The Iran nuclear deal under Rouhani 2.0

An earlier version of the article was published by Aspenia Online.


On May 19, about 45 million Iranians participated in the twelfth presidential election, in which incumbent President Hassan Rouhani gained a determined majority of votes. The election was widely perceived as a referendum on the achievements of the Rouhani’s administration, with a particular focus on the nuclear deal, which constituted the centrepiece of his first mandate. His victory indicates that the majority of the Iranian people is in favour of continuity with regard to the stance of the country towards the international community and the commitments to the nuclear deal, but much of Iran’s posture during Rouhani’s second mandate will depend on the US approach towards the country.

Since his election in June 2013, Rouhani made of the resolution of the nuclear impasse his main goal, portraying the lifting of sanctions as crucial for the recovery of the Iranian economy. Once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as the JCPOA) was announced in July 2015, his administration thus committed to ensure Iran abided by its end of obligations, whilst also working towards yielding the economic benefits many Iranians anticipated following the lifting of sanctions.

During his first term, some of the economic indicators improved: inflation (reduced from 35% to 9.5%), growth rate (which reached about 6%), oil exports (3 millions barrels per day) and foreign direct investments ($11 billion). Despite that, unemployment is still high and the non-oil-sector growth remains slow. Furthermore, international investments remain low compared to expectations, mainly because of the hesitation of large financial institutions to deal with Iranian entities, despite the sanctions relief.

The nuclear deal and its impact on the Iranian economy has been one of the main topics discussed during the election campaign and a consensus emerged among moderates and conservatives about the need to continue implementing the JCPOA: even the harshest critic and strongest rival of Rouhani, the conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, stated that “the nuclear deal, despite its shortcomings, is a national document”. This means that the opposition to the deal, which was advanced by the conservative camp up until late 2015 is largely gone. What remains is the criticism of the indirect implications of the deal.

In March, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticised the economic policies of Rouhani’s government, saying that they had fallen short and “do not meet people’s expectations and mine”. In April, he called on presidential candidates to be less reliant on Western investments. This inevitably piled pressure on the incumbent before the May elections, given that his policies heavily relied on attracting foreign investment and technology transfer. During the electoral campaign, the criticism towards the administration’s record on the economy front continued, with both Raisi and the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, pledging to “cash in the check” of the nuclear deal and improving the living standards for the Iranian people without looking abroad.

The results of the elections demonstrate that the Iranian people still opted for the opening of the Iranian market to foreign investments and gave the government a confidence vote over the nuclear deal and its ability to help improve the country’s economy. Iran is thus unlikely to reverse its commitments to the JCPOA under Rouhani’s second mandate. What the administration will be pressured to do, on the other hand, is to make sure that the Iranian people will feel the economic benefit deriving from the deal.

To do so, it will carry on with the attempts to attract international investments in Iran. The main challenge in this sense will be the continued hesitation of banking institutions to deal with Iranian entities. During his campaign, Rouhani stated he will negotiate the lifting of US non-nuclear sanctions (which are still in place against Iran and are the reasons for financial institutions’s concerns over potential violations and multi-billion dollars fines) with the American counterpart. But because of Trump’s stance towards Iran, that is likely to be a tall order.

Whilst the Trump administration is no longer advancing its line about the need to rip up the nuclear agreement or renegotiate its terms, the US is thus likely to actively discourage global investment in Iran. Since February, the new administration adopted a number of additional non-nuclear related sanctions against Iran to condemn its missile tests and alleged support for the Houthis in Yemen. Whether, despite that, Iran will maintain its commitments to the nuclear deal remains to be seen. What is clear is that, from an Iranian point of view, the future of the nuclear deal mostly depends on what posture the US will adopt towards the JCPOA and, more generally, towards Iran.

Image: Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani holding press conference after his victory at 2017 presidential election, 22 May 2017, via wikimedia.

Tweet by Tweet: Trump’s Nuclear Musings

Dr. Heather Williams

In a recent article titled ‘The nuclear education of Donald J. Trump’, Dr. Jeffrey Michaels and I catalogued almost all of President Trump’s statements regarding nuclear issues over the past thirty years. This catalogue included sources ranging from Playboy to Presidential debates. The study’s findings were both surprising and concerning.

