Trump and Iran May Be on a Collision Course, and It Could Get Scarier

American hard-liners have had a dangerous obsession with Iran for years, egged on by Saudi Arabia and Israel. In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Newsweek quoted a British official as saying: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

.. I’ve been to Iran, reported from Iran and been detained in Iran; I have no illusions about it. The American hard-liners are quite right that the regime is unpopular because of its corruption, incompetence and repression. But Iran also has a deep nationalist streak, and Trump already seems to be strengthening hard-liners in Tehran. In 2002, six months before the Iraq war, I reported from Baghdad that President George W. Bush and his aides were deluding themselves to think that Iraqis would welcome an invasion; Iraqis hated Saddam but hated even more the idea of Yankee imperialists attacking their nation. Iran is similar but more formidable.

Negotiations are frustrating, imperfect and uncertain, and they may seem less satisfying than dropping bombs. But America has suffered huge self-inflicted wounds because of its invasion of Iraq 16 years ago.

Haven’t we learned lessons? Maybe “real men” should forget about going to Tehran and try multilateral diplomacy.

Trump’s stunning decision to escalate trade wars with China and Mexico signals a turning point for U.S. policy

President Trump’s plan to slap new tariffs on Mexican imports, weeks after escalating his trade war with China, leaves the United States fighting a multi-front campaign that threatens more instability for manufacturers, consumers and the global economy.

The president’s bombshell announcement that he would impose 5 percent tariffs on Mexican imports, with the possibility of raising them to 25 percent if Mexico doesn’t stop migrants from crossing into the United States, left some economists fearing there were few limits to Trump’s appetite for trade conflict.

“In our view, if the U.S. is willing to impose tariff and non-tariff barriers on China and Mexico, then the bar for tariffs on other important U.S. trading partners, including Europe, may be lower than we previously thought,” Barclays economists said in a research note. “We think trade tensions could escalate further before they de-escalate,” Barclays added.

Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, called Trump’s move against Mexico a turning point for financial markets and the U.S. economy.

In global markets Friday, investors spooked by new tariff threats sought safety in German government bonds and the Euro rather than their customary dollar-denominated havens. This “seems to me an indicator that the concerns about the U.S. are rising,” Posen said.

The president’s latest move rocked business leaders who were already scrambling to reshape supply chains to avoid fallout from the U.S. confrontation with China. The added uncertainty may paralyze executives who can’t be sure their next supply chain location will be any safer than their last.

“A lot of companies feeling pressure to get out of China are looking at Mexico if they want to serve the US market, Vietnam if they’re more focused on Asia,” said William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department trade official. “Trump’s action yesterday scrambles all those plans.”

In one example of a company caught in the crossfire, GoPro of San Mateo, Calif., last month announced it would move manufacturing of some of its cameras from China to Mexico, so that it could stop paying tariffs to import them to the United States — tariffs resulting from the U.S. trade war with China. Weeks later, GoPro now faces new tariffs to import those goods from Mexico. The company declined to comment Friday.

As U.S. companies race to find new tariff-free places to manufacture, so far few have reported returning production to the United States, despite the president’s stated aim of using trade policy to help bring jobs back home. Many are still seeking alternative locations overseas, where labor is cheaper.

Trump said he would impose the new tariffs because the Mexican government wasn’t doing enough to stem the flow of migrants, many of whom travel through Mexico from Central America. Some White House officials who support Trump’s approach believe the threat of tariffs is the only way to get the attention of Mexican leaders.

The Mexican government tried to defuse the tension Friday, saying the two sides would meet in Washington on Wednesday for high-level talks.

If no solution is found, Mexico is certain to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, with likely targets including U.S. pork, beef, wheat and dairy products, said Former Mexican diplomat Jorge Guajardo.

Some prominent Republicans, including Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, raised concerns that the new tariffs could threaten a trade agreement the Trump administration clinched only months ago with Mexico and Canada, to replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Others said the about-face treatment of Mexico would damage Trump’s ability to negotiate trade deals it is pursuing with other partners, including China and Europe.

