Iran's Trump Cards

How Washington Should Deal With Tehran's Leverage in the Middle East

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Tehran, Iran, February 1, 2017. President.ir via Reuters

In a freewheeling press conference on February 16, U.S. President Donald Trump signaled to Iran that the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is uncertain. His remarks came days after comments made by then-National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn that Tehran was being put “on notice.” Aside from slapping fresh unilateral sanctions on Iran on February 3, it wasn’t clear what this ultimatum by the Trump White House would actually entail.

Iranians are rattled but hardly running for the bunkers. Tehran believes that Trump may be more bluster than action. And it may have a point, given how Trump honed his self-proclaimed bargaining chops. Taking maximalist positions early in business negotiations can be an effective tactic. Particularly in real estate, negotiations are iterative; the back-and-forth, give-and-take process allows for an incremental ratcheting down from extreme positions without necessarily losing face or sacrificing bargaining leverage. 

But this technique’s transferability to the complexities of foreign policy is limited. Because there isn’t always a formal negotiation process in which it is possible to gracefully walk back maximalist positions, backing down can be construed as weakness. Former U.S. President Barack Obama witnessed that firsthand with Syria when he failed to enforce his chemical weapons red line with military action, and Trump did more recently with China and his volte-face on the One China policy. Besides, success in the realm of foreign policy is measured more by how long-term strategic interests are advanced than by short-term transactional wins. 

If the Trump administration takes a maximalist position with Iran, it is likely to backfire. Iran knows that it isn’t completely bereft of bargaining leverage over the United States in the Middle East and beyond, and it might figure that Trump’s diatribes about throwing out the nuclear deal and dealing harshly with Iran are mostly bravado meant to coerce the Islamic Republic into submission. 

This dangerous calculation could lead to more, not less, adventurism on the part of Iran, which views Trump’s

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