The research revealed that Trump has been thinking and talking about nuclear weapons for a sustained period of time. In a 1984 interview, Trump revealed that he had a “fantasy” of becoming an arms control negotiator, something he has been publicly discussing ever since. The 2016 Presidential campaign focused more so on Trump’s personal character than on the substance of his views, which are now shaping national strategy and policy. His own biographical ghost-writer, Tony Schwartz, commented that if Trump became President and had access to the nuclear codes “there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.” So how worried should we be about Trump in charge of the US nuclear arsenal?

The biggest source of surprise in our study was how consistent Trump has been in his views on nuclear weapons. Since the 1990 Playboy interview, he has been concerned about the status of the nuclear arsenal and whether or not it is truly credible due to a lack of investment and infrastructure problems. He has consistently been interested in arms control to showcase his negotiating skills, whilst simultaneously remaining sceptical of deep reductions, disarmament, and any no-first-use declarations, as this would be “taking options off the table.”

In many ways, Trump’s views on nuclear weapons are nothing particularly new. Obama increased investment in the US nuclear infrastructure, which indeed is in need of attention. Additionally, Obama called for increased burden-sharing among NATO allies, though perhaps more delicately compared to Trump’s label of NATO members benefiting from a “free ride.” Furthermore, previous Republican presidents expressed scepticism about limiting America’s strategic options, including arms control.

Of course, Trump’s nuclear policies will also be shaped by those around him. For example, while Trump has consistently accused China of failing to “solve” the problem of North Korea’s nuclear development, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated that working with China would be preferable to any military actions. Mattis has also been a strong advocate of American leadership abroad and recently visited US allies in Asia and Europe, including a stop at the Munich Security Conference where he stated, “security is always best when provided by a team.”

But there is also cause for concern about Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons. In one very important way, Trump significantly differs from his predecessors, shuns the constraints of his advisors, and presents a nuclear risk: his use of Twitter. Many of Trump’s nuclear-related tweets raise important questions about social media as a disruptive technology. For example, recent scholarship has highlighted the importance of “audience costs” in strategic signalling, whereby if a leader fails to deliver on a threat, he/she will suffer a loss of credibility in the eyes of allies and adversaries. But what is the audience cost of a tweet? Tweets are often off-the-cuff remarks without the benefit of expert advice or fact-checking. Should tweets be interpreted as credible policy statements?

Additionally, nuclear signals are often misinterpreted, particularly in times of crisis when tensions are high and decision-making time is short. Are tweets more prone to misperception than other means of signalling? It is extremely difficult to communicate such signals in 140-characters or less- Trump has offered plenty of recent examples to help prove this point. Our study did not find any clear answers to these questions, but rather highlighted the need for further research and scholarship into these policy issues.

One example of this was on December 22, 2016, when Trump tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” This could be interpreted as reinforcing Trump’s pre-established views: he is not interested in nuclear disarmament and wants to increase investment in the US nuclear infrastructure. At the same time, it suggests an arms race, which Trump later confirmed in a discussion with Mika Brzezinski, a journalist and presenter on Morning Joe, and potentially undermines America’s commitment to organizations such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and agreements such as the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

After attempting to decipher Trump’s statements on nuclear weapons, our study raised three big questions. First, how committed is Trump to providing nuclear security guarantees to America’s allies? The early days of the Administration have suggested it will indeed be committed to allies as demonstrated in the actions and statements of General Mattis, in particular.

Second, is there a future for US-Russia arms control? Ultimately, this will remain unclear until Putin meets Trump. While there are limited prospects for further arms control, Trump has a thirty-year-old fantasy of being an arms control negotiator and he might not want to miss the opportunity. Instead, arms control may have to get creative.