“You can’t negotiate a trade agreement with someone and then turn around and whack them,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist and former Congressional Budget Office director.

In late March, Trump threatened to shut the entire southern border to curb illegal immigration, but backed down a week later after an outcry. That has left some wondering how seriously they should take the latest tariff threat.

If Trump follows through with new tariffs on Mexico, it would hurt U.S. economic growth and increase the possibility of the Federal Reserve reversing course and cutting interest rates this year, economists said.

The drag to the US economy could be meaningful, especially if the tariffs reach 25%,” the upper limit that Trump has set, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economists wrote Friday. Even if the tariff remains at 5 percent, the effective cost could be higher because many parts cross the border several times as products are assembled, and the tariff must be paid upon each crossing into the United States.

U.S. automakers will be among the principal casualties. Last year, the United States imported roughly $350 billion in merchandise from Mexico, including about $85 billion in vehicles and parts, according to the International Trade Administration.

A full 25 percent tax “would cripple the industry and cause major uncertainty,” according to Deutsche Bank Securities.

“The auto sector – and the 10 million jobs it supports – relies upon the North American supply chain and cross border commerce to remain globally competitive,” said Dave Schwietert, interim president of the Auto Alliance, an industry group. “This is especially true with auto parts which can cross the U.S. border multiple times before final assembly.”

“Widely applied tariffs on goods from Mexico will raise the price of motor vehicle parts, cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles – and consumer goods in general — for American consumers,” the industry group said. “The potential ripple effects of the proposed Mexican tariffs on the U.S. North American and global trade efforts could be devastating.”

Consumers could pay up to $1,300 more per vehicle if the tariffs are implemented, according to Torsten Slok, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities.

Retailers, technology companies and textile manufacturers also will be hurt. U.S. mills now ship yarn and fabric to Mexico, where it is turned into apparel and exported back to American retailers. Last year, the U.S. textile industry exported $4.7 billion in yarn and fabrics to Mexico, its largest single market.

“Adding tariffs to Mexican apparel imports, which largely contain U.S. textile inputs, would significantly disrupt this industry and jeopardize jobs on both sides of the border,” said Kim Glas, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations.

The new dispute with Mexico came as the U.S.-China trade conflict continued to deepen.

China on Friday announced it would establish a blacklist of “unreliable” foreign companies and organizations, effectively forcing companies around the world to choose whether they would side with Beijing or Washington.

The new “unreliable entities list” would punish organizations and individuals that harm the interests of Chinese companies, Chinese state media reported, without detailing which companies will be named in the list or what the punishment will entail.

Chinese reports suggested the Commerce Ministry will target foreign companies and groups that abandoned Chinese telecom giant Huawei after the Trump administration added Huawei to a trade blacklist this month, which prohibited the sale of U.S. technology to the Chinese company.

At a time when Western corporations have cut back executive travel to China after authorities detained two Canadians on national security grounds in December, the new blacklist sent another shock wave through the business community.

“I think foreign and especially U.S. firms now have to worry that China is creating a new ‘legal pretext’ to at least impose exit bans on foreign individuals who make this new list, if not worse,” said Bill Bishop, the editor of the Sinocism newsletter, referring to the Chinese practice of not allowing designated foreigners to leave China.

Aside from the new blacklist, China in recently days also escalated threats to stop selling the U.S. so-called rare earths — 17 elements with exotic names like cerium, yttrium and lanthanum that are found in magnets, alloys and fuel cells and are used to make advanced missiles, smartphones and jet engines.

Analysts said it could take years for the United States to ramp up rare-earths production, after its domestic industry practically disappeared in the 1990s. Roughly 80 percent of U.S. imports of the material come from China, according to the United States Geological Survey.

The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, carried a stark warning for the United States this week in an editorial about rare earths: “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

That commentary surprised China experts because the People’s Daily, which often signals official positions with subtly codified language, uses that phrase sparingly: It famously appeared before China launched border attacks against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.

