Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and author of the forthcoming book “The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.” Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.
DURING HIS presidential campaign, Donald Trump posed as a slash-and-burn rebel in foreign as well as domestic policy. That raised the prospect of a president ready to stop waging foreign wars, abandon self-defeating fantasies of world domination, and concentrate on rebuilding America. It remains unclear whether Trump will keep faith with the angry voters who propelled him into office or forget his iconoclasm and sink into the Washington swamp he promised to drain. In foreign policy, a key test is whether he will be daring enough to reverse our course of confrontation with Russia and Iran. So far, he seems ready to go halfway. He has offered a conciliatory hand to Russia but no change in our 37-year policy of hostility to Iran.
Both of these countries have been in conflict with the United States. Each works against the United States in some ways and some places. Yet neither threatens vital American interests. In fact, on the urgent matter of fighting Islamist terror, both share our agenda. Nonetheless, we treat them as strategic adversaries. Driven more by reflex and emotion than cool calculation of national interest, we have convinced ourselves that whatever benefits Russia or Iran is automatically bad for us.
Trump appears ready to break away from Washington’s anti-Russia consensus, but he remains a prisoner of the anti-Iran consensus. This is the central contradiction of his emerging foreign policy. He wisely insists that fighting Islamist radicalism must be America’s priority in the Middle East, and that since the Russians agree, we should cooperate with them. Yet Iran is more militantly opposed to ISIS than any country on earth. That makes sense, since most Iranians are Shia Muslims and ISIS wants to kill every Shia. A consistent anti-ISIS policy would be based on cooperation with Russia and Iran. If the time has come to try reconciliation with one, the same is true for the other.
Although Trump has denounced last year’s nuclear deal between Iran and six outside powers, he has not spent much time attacking Iran itself or its religious government. Some of his advisers have gone further. His choice as national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, asserted last year that Iran "represents a clear and present danger to the region.” Rudolph Giuliani told a European audience that he has an alternative to the nuclear deal: present Iranians with a list of demands and bomb them if they refuse to comply. That could set off another wave of terror and upheaval. Worse, it would weaken Iran’s ability to fight its main enemy, the radical Sunni ideology embodied by ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Trump’s other option is to try easing Middle East conflicts rather than escalating them. This can only be done through cooperation with Iran. A map of the region shows why. Iran is the big country in the middle. Just as Europe became stable only after Germany was invited to be a security partner, the Middle East will become stable only when Iran’s interests are taken into account.
Rather than side instinctively with Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Iran, Trump should seek to balance the two. We should judge them not by sentiment, but strictly according to whether their actions promote our interests. Our central interest in the Middle East is containing violent radicalism. After that, our next goal should be withdrawal. The reasons we set up imperial shop in the Middle East have evaporated. The Soviet Union is gone, we no longer depend on Persian Gulf oil, and our people are tired of desert wars. Yet some are pushing Trump to jump more deeply into this quagmire.
Today the United States is juggling relations with various Middle East states while at the same time trying to manage their relations with each other and seeking to resolve their many internal crises. This burden will only deepen as more states in the region careen toward instability, as is likely to happen. It is more than the United States can or should be doing 5,000 miles from our homeland.
By felicitous coincidence, 76 national security specialists, myself included, recently issued a report listing ways a new president could build on the Iran nuclear deal to promote American security goals. Our report, published by the National Iranian American Council, suggests that Iran and the United States have remarkably similar goals not only in the fight against ISIS, but also in other areas including Iraq and Afghanistan. All of what we wrote, though, would appeal only to a president willing to abandon our longstanding "Saudi Arabia good, Iran bad” policy. That is the great conceptual leap Trump now has the chance to take.
By pushing to improve relations with Russia, Trump shows welcome willingness to defy conventional wisdom. It is not enough. A true outsider coming into the White House would pursue a policy of "dual conciliation.” Trump deserves credit for being bold enough to take Russia off our list of enemies. Taking Iran off would be even more dramatic.