Lastly, how does social media interact with traditional means of strategic signalling? This remains to be seen. But an additional cause for concern is that of an unpredictable nature: a strategic shock. This could be positive, such as the rise of Gorbachev which offered Reagan an opportunity to pursue arms control and reduce Cold War tensions. But strategic shock can also be negative, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, which significantly shaped the Presidency of George W. Bush. Trump remains untested in his role as a crisis leader, but when the time comes, his instinct to take to Twitter may sow more confusion than security.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Dr. Geraint Hughes

In early March 1947 the US President Harry S. Truman faced a political and diplomatic quandary. His administration had been informed by the Labour government of Clement Attlee that Britain could no longer afford to provide military aid to Greece and Turkey after the end of that month. Both countries had become embroiled in the nascent Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, and the USA was the only state in a position to offer their governments defence assistance. However, Truman also had to contend with Senators and Representatives who were bound to question his proposed $400m aid package to Athens and Ankara.

The President received advice from what would today be seen as a peculiar source. The Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg was the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was also a pre-war isolationist who had changed his mind as a result of the Second World War, and regarded it as inevitable that the USA would now assume a world role. He also understood that any justification of aid to the Greeks and Turks based on the complexities of geopolitics and strategy would fall flat with both the Republican and Democratic parties, and the electorate. Vandenberg told Truman that he had to ‘scare the hell out of the American people’. The President followed this advice in his speech to their elected representatives on 12th March 1947, outlining what was subsequently dubbed the Truman Doctrine.

Today, there is something almost quaint about a Democratic President being offered advice – and taking it – from the other side of Congress. Furthermore, while Truman was making the case for America to see its security interests as being interconnected with peace and stability in the Eastern Hemisphere, the 45th President seems bent on demonstrating the opposite. Nonetheless, Truman’s presentation of his aid programme to Greece and Turkey as a matter almost of life and death for American democracy has parallels with future Presidencies, for example with Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union speech in January 1980 (in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), or George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ speech 22 years later.

By early 1947 the wartime alliance between the USA, USSR and Great Britain had disintegrated. The imposition of Communist rule in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe, quarrels over the fate of a divided Germany, and Josif Stalin’s uncompromising speech on East-West relations on 9th February 1946 testified to the collapse of trust between the Soviets and their former partners in the Grand Alliance, but it was a series of crises in the ‘Near’ and Middle East in 1946-1947 that helped precipitate the Cold War. In Iran, Moscow refused to remove Soviet troops deployed to the country as part of an Allied occupation during WWII, and appeared to sponsor separatist republics in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. Stalin also tried to bully the Turks into revising the 1936 Montreux Convention governing the movement of shipping through the Straits, and also into making territorial concessions to the USSR, and these demands were accompanied by troop movements in the Caucasus and Soviet-occupied Bulgaria. Greece was mired in a civil war pitting the British-backed royal government against a Communist insurgency, aided by the Albanians, Yugoslavs and Bulgarians. Britain was the principal source of military aid to Turkey and Greece, but WWII had left it economically exhausted, and no longer able to sustain a Pax Britannica in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The intellectual foundations of the Truman Doctrine – and subsequent US Cold War policy – came from the ‘Long Telegram’ drafted by George F. Kennan, the then charge d’affairs of the US Embassy in Moscow on 22nd February 1946. Kennan’s argument, which was refined in an anonymous article published in the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs, was that the Soviet regime was implacably hostile to the USA and the West, and justified its despotic rule over its subjects by presenting America and its allies as a menace to the USSR. Kennan also stated that Moscow was committed to expand its power and influence throughout Eurasia, taking advantage of the instability and chaos caused by the recent world war. He argued that the USA needed to block the expansion of the USSR’s influence through diplomatic, economic and military means, adopting a policy of ‘containment’ to ensure that the Soviet empire did not expand beyond its own borders and its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Kennan’s appointment as the director of the newly-established Policy Planning Staff in the US State Department a month after Truman’s speech gave him the opportunity to help shape America’s Cold War strategy, although he subsequently argued that his concepts of containment had been militarised.

With his speech to Congress on 12th March, Truman outlined the problems that Greece faced; impoverished and wrecked by Axis occupation in WWII, now vulnerable to take-over by a guerrilla movement backed by Stalin and his Balkan clients. Turkey had been neutral during the war, but was now open to pressure from Moscow and lacked the means to defend itself. He then commented on the imposition of pro-Soviet regimes in Warsaw, Bucharest and Sofia, stating that:

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.

