President Trump’s first stop on his international visit was in Saudi Arabia, where he was met with a hero’s welcome and was awarded the King Abdulaziz al Saud Collar, Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honor.
While the media focused on the theatrics and the content of President Trump’s address on islamic terrorism, very little coverage was given to President Trump’s calling for the isolation of the Iranian nation. Trump’s statement was also reaffirmed by Saudi King Salman when he said:
“All nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.’’
President Trump’s stance is a shift away from the policies of the Obama administration, and falls in line with the traditional Republican rhetoric on Iran. Neoconservatives will bellow this policy as one that will deter the greatest threat to the United States- which Iran is not- and as a potential blow against the largest state sponsor of terror, which Iran is. While this policy might win political points domestically, it spells trouble for peace in the Middle East and protection of the vital interests of the US.
The reelection of President Hassan Rouhani should be a sign that the Iranian people are willing to back a moderate candidate who is willing to work with the United States. President Rouhani, the moderate candidate, ran on a platform of economic modernization and developing closer ties to the West. Conservative outlets, such as the National Review, were quick to discredit President Rouhani as a force that the United State should work with. One failure of all criticisms hurled at President Rouhani is that they fail to delineate between President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is a radical who calls for the death of America and the death of Israel. Khamenei, along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, sits atop the government overlooking the Iranian Republic. Before elections, the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard screen candidates and only approve candidates that meet their criteria.
However, this screening does not guarantee loyalty to the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard, because Iranian politicians answer to the people. When the people feel misrepresented they rise up in protest. In 2009 the Iranian people took the street after a fraudulent election, which has come to be known as the green movement. Therefore, when assessing President Rouhani, we should look past the rhetoric of the Supreme Leader and the political pundits, and focus on the policies being implemented in Iran.
Moving forward, if the United States wants to isolate Iran and encourage its independent political development, several key issues must be addressed.
The primary result of isolation could lead to Iran accusing the United States of violating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. If this accusation is made, Iran could potentially restart its nuclear program and in a matter of months reach a nuclear break-out point. This is the least probable but most catastrophic action that could come about if the United States leads an international isolation movement against Iran.
A more probable result of U.S. isolation would be closer Irani-Russian relations. Since the 1979 overthrow of the U.S.-backed Iranian Shah, Russia has positioned itself as an ally of Iran. In fact, Russia was the last of the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council to sign off sanctions dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. The development of closer relations between Russia and Iran would cause the United States to lose leverage they have with Iran. A loss of leverage would be problematic when it comes to negotiating the end of the Syrian civil war, the end of the Yemen conflict, and/or any future conflict outbreaking in the Middle East. Additionally, isolating Iran would only empower Russia and pave the way for Russia to become the dominant power in the Middle East.
Another effect of isolating Iran would to be the undermining of U.S. soft power. Soft power is defined as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.” Isolating Iran would allow the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guard to support the claim that America is an imperialist country whose only goal is to undermine Iran. This propaganda plays a role in influencing how the Iranian people view the United States, and if the Iranian economy experiences an economic downturn then anti-American sentiment could become popular again.
However, if the United States decides to invest in Iran, the Iranian people would be in contact with United States businesses and people who could create relationships which transcend borders and strength US-Iran relations. Economic linkages could strengthen US leverage in the Middle East and help lead to peace in any of the current or future conflict.
Finally, one should note that the United States can maintain sanctions against Iran for sponsoring terrorism and testing ballistic missiles. Just because isolation is bad policy it does not mean the United States should use all tools in their policy belt to influence bad Iranian policy.
Donald Trump has rejected the Obama doctrine of trying to balance the countries in the Middle East and instead has shifted to backing Saudi Arabia and isolating Iran. This policy could have negative long term ramifications that could affect peace in the Middle East.