President Trump does not grasp foreign policy matters as he should. Sometimes, he singles out an enemy—be it North Korea, ISIS, or Iran—for public castigation. At other times, he rotates between Cuba, the mainstream media, former FBI director James Comey, and even Shakespeare (for writing Julius Caesar and then somehow, from the grave, persuading the public theater to run what Trump deems a scandalous version of it). Yet, members of his administration, including secretaries of defense and state, contradict Mr. Trump’s statements. However, Trump's national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, once revered by his troops, lost credibility when he called the story about Trump sharing highly-classified information with Russian officials false.
One of the president's worst foreign policy blunders may be born of political convenience or ignorance. Whatever its cause, it is alarming that the president fixes his sights on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is the president ready to combat Iran on Saudi Arabia's behalf? Most analysis points in that direction, a dangerous path to say the least! Are the statements issued by the Trump camp about cancelling the 2015 nuclear deal the prelude to a much greater plan such as Iranian regime change? Possibly. Trump's limited knowledge of global affairs, Middle Eastern political dynamics, and the shifting regional balance of power suggest that his pursuing regime change will inevitably unleash unrelenting battles between the Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) variants of Islam.
An aside: A majority of Americans are concerned about Mr. Trump’s ability to fathom the danger of his rhetoric. One particular issue looms large: worries over the nuclear football! Similar concerns were raised only few months ago vis-à-vis a preemptive strike against North Korea, which would have resulted in a disastrous outcome.
Sure, nuclear first-strike options are all remote, dystopian possibilities. Indeed, some dim hope for the nuclear agreement with Iran remains. That hope comes from within one of two camps in Trump’s administration. The first camp consists of rational people with common sense, including Secretary of Defense Mattis, who sees value in the nuclear agreement, and Secretary of State Tillerson, who reluctantly acknowledges that Iran has lived up to the agreement. Therein lies the hope. Then there is a second camp: Washington hawks, notably Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey in the National Security Council, who are eager to push the US toward engaging Iran militarily. If I had to name the likeliest catastrophe, it would be the US directly, militarily confronting Iran based on advice from the Washington hawks in that second camp.
Thus far, Mr. Trump himself has not torn up the nuclear agreement with Iran, which he'd vociferously promised during the 2016 presidential campaign he'd do once in office. Perhaps those promises were in fact hollow threats. Maybe Mr. Trump now realizes that empty rhetoric does not cut it in global affairs. But does he understand that the wrong decision on Iran will drag the US into yet another conflict in the Middle East? Could he be mulling over another Iraq-style invasion? I hope not! Because war with Iran would be far more uncertain, far more devastating than war with Iraq. I find it disturbing that Mr. Trump has no clue as to the seismic geopolitical consequences if he were to attack Iran. Justifying everything on the pretext of national interests will morph into endless war. The hidden truth is that if the US launches a war with Iran, it will not be on behalf of America's interests but rather Saudi Arabia’s.
The other option Trump conceives of for Iran is regime change. There is precedent for regime change: The Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged its involvement in planning and executing the overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, in 1953. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Volatile State: Iran in the Nuclear Age,such an undertaking will validate religious hardliners to argue that what was true of America then is true of America now; the result will be anti-Westernization. The danger I perceive is that those in Washington who advocate a regime change, assuming some foreign entities fully support it, underestimate how the Iranian regime, supported by Russia and China, could react.
It will be interesting to see whether the newly appointed CIA operative Michael D’Andrea (also known as Dark Prince) will pursue the agenda of the National Security Council, mainly that of the hawkish Cohen-Watnick, or stand his ground.
Whatever President Trump decides, he will be utterly mistaken to think that he can control—or even influence—events on the ground in the ever turbulent Middle East. What’s even more worrisome is that Trump's naiveté appears to be leading him on a geopolitical fool's errand: Trump is gamely doing the Saudis' dirty work. Such a policy does not serve America or its national interests, only the Saudis'.
If my memory serves me well, didn’t Mr. Trump say, in 2013, “We will end up going to war with Iran because we have people who don’t know what the hell they are doing. Every single thing that this administration and our president does is a failure”?
I am reminded of Cervantes, of that famous passage in which the pot calls the kettle black.