The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

Congress approved his aid package to the Greeks and Turks, and in retrospect the Truman Doctrine also provided the basis for the Marshall Plan later that year, the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in September 1949, and ultimately the construction of an array of multilateral and bilateral security pacts which currently tie the USA to its allies in Europe and Asia. However, it is worth noting that Truman’s speech also had a controversial legacy.

The first problem with the Doctrine concerned applicability. What was good for Greece and Turkey was perhaps good for Nationalist China in 1949, South Korea in 1950, and South Vietnam in the early 1960s. Just over two years after Truman’s enunciation of his doctrine, his administration was pilloried by the Republicans for the ‘loss of China’, namely Mao Zedong’s victory in the Chinese civil war. Republican Senators and Representatives loudly demanded why the Democrats had allowed a stalwart ally to fall, and decried the package of military aid that Truman had provided to the Guomindang as insufficient. The logical implication here was that if arms, money and advisors were insufficient to stop a ‘free’ nation from being subjugated by Communism, then what was next? More military instructors? More equipment and munitions? The overt introduction of US combat troops?

Secondly, who exactly qualified to be ‘free’? East Berliners revolting against the GDR in 1953, and Hungarians involved in the 1956 revolution found that the criteria did not apply to them. The costs of liberating Eastern bloc countries would involve a Third World War, and no US administration confronted with turmoil in the Soviet empire was prepared to accept that outcome. In contrast, the criteria for ‘free’ throughout the Cold War essentially meant ‘anti-Communist’. Ngo Dinh Diem, Fulgencio Batista, Mobutu Sese Seko, Manuel Noriega and Augusto Pinochet were no more committed to contested elections, an independent, a free press and the concept of a ‘loyal’ legislative opposition than the USSR, China, North Korea or East Germany were. Yet their regimes were still deemed worthy of US backing because they were run by pro-American thugs, rather than pro-Communist ones.

Thirdly, there was a key question related to strategic priorities. Kennan subsequently argued that America would squander its means if it responded to every single Communist encroachment across the globe. Some countries and some regions mattered more than others from a power-political perspective, and in certain cases zero-sum thinking about successes and failures detracted from long-term calculations on strategic outcomes. NATO powers saw Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe as a strategic threat to the Western half. But this could also be viewed as an encumbrance to Moscow, particularly with the troop presence in the GDR, Poland, Hungary and (after 1968) Czechoslovakia that was needed to keep loyal regimes in power in the region. Further abroad, South Yemen (after its independence from Britain in 1967) was a basket-case. The Ethiopian and Angolan regimes needed substantial financial and military aid to fight off powerful insurgent movements, while a unified Vietnam required Moscow’s protection from China, particularly after the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979. Furthermore, the Afghan ‘revolution’ in April 1978 proved to be a disaster for Soviet interests, requiring an extensive military intervention to save a client regime from downfall, leading to a war from 1979 to 1989 which contributed to Moscow’s economic and strategic woes.

Fourthly, there was the image of the monolithic Communist conspiracy that distracted US policy-makers from the multifaceted challenge they faced. The opening of Russia’s archives after 1991 showed that Stalin was not applying a master plan for world domination in the late 1940s, and adopted an opportunistic response to post-war crises. His territorial claims on Turkey were in part an attempt to appease the Communist Party of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, demonstrating that even the ‘captive nations’ could have a significant impact on the USSR’s foreign policy. The coup in Prague in February 1948 was largely the initiative of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Later that year the Soviet and Yugoslav leaderships had a bitter and public schism arising from Marshal Josef Tito’s clear frustration with Stalin’s efforts to direct his regime; the split removed one of the key sources of support for the Greek Communist rebellion. Twenty one years later, China and the USSR were on the brink of war over a series of border clashes in Siberia/Manchuria and Central Asia, and in February 1972 Mao welcomed President Richard Nixon – a formerly avowed enemy of the People’s Republic – to Beijing.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is all too easy to judge the Truman administration for failing to foresee the eventual fragmentation of the Communist ‘bloc’. Statesmen, diplomats and senior military officers have fragmentary and contradictory information to guide them, and rarely have the ability to see ‘the other side of the hill’. There is also a tendency in international politics for policy-makers to overrate both the strength and the strategic acumen of an adversary. It is also worth noting the USA’s alliance with its European allies did give it an advantage over its superpower adversary, insofar as political differences (such as France’s withdrawal from NATO’s military command structure in 1966, or Britain’s refusal to send troops to fight in Vietnam or to back the USA during the Yom Kippur War) could be mitigated by the established arts of democratic compromise. Debates over Communist dogma could not be managed in the same manner.

