Editorial Brief: Trump’s Unilateral Tactics with Iran

Editorial Brief: Trump’s Unilateral Tactics with Iran

President Donald Trump, the 45th and the current President of United States of America, since assuming office in January 2017, is keen on coming forward as a supreme leader who is capable of handling international affairs all by himself. This attitude of U.S. President is many a times reflected by his comments made by him in speeches and the interviews.

Mr. Trump, Indiathinkers Editorial Brief

What are the actions taken by Mr. Trump depicts his unilateral approach?

Firstly, in his political career he has abrogated or threatened to abrogate treaties and accords – notably the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the Paris Climate Accord, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Secondly, he has also moved the U.S. Embassy in  Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Thirdly, he made U.S. involvement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance contingent on larger contributions from the allies. 

Fourthly, he placed tariffs on imports from friends and enemies alike. 

Lastly, he indicated a preference for one-on-one negotiation with other nations (notably North Korea, South Korea, Iran, Russia, Mexico, and Canada), and has considered betraying the legal immunity granted to diplomats by allowing Russia to interrogate a recent U.S. ambassador. 

What has been the recent issue?

Expecting better results from his pressure tactics, Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran Nuclear deal in May 2018 and subsequently reimposed the sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Opposed to his expectation of a better and tougher deal with Iran by forcing him to return to talks, Iran comes out to be totally unpredictable that tensions have fueled in West Asia over the past year. In the latest upsurge of this tension, on September 14, 2019, the two critical Saudi Arabian oil installations near the Gulf coast were attacked, which forced Riyadh to cut its oil production by about 5.7 million barrels a day, i.e, almost half of its daily output. Although, the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, but the U.S. has blamed and threatened to strike Iran.

Why Mr. Trump is targeting Iran?

According to Mr. Trump, if the attacks had originated from Iran, as the U.S. has claimed, then it would be considered as a serious act of aggression. And if it had originated from Yemen, then, Iran’s continued support for the Houthis, which makes them capable enough to carry out a high-precision, cross-border attack like this, would come under renewed focus. Hence, in either way, Iran cannot escape the scene.

What is the background of the issue? What does Iran wants?

When Mr. Trump withdrew from the P5+1+European Union (EU) and Iran nuclear deal despite international certification that Iran was fully compliant with the terms of the agreement, Iran waited for a year, with a hope that the remaining signatories, including the EU, Russia and China, would fix the deal. But they acted as more or less spectators when the U.S. continued to squeeze the economy of Iran with sanctions. By the end of May this year, the U.S. had effectively cut off oil industry of Iran, which is critical for its economy, from the global economy. As a response of these sanctions, and the situation of a falling economy and mounting U.S. pressure, Iran adopted a two-pronged strategy:

  • Start violating the nuclear deal step by step. 
  • Target oil supplies through the Strait of Hormuz, which is a major choke-point between the Gulf and the Arabian Sea and through which about 1/3rd of crude oil exports transported on tankers pass.

As a result of this tactic, a number of oil tankers, owned by Norway, Saudi Arabia and Japan, have come under attack near the Strait of Hormuz since May. Further, in June, an American drone was shot down by Iran alleging that it had violated Iranian air space, thus, taking tensions to the brink of a direct conflict with the U.S. Later in July, when an Iranian oil vessel was seized by British troops off the Gibraltar, Iran captured a British oil vessel. It got its vessel released by Gibraltar despite U.S. opposition. Now with the recent attack on the Saudi oil installations, Iran has escalated the situations further, that clearly warns every nation across the world that no oil facility or tanker is safe in the Gulf as long as Iran is not allowed to trade its oil. What Iran wants is the relief from the sanctions that are imposed by the U.S. President. According to the experts, Iran is either playing a lose-win game (where it is ready to bear with some setbacks for eventual gains) or a calamitous lose-lose game (where everyone could end up as losers in the event of a conflict).

How President Obama’s approach was different from Mr. Trumps’?

Unlike Mr. Trump, former U.S. President Obama had a strategic goal i.e., to deny Iran a nuclear bomb. He did not act unilaterally on sanctions, rather, he consolidated international opinion, got both allies and partners on his side, imposed UN-recognised sanctions and then offered the olive branch of talks. What he followed was a classic carrot-and-stick policy that works for rational actors. To the surprise, Iran accepted the offer despite all the feeling of hostility between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic, joined the talks and agreed to end its nuclear programme in return for the removal of the international sanctions. Acting in a unilateral manner like Mr. Trump was an option for Mr. Obama. He could have ended up the deal with greater demands from Iran such as ending its support for regional proxies. Or he could have threatened Tehran with military action. But, he did not do any of these primarily because he was aware of the risks involved in a direct conflict with Iran, a country that has always lived in insecurity and cultivated proxies across the region as part of its forward defence doctrine. He carefully avoided anything that could have strengthened the hands of the hard-liners within the complex Iranian regime. He had a strong belief that in order to maintain peace in West Asia, Saudi Arabia and Iran should resolve the tensions between themselves.


Mr. Trump largely lacks a strategy to put his reluctance to this new war into a policy framework. He has completely surrounded himself within the administration with the persons who have the non-conservative views and who promotes aggression towards other countries. He has also lacked in his vision to foresee that how far Iran would go if it is pushed to a corner. On a serious note, his unilateral actions have destroyed even the fragile order that existed in the region before he stepped out of the nuclear deal.

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