Iran Deal is Peak Trump: Reality Show Engineering, Fake Toughness, and Bone-Deep Ignorance

Spoiler! It won’t be the correct decision.

President Trump is expected to announce Tuesday that he will not continue a waiver of sanctions against Iran, according to current and former U.S. and foreign officials, a major step toward ending the nuclear agreement he has called an “insane” deal that “never, ever should have been made.”

The decision follows the failure of last-ditch efforts by the three European signatories to the agreement to convince Trump that his concerns about “flaws” in the 2015 accord could be addressed without violating its terms or ending it altogether.

In this one decision, a monumental decision, portentous in every way, we have the essence of the Trump administration boiled down.

Manufactured reality show drama. While other Presidents have made it clear when they are going to give a speech, only Trump likes to tease out his decisions, with the weight of a commercial break. He still sees himself as a reality show judge, sitting on the high chair, with supplicants having their fate decided. And in a way, he’s correct. There’s no doubt that he’s brought the language of the genre to our politics, with its phony drama, heightened personal confrontations, and (most importantly), the wholly false idea of Himself being a man to whom people need to listen. That it has become, well, reality, is our nightmare. The tweet tease is small in the grand scope of things, but demonstrates the essential seriousness with which he approaches his job (which is to say: none at all).

Fake tough guy New York style negotiating, you understand? The essence of Trump is that he’s a fake tough guy. His entire persona, which he doesn’t try to hide, is that if you go after him, he’ll sue you. If you insult him, he’ll sue you. It’s maddening, because being able to afford high-priced lawyers is not actually tough! It’s hard-nosed, or whatever, and works really well in the world of New York real estate, I guess, where everyone thinks they’re some kind of street thug. Trump is part of this, Kushner definitely is, as is Rudy, and Cohen, and a ton of other people around him, who are beginning to realize that manipulating tabloids isn’t the same as life-or-death decisions with nowhere to hide.

This is painfully clear in Iran, where Trump brings his one negotiating idea- that you can walk away- to the table. That’s all he knows! It’s his one trick, because it makes him seem tough, but it has backed him into a corner. The other partners, especially Russia and China, aren’t about to back out of the JCPOA. In fact, those two are probably pretty glad America is, because it undermines US leadership even more (and that had little ground beneath its feet anyway), and forces Iran to turn more toward Eurasia.

There are times when this tactic works, even perhaps on the international stage. One could argue that being willing to go nuclear was a from of “walking away” in the Koreas. I personally think that it might have played a part, though once Kim had reliable ICBMs the game was essentially over. But even if you think it worked with North Korea, even if you think it was the only factor that has led to these historic times, you have to recognize that it doesn’t always work.

But these are essentially parochial dummies with one trick. And it isn’t going to work with Iran. Good luck telling Trump that, though, because of Point #3.

Essential bone-deep ignorance. The Iran deal was a masterwork of diplomacy, retroactive justification for Obama’s Nobel Prize. He (and John Kerry, and a host of others, but we have an auteur vision of geopolitics) convinced Russia and China to levy punishing sanctions on Iran, when neither of them particularly wanted to. In exchange, Iran essentially gave up its nuclear program, the one guarantee of non-interference, and agreed to the most invasive inspection regime in human history.

But Trump is clear this was the worst deal ever made, because Iran also got some things out of it.

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Is Russia Winning In The Middle East?


Never quite as strategic as people think. 


So, Russia is now using Iranian air bases to launch pro-Asad strikes in Syria, creating a triangle within which I can’t imagine Turkey is particularly pleased to be. This seems to be a solidification of an ad hoc alliance that has been growing tighter, even as Russia agreed to be part of the Obama-led sanctions which crumpled Iranian nuclear resistance. Russia is now firmly part of the Iran/Syria axis, which could be extended to include the Houthis in Yemen and of course Hezbollah in Iraq. This is like every nightmare enemy of the last 50 years, even if they are opposed to our other nightmare enemies of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

There is a lot to discuss about the Middle East, and the ramifications in that, but I think there is an important question to ask. The Soufan Group’s IntelBrief hints at it: “While there is clear military value in the use of an Iranian airbase to launch strikes in Syria, the real gain for Russia is further solidifying its increasing role in the region.”

This is cause, in some circles, for palpitations and hyperventilations. Russia is playing maybe the leading role in the region now, certainly in Syria, and is forcing the action in favor of Asad. So are they winning? And what does winning mean?

I think this is lunacy, honestly. This is madness for Russia. What is going to happen if they “win”? What does that even look like? Asad in power, and what, all the rebel groups agreeing to lay down arms? A stable and secure Syria where both ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are gone? Is that even possible?

There can be no long-term good for Russia to get deeper and deeper into Syria, and into its endless war, and into the collapse of the modern Middle East. This transformation is just starting. Russia, which wanted to show strength to cover up fundamental weaknesses, has had success, but it is of the short-term variety. It is expanding its war involvement against any and all of the enemies of its new allies, which are literally everyone else in the region, in some combination or another. This is not going to play well within its own Muslim population. The borders of Russia are not settled and secure either. It could have dozens of its own little Syrias.

The idea that Russia is somehow winning in the Middle East is absurd. It’s flying right into turbulence, possibly of the historic, country-reshaping kind.  The “great power” conflict between the US and Russia in the Middle East should be between who can do the most good without tying themselves in too much. You can argue that Obama has steered too close to the latter benchmark while largely avoiding the first one. I think it is silly to say that is weakness, or that it has cost us esteem, especially when there is just loss of esteem within the very same region from which he is trying to extricate us from. (It’s like being kicked out of a bar toward whose exit you’re strolling.) Russia isn’t playing that game at all: neither doing good, nor staying out of getting involved. It’s a series of moves, not a coherent strategy to make the country stronger in the long term. It’ll catch up. Russia, a country whose internal contradictions have never been resolved, is tying itself up in a century-long process of dissolution, one that could easily spread to that most impossible of nations.