Nevertheless, Truman’s speech to Congress on 12th March 1947 still represents a turning point in US foreign policy, as he was able to do what his predecessor Woodrow Wilson failed to achieve after WWI; persuade the American body politic and the electorate that the national security interests of the USA and the survival of its constitution depended on its ability and willingness to protect its friends worldwide. This was reciprocated by what the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad called the process of ‘empire by invitation’, in which allies (notably Britain in this case) solicited US diplomatic and military intervention to bolster their own security interests. Truman told his audience that America needed a stable world order as much as the latter needed the former. It remains to be seen if the current US President can persuade Congress and electorate that the reverse is true, and also what the consequences of such an outcome will be.

Image: President Harry S. Truman addressing a joint session of Congress asking for $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey. This speech became known as the “Truman Doctrine” speech. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Age of Uncertainty: US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era?

By Dr. Ellen Hallams and Dr. Tracey German

In April 2016, Donald Trump declared ‘We must as a nation be more unpredictable.’ In a speech on foreign policy during the Republican primary campaign, Trump – who at that point was the front-runner for the GOP nomination – set out what the New York Times in its editorial described as a ‘strange worldview,’ one that appears to be a throwback to the isolationist movement of the 1930s – ‘America First’ – but which betrays a total misunderstanding of the complexities of the world in which America is deeply embedded. Dissecting that worldview and extrapolating what the Trump administration’s foreign policy will look like over the coming months and years is something of a fool’s errand; this is a man who prides himself on being unpredictable, in keeping allies and enemies second-guessing his intentions, and using his personal Twitter feed to make policy pronouncements.

Yet amidst the chaos, some things are all too clear. The first is that the world as we know it has been upended, and is now violently spinning on its axis. Most of us in the West have grown up in a world defined by certain core principles – democracy, liberty, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and fear – embedded in a liberal order that the US – more than any other nation – has sought to defend, maintain and advance since 1945. It is in part because we live in such a world that Donald Trump now finds himself sitting in the White House, democratically elected (though not by a majority of the American people) with the freedom to express the views he holds. But by doing so, he is undermining many of the values on which liberal order rests: refugees who find themselves being turned away from American airports are living in fear, their yearning to breathe free suffocated by the stroke of a pen; the LGBT community in the US feels more afraid than at any point since the end of the Cold War, while women in America face the prospect that their right to an abortion will be stripped away; Muslims in America are increasingly vilified and demonised, no longer free to worship in peace. Protestors are dismissed and derided; in the world of @readldonaldtrump these are not the legitimate acts of a people with the constitutional right to ‘peaceably assemble,’ but the product of manufactured outrage created by a liberal elite hell-bent on undermining the will of the people.

Internationally, Trump represents the greatest deviation from the liberal bipartisan consensus that has underpinned US foreign policy since 1990. In Obama’s parting speech to the UN he spoke passionately about the threats facing liberal international order. That liberal order has rested not only on a set of core ideas and values, but also an institutional architecture centred on the UN and NATO. Yet in his policy pronouncements thus far, Trump appears to be re-writing the script. He has injected a greater degree of instability into America’s relations with Europe and NATO than any presidency since the end of the Cold War, and is far more willing to embrace, rather than reject, the alternative vision of international order promulgated by Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Trump’s election has injected a new element of uncertainty into an already perilous state of affairs in Eastern Europe; not only are Putin’s intentions unclear, so are Trump’s. Lawrence Freedman once wrote that credibility is the ‘magic ingredient’ of deterrence. It is one thing for NATO to be facing uncertainty over Putin’s intentions, it is quite another to be facing its own crisis of credibility caused by uncertainty over the Trump administration’s policy towards both Russia and NATO; this at a time when Europe is witnessing the biggest deployment of US military forces to the continent since the Cold War.

Relations with Moscow may well prove to be one of the most pivotal elements of Trump’s foreign policy; between them, Trump and Putin have the ability to shape international order in ways that affect us all. A matter of weeks after the election of Trump, Putin signed a new Foreign Policy Concept, outlining Russia’s ambitions to play a leading role on the international stage and boost cooperation with the administration of the new US president. It remains to be seen whether these two goals are mutually exclusive – whilst the early atmospherics surrounding both the Russian and US camp have been positive, there are still many obstacles ahead. Moscow has consistently opposed what it views as a US dominance of the international system and has made frequent reference to the destabilising influence of Washington, DC’s international actions.

Trump’s election success was greeted with elation in Russia, with Trump ‘fever’ leading to some interesting images being published in the Russian media: boxes of sugar bearing Trump’s smiling face, the Army of Russia store offering a 10% discount for US citizens and embassy employees on the day of Trump’s inauguration and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russian far-right party, the LDPR, drinking champagne with members of his party in celebration of Trump’s election victory. But these images contrast sharply with the realities of the state of the current relationship between Washington, DC and Moscow, which had hit rock-bottom during Obama’s presidency. Whilst it remains unclear what the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be, there are already signs that it will take a hard line, particularly with regards to international terrorism and the threat from IS – Trump has indicated that torture is an acceptable tool in the fight against IS, a hard-line stance that will appeal to the Kremlin, which has never shied away from the use of force (legitimate or not) in pursuit of its strategic objectives. This highlights one of the key potential drivers of any future US-Russia relationship: similar personality traits. Both presidents like to portray themselves as ‘strong men’ who are seeking to make their countries ‘great’ again. Relations between the two are currently in a honeymoon phase, with each president apparently delighted to have found a similar character in the other, but there could be problems ahead if neither is willing to embrace compromise or concession.

Following UK PM Theresa May’s visit to Washington, DC on January 27, Trump and Putin held an hour-long telephone conversation during which both leaders apparently undertook to repair bilateral relations. During a wide-ranging conversation, they discussed the fight against terrorism and ongoing instability across the Middle East, as well as the possibility of expanding their economic ties. This latter issue raises the possibility of US sanctions against Russia being lifted, although the topic was not discussed during their call. Trump has mooted the possibility of lifting the sanctions regime, imposed in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and ongoing support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. This position is at odds with that of Europe: European leaders including May, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, have all expressed their opposition to any lifting of sanctions until Moscow complies fully with the terms of the Minsk agreement. Any attempt by the Trump administration to ease the sanctions regime risks the emergence of further rifts between the US and Europe, which is precisely what the Kremlin is seeking.

The new Foreign Policy Concept suggests that Russia will continue its pivot towards Asia, partly driven by the lack of access to Western markets, a consequence of the ongoing sanctions regime. However, it also makes clear that Russia will continue to consolidate its position as a ‘centre of influence in today’s world’. Encouraged by its use of the military lever in Syria, Russia is likely to take an even more assertive line on the global stage over the coming year and will seek to boost its international influence by both hard and soft means.

Since Putin came to power in 2000, the Kremlin has demonstrated an increased willingness, and ability, to use the military lever to achieve broader strategic and foreign policy goals. Despite this, many in the West continue to be surprised by the primacy of hard power in Russian policy-making, particularly the use of force. Russian involvement in Syria has undoubtedly demonstrated that it is now able to project power beyond its own strategic ‘backyard’ and that it is determined to play a global role. The Kremlin appears to have high hopes for a considerable improvement both in its relations with the US and its position on the global stage. However, whilst relations between Trump and Putin are currently very positive, this could change dramatically if either oversteps and finds themselves in an opposing position.

However, as the relationship unfolds between Trump and Putin, one thing appears clear: we are living in an era of instability and uncertainty, the likes of which many of us have never experienced before.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Trump and the future of NATO

Professor Andrew Dorman

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been shrouded in controversy. His apparent close links with Russia and questioning about the ongoing relevance of NATO has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump’s questioning of the European dependence on the US for its security and the imbalance in relative spending and military capability between the United States and the European members is not new for an incoming or even serving US President. Nor is a questioning of NATO’s future, John Mearsheimer’s classic ‘Back to the Future’ piece in the journal International Security are evidence of this. What is new is his questioning of Article V of the Washington Treaty which provides the collective security guarantee for all NATO members. Without it the value of NATO membership is unclear.

Adding to the complication of Trump’s challenge is the timing of this. Questioning the relevance and future of NATO at a time where Russia, and in the past its predecessor the Soviet Union, is openly becoming increasingly assertive in what it perceives to be its area of influence. The central question confronting the NATO alliance is whether to acquiesce to Russia’s tacit demands that NATO respects its dominance of the post-Soviet space and let’s Russia illegally annex the Ukraine, attack Georgia and so forth, or alternatively continues to allow democratic states that wish to continue to join the alliance and benefit from the collective security guarantee.

In response to Trump’s latest comments on NATO, German Chancellor Merkel has stated that the Europeans may have to provide for their own security without the United States. Fine words but the reality of this for Europe is at best questionable, especially given the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the possibility of the election of Marine Le Pen as French President followed by a French vote to leave the European Union. Countering the increasing threat posed by Russia looks increasingly precarious for those in NATO, for those in the former Soviet space that have not yet managed to join the NATO, the situation is far more disconcerting.

Fifty years on from the adoption of the Harmel report by NATO, which led to a focus on both dialogue in the form of détente and deterrence with Russia, there is increasing unease in the hallways of the NATO governments. Normally one would expect the incoming US president and those around him to emphasise reassurance and continuity to its partners. However, such conventions do not appear to apply to Donald Trump and whilst those he has nominated to key cabinet positions, such as Marine General Mattis as the new Defense Secretary, are emphasising the ongoing importance of NATO for the US, Trump himself continues to send a contradictory message which Russia would no doubt approve. At best the road ahead for NATO will be rocky, at worst we may be seeing the destruction of the most significant military alliance in history.

Image: NATO Headquarters meeting. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Trump’s Improvised Foreign Policy

Dr. Andreas Krieg

On 20 January Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated to become the 45th President of a country trying to find its role in a globalized world. The United States remain the strongest economy and possess the most capable military force in the world. Yet, in the apolar world of the 21st century where non-state actors use disruptive technology and ideologies to effectively undermine state authority, and where global economic push and pull factors cause individuals and communities to migrate across borders and continents, the US regardless of their size or power have less and less means to singlehandedly influence or shape economic and socio-political affairs.

In this rapidly changing world where notions of state-centrism, nationalism and territoriality appear archaic, Trump looks like a relic of the past. His promises to make America great again appealed to the losers of globalization, those unable to adapt to the new realities of open markets and transnational communities. Responding to these fears and concerns is within Trump’s comfort zone: looking inwards and focusing on the economy. Thereby, the high politics of foreign and security policy have been widely ignored. And it is here where Trump remains an unpredictable enigma for analysts, diplomats and journalists.

Yes, Trump will not govern alone. Yes, Trump will have to delegate key portfolios to his cabinet. And yes, much of his racist, ignorant and naïve comments, as inexcusable as they might have been, were campaign rhetoric. Nonetheless, the foreign and security policy of the allegedly last remaining superpower in the world will be determined by the comments, actions and decisions of a man who up until 2015 could not have been further removed from geo-politics. Some say this might be his strength. However, looking at the fragility and unpredictability of the global security context today, someone as imprudent, undiplomatic, impulsive and ignorant as Trump could become a liability not just for the United States but the West at large.

