President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is a characteristic act of petulance and one that is inexplicable except as a rebuke to his predecessor. From the birther conspiracy onwards, a resentment of Obama appears to have driven Trump’s agenda far more than any ideological conviction or principle. His eagerness to disparage Obama is even noticeable in the language used whenever there is an opportunity to diminish his achievements. So, despite strong evidence from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran has complied in full with a wide and complex set of restrictions, Trump describes the current agreement as a “decaying and rotten structure” that can no longer be taken seriously.
As with other previous harebrained foreign policy decisions – a shortlist might include his posturing with North Korea, Israel, the EU, China and Syria – Trump’s instincts have outrun his grasp of the facts. Beyond the hyperpartisan echo chamber that he inhabits, America’s reneging on Iran will be seen for what it is: a violation of the good faith that is necessary to prevent nuclear proliferation. Unquestionably, parts of the deal ought to have been revisited and revised, but the only credible explanation for Trump’s decision seems to be his obsession with undercutting Obama’s legacy, an animus that appears to have been reason enough to discard years of diplomacy. Not only is the decision rash in itself, many analysts believe it may soon trigger a serious confrontation between Iran and Israel.
Trump’s abandonment of the deal will at least force Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany to acknowledge the obvious: that the current administration cannot be trusted to honour America’s previous undertakings. That will have repercussions far beyond the current crisis and it will further undermine America’s waning influence in several parts of the world. While Fox News hails Trump as a leader who calls things as he sees them, the rest of the world will increasingly read him as an insecure plutocrat who is permanently out of his depth and easily swayed by sycophantic courtiers.
The latter interpretation is about to be field tested. Trump’s abandonment of the Iran deal coincides with a cabinet reshuffle that, even by recent standards, is frightening. No appointment has been more alarming than John Bolton’s instalment as National Security Adviser. A rightwing blowhard whose Neocon tendencies have not been checked by the carnage in Iraq and Libya, Bolton remains a true believer in war as a substitute for diplomacy. But he is also smart enough to avoid the key mistake of his predecessor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster – one of the rare Trump appointees who was respected on both sides of the aisle. Trump reportedly disliked McMaster’s “gruff and condescending” manner and blamed him for leaking that the national security team had “directly instructed” the president not to congratulate Putin on his election victory. Bolton is a far more practiced courtier and he will feed Trump whatever he needs to hear to advance a hawkish agenda in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The Koreans, possibly taking their cue from the Chinese, also seem keen to ply Trump with flattery. Even though the current rapprochement between the North and South is the fruit of a long process that has been driven by civil society in South Korea, diplomats on both sides seem aware that Trump is likelier to cooperate if he believes it might earn him a Nobel prize. Trump himself has indicated as much. When he welcomed home three Americans who had been held prisoner in North Korea, Trump noted with his usual attention to media coverage, that their arrival “probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for three o’clock in the morning.” Then, somewhat bizarrely, he complimented Kim Jong Un before telling the American press that: “My proudest achievement will be – this is part of it – when we denuclearize that entire peninsula.”
Trump appears to feel no contradiction between flirting with diplomacy in North Korea while abandoning it in Iran. That inconsistency suggests that what may well guide his decisions in the near future are the bellicose tendencies of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the new National Security Adviser, John Bolton. Anyone who can recall the groupthink that preceded the second Bush administration’s disastrous forays into the Middle East will fear that Trump’s emerging worldview looks scarily like déjà vu all over again.