This is how easily the U.S. and Iran could blunder into war

Both countries say they don’t want it. But here’s a scenario where it happens anyway.

Having invested his credibility and political future in looking tough, Trump seemed to have no choice. A president who had promised to extricate America from endless wars in the Middle East found himself sending more than 100,000 troops back into the desert. Only this time, the United States was invading a country with

  • 80 million people (twice Iraq’s population),
  • territory 68 percent larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and with
  • hundreds of thousands of the best paramilitary troops in the world.

Asked at an impromptu news conference about the deployment, Trump simply said, “I warned Iran that if they chose to fight, we would end them.” It was a war that neither Trump nor Iranian leaders wanted — and yet, at each critical moment, escalation seemed like the only way to defend vital national interests and respond to political imperatives. Circumstances had simply become too combustible. And once the fuse was lit, no one could stop the explosion.

Trump Isn’t Just Reversing Obama’s Foreign Policies. He’s Making it Impossible for His Successor to Go Back to Them.

Who says the Trump administration doesn’t know what it’s doing in the Middle East?

Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on

  1. irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
  2. administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.

The administration has now done a complete about-face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hard-line advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hellbent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life support.

Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.

No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.

The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hardcore, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hard-liners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hard-liners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.

In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.

There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out reconciliation for many more years.

A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Over the past year, the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—

  1. closing the PLO office in Washington,
  2. withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
  3. cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.

While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of

  1. Jerusalem,
  2. borders,
  3. refugees and
  4. Palestinian statehood.

Since at least the mid-1990s, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been committed to a two-state solution with a return of the majority of the West Bank to the Palestinians—based on borders from before Israel’s 1967 seizure of that territory—and a physically undivided Jerusalem hosting capitals of both states.But the Trump administration has reversed almost 20 years of U.S. policy by even refusing to unequivocally and consistently endorse the concept in principle of a two-state solution. Trump did support the idea in September 2018. But since then, the administration has dropped the concept and, even worse, delegitimized it. Last week, the Washington Post reportedthat the words Palestinian state are unlikely to appear in the Kushner plan. Even more telling, testifying before Congress last week, Pompeo refused to endorse Palestinian statehood as the goal of U.S. policy.

Even if the words “two-state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two-state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.

For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there

  • inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator,
  • marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and
  • subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel.

The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.

The other long-standing diplomatic assumption—that settlement activity would be constrained during the period of negotiations andthat 70 to 80 percentof West Bank settlers who are in blocs close to the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel proper in exchange for ceding other land to Palestinians—has been undermined by an administration that has no intention of cutting a deal that would leave Palestinians in control of the majority of the West Bank. Indeed, theadministration has virtually erased the concept of the 1967 lines by enabling and greenlighting the expansion of settlement activity and unilateral Israeli actions on the ground without protest or the imposition of any redlines, not just on the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well. In March 2017, Israel announced the creation of a new settlement in the West Bank, the first in decades. After an initial drop during 2017, settlement construction activity increased 20 percent in 2018.

There is zero chance that any Palestinian leader—let alone one as weak and constrained as Mahmoud Abbas—will accept these conditions on the ground as part of a deal. And speculation is even growing that Netanyahu could use Palestinian rejection of the Kushner plan to outright annex portions of the West Bank.

That’s another area where the administration has done major damage. The Trump administration’s announcement on the eve of the recent Israeli election that it recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—a decision that was untethered from any logic other than helping to reelect Netanyahu—could portend a U.S. decision to confer similar status onIsrael’s possible decision to annex parts of the West Bank. The administration has refused to challenge Netanyahu’s statement that in a defensive war Israel can keep what it holds. And last week, Pompeo, responding to a reporter’s question, refused to criticize Netanyahu’s statement about annexing West Bank settlements.

Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one-state reality that is a prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.

So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”

The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two-state solution won’t rise from the dead.

Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.

Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging “closed for the season” signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.