pulls out, and moves on. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel were begging him to remain to stay in. But that only convinced him that pulling out would be a triple coup – to stick it to the feckless Europeans, to undo another of President Obama’s achievements, and to gain credit with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Iran deal ensured that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons. The UN’s nuclear watchdog confirmed several times that Iran was complying with its commitments. Does the withdrawal of the United States from the deal empower the hardliners in Tehran and undermine nuclear non-proliferation?

Iranian politics are complex and unpredictable, so I won’t try to guess the possible impact of President Trump’s decision. Much of the so-called hardline camp opposed the nuclear agreement, believing that Foreign Minister Zarif gave away too many concessions. But Iran is no different than other countries in that bread and butter issues resonate louder than geopolitics. The level of popular discontent inside Iran is high, persistent, and growing. I suspect that inflation and unemployment rates are more important in Iranian politics than Trump’s withdraw from the nuclear agreement.

Do you think the other signatories to the Iran deal will try to save the agreement or will they give in to the coercive pressure of the Trump administration and stop trade with Tehran, including buying oil?

Outside Israel and a few Gulf monarchies, there is a near universal view that countries should not be bound by US bullying on secondary sanctions. It is well understood that Iran, as you noted, has been in compliance with its JCPOA commitments.

We could imagine a scenario in which the EU, Russia and China unify their actions and resist US sanctions, through mechanisms like the WTO Appellate Body. But in practice, this is unlikely. Europe is divided and Iran is only one of dozens of pressing global issues. Most countries will not contemplate a breach in relations with the United States.

We’ve already seen that countries are shying away from dealing with Iran. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA triggers a 180-day countdown on the re-imposition of critical US sanctions on Iran crude oil. Multinational corporations are being forced to choose between the $20 trillion US economy and the $400 billion Iranian economy. For most companies, that is an easy decision, though of course some will continue to do business in Iran.

Iran-US relations moved in a slightly promising direction under President Obama when the Rouhani administration took steps towards reconciliation. So, does Trump’s harsh rhetoric and the recent comments by his Iranian counterpart mean that détente is not on the agenda?

With President Trump, anything is possible. But I agree, it is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which relations open again.

The North Korea example is instructive. On the surface, any hypothetical comprehensive agreement with Kim Jung-un will be far less rigorous than the JCPOA. Why? Because North Korea can exact far more concessions from its actual nuclear weapons stockpile. But in Manhattan real estate and in reality television, consistency and coherence are for losers. President Obama’s failure to curtail the North Korean nuclear program makes that an area of intrinsic interest to President Trump.

I suspect Trump understands that a better deal with Iran at this point is not possible. So why bother?

The Trump administration and many Iran experts in the United States say “regime change” in Tehran is not what the United States is looking for, even though John Bolton is the National Security Advisor. If the two countries agree that the United States is not after a fundamental change, then what is impeding direct and to-the-point negotiations between Iran and the United States so that their differences may be resolved?

There are elements in the Trump administration that support regime change, and there are elements leery of a fresh military confrontation. But “what you see is what you get.” Trump says this is the worst deal ever, so he pulls out, consequences be damned. His advisors will try to construct a coherent policy framework, but that’s the extent of his Iran policy.

The administration seems to be hoping that the re-imposition of sanctions will cause a collapse of the Iranian government. But hope is not a strategy. The Islamic Republic has been adept and ruthless in dealing with domestic unrest for four decades. I’m not convinced that the government is on the ropes. A few years ago, Khamenei was proclaiming that the Occupy Wall Street protests would topple the United States.

The President’s has expressed opposition to committing even a few thousand American troops to eastern Syria. This suggests he is not interested in outright military conflict with Iran. So what we’re left with is a continuation and even escalation of the current hostility. For the time being, Iran has decided it is prudent to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement. But as sanctions the JCPOA slowly unravels, Iran will presumably begin to reactivate elements of its uranium enrichment program. We may be heading to another nuclear crisis of the kind that the JCPOA sought to defray.

Do you think President Trump’s immigration ban on the nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries and his promise to impose tough sanctions on Iran will block relations between the two nations, academic exchanges and the people-to-people dialogue?

There are two aspects to this. First, there is the issue of scientific exchanges, foreign students, cultural dialogue and the like. There are modest benefits for both countries on issues such as religious discourse, public health, geology, migration, and transnational trafficking. The end of these programs is unfortunate but doesn’t relate to the larger geopolitical tensions.

Second, there is the issue of US-Iran track two efforts. Retired American and Iranian officials and nongovernmental experts have long engaged in informal dialogue to share perspectives, build trust, and explore possible solutions. The travel ban won’t forestall track two efforts, since these discussions usually take place in Europe. But the Trump administration’s disdain for engagement of any kind with Iran will certainly hamper such efforts.

And that’s a shame. I worked for John Kerry while he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming Secretary of State. We kept careful tabs on these unofficial efforts, some of which involved individuals who became involved in the formal nuclear diplomacy a few years later. I’m convinced that nuclear agreement built upon years and years of prior quiet backchannel discussions.

Undermining these efforts don’t matter so much now, since Trump has no interest in diplomacy with Tehran. But in a few years’ time, when Washington comes to again appreciate the need to engage Iran it may regret that these efforts have dried up.

If Iran and the EU are unable to salvage the nuclear deal, do you think Iran will agree to take part in negotiations with the West on its regional behaviour, ballistic missile program and other areas of concern so as to normalize its relations with the outside world?

The term “arms control” is a misnomer. Arms control issues are hardly ever solved. At best, they are managed, like the JCPOA sought to do, so that a particular threat can be deferred for a decade or more. But that kind of management only comes about through some combination of carrots and sticks.

US sanctions were important in creating leverage for nuclear diplomacy. But the 2015 agreement boiled down to a trade between US sanctions and Iranian centrifuges.

By pulling out of the agreement, the Trump Administration seems to be betting that the Iranian nuclear challenge can be solved through the re-imposition of economic sanctions alone.

Of course, there’s no reason to believe a sticks-only approach to Iran will work. It didn’t work with the Soviet Union, it didn’t work with Iran under previous administrations, and it won’t work with North Korea. It didn’t work with Saddam Hussein, who had scrapped his WMD programs by 2003. Instead, it led to a disastrous war that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives.