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Zero-sum game in Iran

MK Bhadrakumar

Former Ambassador

When it comes to Iran policies, the Trump administration cannot be faulted for incoherence, although POTUS keeps bouncing off the walls in different directions. Indeed, on the one hand, President Trump looks and acts tough toward Iran — and even threatened that country in a fit of choler last week with ‘obliteration’ — but on the other, he keeps reassuring that he doesn’t want a war — while lately adding the caveat that if there is a war, it will be a ‘short’ one.

Again, he says he seeks negotiations with Iran, but is systematically doubling down on the sanctions regime, even carrying matters to the bizarre extent of targeting Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. On the one hand, Trump threatens to punish third countries that may defy the US sanctions and do business with Iran, but on the other hand, his officials are canvassing in world capitals, as far apart as Brussels and Riyadh, to forge a global coalition that rallies behind the US navy in the Strait of Hormuz.

No, Trump is not flip-flopping. He is strikingly consistent. In a fantastic essay over two years ago titled ‘Zero-sum Trump’, critiquing the 12 books that Trump has written on politics and business, Dylan Matthews at the Vox magazine estimated, ‘The division of the world into those who win and those who lose is of paramount philosophical importance to him, the clearest reflection of his deep, abiding faith that the world is a zero-sum game and you can only gain if someone else is failing.’ Matthews continued, ‘More generally, he’s always believed in the fundamental zero-sum nature of the world. Whether he’s discussing real estate in New York, or his ’00s reality TV career, or his views on immigration and trade, he consistently views life as a succession of deals. Those deals are best thought of as fights over who gets what share of a fixed pot of resources. The idea of collaborating for mutual benefit rarely arises. Life is dealmaking, and dealmaking is about crushing your enemies.’

This is why we are wrong in guessing why Trump urgently needs Iran’s agreement to negotiate — while he maintains that he wants negotiations without conditions and with the sole aim of ensuring that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. The salience here is why he wants Iran to agree to negotiate. The point is, Trump is in reality handling a political battle — by no means the nuclear issue. Trump calculates that once negotiations start with Iran, he can run them as he pleases and according to his timetable. And his timetable is in immediate terms all about ensuring the outcome of his own re-election for a second term in the November 2020 poll. Khamenei understands the endgame Trump is playing. He said so to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently, and repeated it last Wednesday publicly in Tehran that Trump’s proposal for negotiations is a ‘deception’, warning that Washington aims to disarm the Iranian nation. Khamenei said the main goal pursued by the US proposal for talks is the disarming of Iran and destroying its power components. ‘If you accept their words in negotiations, the nation (Iran) will heavily suffer and if you do not accept them, the current political hues and cries, propaganda and pressures will continue,’ Khamenei added.

Trump’s objective is very narrowly focused currently — be it about the Mexico border wall, his trade wars or the ‘deal of the century’ — and that is to win the 2020 election. And for realising that objective, Iran should not become a ‘spoiler’. Trump is convinced that through a combination of economic pressure, blockade and threats, he could bring Iran to its knees and force it to crawl to the negotiation table. But the paradox of the situation is that Trump actually needs Iran’s cooperation to snatch victory in the 2020 election. A war, on the contrary, would only unshackle Iran and set it utterly free, in the aftermath of a near-certain defeat, to wage an asymmetrical war thereafter with nothing to lose, and possibly inflict a thousand cuts on Trump’s re-election campaign.

Therefore, the challenge for Trump in immediate terms lies in somehow or the other forcing Iran to continue to fulfil its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal, although without any reciprocal benefits accruing to it thereby. Trump must be feeling he’s succeeding. The Europeans affirm the importance of the 2015 Iran deal and are demanding that Iran should abide by it, but are reluctant to defy the US sanctions against Iran. Russia acknowledges Iran’s prerogative to selectively observe the terms of the deal — the 2015 deal allows it — but advises that Tehran shouldn’t exercise that right. China, as usual, keeps its head under the parapet. These protagonists weigh carefully that their self-interest in doing business with Trump by far outweighs their compassion toward Iran’s suffering. The G20 summit in Osaka brought this out clearly — with European, Russian and Chinese leaderships eagerly queuing up for their allotted slot to meet with Trump. Moscow is already celebrating that Trump may attend the Victory Day parade in Red Square in May next year, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.

It is in grim moments such as this that multipolarity, global strategic balance, the principles of national sovereignty, equality and respect in inter-state relations and all that jazz turn out to be bogus. In the final analysis, Iran has been left all by itself to fight the zero-sum endgame that Trump has envisioned, aiming to destroy its power components comprehensively and permanently.