There is a stark contrast between President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump when it comes to dealing with Iran. The former engaged in what could be termed “Blame America First” appeasement. The latter is laying an ax to the root of Iran’s misbehavior.
Mr. Obama’s naive, indeed dangerous, relationship with Iran gave birth to a dysfunctional nuclear agreement that would have furthered, not halted, Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear power in the Middle East and the world. Iran was permitted to retain its nuclear program, while promising it would not — for the near term — develop a nuclear weapon. It was akin to saying to a child, “you can play with the hand grenade, but we forbid you to actually pull the pin and throw it.” Mr. Trump suffers from no such delusional notions of Iranian self-restraint and made that abundantly clear, when he renewed tough sanctions this month on the Middle East’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism.
For Iran’s mullahs, it was a devastating development. Not only has the United States withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program, but the Trump administration has lowered the boom on Tehran with tough new economic sanctions. Moreover, Mr. Trump has sent a clear message to a world eager to ignore Iran’s terror record in the Middle East in exchange for the opportunity to enrich itself with Iranian oil revenues.
Countries that violate U.S. sanctions could themselves be sanctioned by the United States. In other words, we mean business. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani now face a disequilibrium in their foreign policy that will be tough to resolve, unless they return to the negotiating table and deal with Donald Trump. Here some history is useful.
From 1951 to 1953, Iran’s government was led by Mohammad Mosaddegh. As prime minister, he nationalized the Iranian oil industry that had long been controlled in part by Great Britain. In the process, he developed the concept of “negative equilibrium,” whereby Iran would take neutral positions vis-a-vis the great powers, particularly the United States and the USSR. In this regard, Iran would keep its distance from the super powers to preserve its own freedom of action.
However, when the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, forged an alliance in the 1970s with the United States to police the Gulf region, Iranian dissidents resented subordination and subservience to Washington. They recalled how the United States and Britain orchestrated a coup to overthrow Mr. Mossadegh, whom both countries saw as radical. Consequently, in 1979 Iranian revolutionaries deposed the shah and installed radical mullahs. Since then, Iran has recommitted itself to negative equilibrium, asserting its power in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Iran’s new freedom of action has introduced a very negative “disequilibrium” devoted to fomenting terror throughout the Middle East and nuclearization, the latter a distinct threat to world peace. Donald Trump will have none of it.
In response, the president has countered with his own version of “positive disequilibrium,” which has thrown Iranian foreign and domestic policy into disarray. Faced with hyperinflation, past and new crippling sanctions, and a population increasingly unhappy with the despotic behavior of the current regime, Iran is experiencing a level of popular unrest that could presage a second revolution in 39 years. And unlike the 2009 Iranian Green Revolution protesting the presidential election — an uprising brutally crushed by the mullahs while President Obama stood by and did nothing — a new revolution might succeed.
Moreover, Mr. Trump has hinted that he would support a popular revolution were it to occur, a suggestion which surely aggravated the mullahs. Into that mix, Mr. Trump has further whipsawed Iran’s leadership by asserting he would “meet unconditionally” with them for talks. They have all but rejected that idea. Negative equilibrium, however, may ultimately give way to positive disequilibrium. When it does, the president will be able to set in motion a process that will address not only Iran’s infatuation with nuclear weapons and the missiles that transport them, but the pestilential terror they incite throughout the Middle East, to say nothing of their antics in far-flung regions of the world.
To be sure, it is unclear at this juncture whether the mullahs will agree to negotiate a new nuclear agreement, cease support for Houthi rebels in Yemen threatening Saudi Arabia, and withdraw from Lebanon and Syria where they pose a clear threat to Israel. One thing is clear. The mullahs came to power on the heels of a popular uprising fueled in part by the huge sums of money the shah spent on U.S. arms. Now the Iranian people find themselves asking where all the money from the lifting of sanctions by the Obama administration has gone. Mr. Trump has the mullahs off balance and possibly searching for some “positive” equilibrium.
• L. Scott Lingamfelter, a retired U.S. Army colonel, combat veteran and Middle East foreign area officer, also served in the Virginia General Assembly.