Trump’s first press conference on 11 January revealed that he was still the same man he was on the campaign trail: impulsive, irrational and incoherent – a man without a clear strategy or vision for America’s place in the world. He lacks a defined worldview as he has so far just looked at the world through the eyes of a business man whose views of the world have not been shaped by geo-political developments but by his ability to generate individual business profit. His national security objectives remain defined by naivety and simplicity. With an oversimplifying stroke of black and white, China, Iran and ISIS are presented as threats, Russia as a potential partner, while NATO and the EU are being mocked for their ineffectiveness, red-tape and free-rider problem. These emotionally-formulated foreign policy maxims remain underdeveloped and provide no basis for a Trumpian national security strategy.

So what to expect? While Europe is concerned with his rhetoric of putting America first, partners in the Middle East see Trump as an ignorant pragmatist who can be easily impressed and won over by commercial opportunities, i.e. Riyalpolitik. His posture as a strongman might frighten liberals in Europe but appeal to Arabs who are hoping that after years of Obama’s dovish approach to foreign policy, Trump’s hawkish stance on Iran could work in their favour. Similar hopes can be heard within conservative circles in Israel who expect Trump’s support to be much more unconditional than his predecessor’s.

Trump will put America first, thereby putting an end to the implicitness of America’s role as the world’s police man. Here, Trump will not divert from the legacy of Obama but instead continue to limit America’s commitments overseas. In so doing, he will be pragmatist rather than ideological. His policies will not be guided by strategically defined objectives but by ad hoc responses to ongoing events. The world should not expect foresightedness in US foreign and security policy in the coming four years as Trump will have to learn along the way how to formulate strategy and how third-order effects of any action or comment could potentially have catastrophic consequences in the international arena.

At a time when US leadership might be most needed America’s new commander-in-chief lacks the qualities, expertise and experience to carve out a role for the United States in the 21st century. Trump’s presidency will be truly improvised.

Image: Presidential candidate Donald Trump, watch party, Feb 2 in West Des Moines. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Iran’s Afghanistan Policy: At odds with Trump?

By Dr. Amir M. Kamel

The prospect of the US president-elect Donald Trump’s Administration has led to ripples across the international system, not least in the Middle East. Indeed, at the time of writing, Trump had pledged to reduce the US tendency to carry out foreign interventions. Significantly, this included harsh criticisms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (i.e. the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia, China, plus Germany). The problems this may cause have implications for Iran’s neighbours, Afghanistan in particular. Not least as a result of Tehran’s own interests in Kabul.

Indeed, in a recent book chapter, titled ‘Iran in Afghanistan: Rejecting Foreign Presence’ in Afghanistan’s Regional Dilemmas: South Asia and Beyond, I argue that Iran’s ties with Afghanistan are increasingly driven by Tehran’s interests. Specifically, this pertains to the Islamic Republic of Iran regime’s (IRI) dedication to 1) rejecting foreign presence in the region, as well as 2) providing economic and political support to a Taliban-free Kabul. Predictably, such a dual-barreled policy has led Tehran to take contradictory actions since 2001. That being said, the IRI has continued to implement a policy which aimed to sure up its interests, particularly in light of the post-2014 withdrawal of the United States of America (US) led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military personnel from Afghanistan.

A key part of this is Iran’s influence over its neighbour, whether it be as a result of the shared cultural history between the two countries or the fact that opium trade is able to flow across the border, which was identified by the outgoing President Barack Obama Administration choke-point for constraining the Taliban. The feeling of cooperation and shared interests is seemingly mutual. Indeed, for nearly two years, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani visited Iran twice a week in a drive to increase Afghanistan-Iran trade. The fact that Ghani has made such a concerted effort to boost economic ties with Tehran is further evidence of Iran’s interest in ensuring stability in Kabul.

With this in mind, it would seem apparent that an ‘onside’ Iran would also serve the potential interests of the Trump Administration. Indeed, one could speculate that the tearing up of the JCPOA, which already has its critics in Iran (most notably in the form of the more conservative political forces in the country), would hamper Tehran’s ability and propensity to align itself to the US (and broader) interests in stabilising Afghanistan. Whilst it is still unclear what Trump’s policy toward the region will be, the rhetoric in the run-up to what will be the 45th President of the US’ time in office, does not seem positive for Tehran’s interests in Kabul. The hope is that this will become more clear after January 20, 2017.

Image: Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani meeting with Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani in Saadabad Palace, April 19, 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.