A third interpretation suggests that Trump does not really want to prolong, or to improve, the nuclear deal. Instead, he wants to end it, preferably without being blamed for the deal's demise, and help the people of Iran get a government that is peace-loving and democratic. If so, he would be following some version of a strategy proposed by John Bolton, a leading neoconservative from the George W. Bush administration.
Trump's speech denounced Iran's government as a fanatical dictatorship that violently suppresses its own people, supports terrorism and causes conflict throughout the Middle East. He also alleged that this "rogue regime" had been on the verge of total collapse before the nuclear deal lifted sanctions and provided a huge financial boost.
From this perspective, the main effect of the nuclear deal has been to prolong the power of Iran's supreme leader and his "corrupt personal terror force and militia." Trump's pledge to terminate the nuclear deal if Congress and U.S. allies cannot gain Iranian acquiescence to unacceptable demands would demonstrate "total solidarity with the Iranian regime's longest-suffering vicitims: its own people."
Our surveys show that Trump misunderstands what the Iranian people want. The vast majority list economic problems, particularly unemployment, as their greatest concern, not political issues, like corruption or human rights. Pre-election data showed that younger Iranians preferred Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran's conservative mayor who eventually dropped out of the race, to Rouhani, who is more moderate politically but has less impressive economic achievements.
Iranians see U.S. sanctions as making their life worse, not better. When asked in December 2016 what happened to the economic benefits Iran was supposed to get from the nuclear deal, 51 percent said they never materialized. Few blamed their own government. Only 21 percent said the economic gains from the deal went to Iranians with special connections, while 15 percent thought they went to Iran's military and foreign allies. And, when asked in June 2017 about the effect of sanctions imposed because of Iran's alleged human rights violations, only 8 percent thought they improved human rights in Iran. Thirty-six percent thought they hurt them, and 52 percent said they had no effect.
The Iranian people want the United States to fulfill the economic promises it made in the nuclear deal, not to foment internal unrest and radical political change. When asked about the meaning of Rouhani's reelection, only about a third said it showed that most Iranians wanted religion to play a lesser role in policymaking. Less than a quarter saw it as evidence that the Iranian public disapproved of the ideals of the Islamic revolution. In other words, by reelecting Rouhani, Iranians showed support for continuity and moderation, not fundamental changes to their political system.
Trump seems to think that he gains a strategic advantage by keeping everybody else guessing. That might be true if he had a sound strategy that could achieve his objective so long as his opponents could not anticipate his next move and counteract it. With Trump's decision to decertify the Iran deal, though, the evidence suggests that whatever strategy he has will likely be self-defeating.
Commentary by Nancy Gallagher, interim director at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and a senior research scholar at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland. She is also a contributor at The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community.
Gallagher receives funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
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