The departure of President Trump’s Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, and the appointment of Elliott Abrams as his replacement has raised expectations in the Iran and the wider region. This paper will examine the impact of this change within the US government on the eve of the US presidential elections.
Tehran has never seen Hook as a political engineer with much influence over the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran. Iran continue to believe that Washington’s policies are being controlled by a number of well-organized and heavily funded interest groups, which it refers to as the pro-Israel “Zionists”. Iran knows that the “pro-Israel camp” in the USA goes beyond simply the wealthy and influential Jewish community. In short, Iran sees figures such as Hook as merely the public face of US policy, rather than its actual creators.
While it is therefore unsurprising that Iran sees Hook’s departure as insignificant, this does not mean that Tehran has not read into the significance of the move for the USA’s plans.
What Iran may still be unsure about is Trump’s position on Iran, which is becoming increasingly difficult to predict. Trump has disagreed with some of his closest advisers, such as John Bolton, on how to approach the Iran issue. After being dismissed as National Security Adviser in September 2019, Bolton – one of Trump’s staunchest opponents – said that Trump would do anything to secure a deal with Iran if he were re-elected.
At a recent fundraising event in New Jersey, Trump himself predicted that he would reach an agreement with Tehran within four weeks of being re-elected. Trump’s inner circle continues to include a number of strongly anti-Iran figures, however, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham. This is evidence of the fact that, while Trump is undergoing a transformation, he currently sees the Iran issue only through the lens of US electoral policy and his political legacy.
Neoconservatives vs US “domestic priorities”
While Pompeo thanked Hook for his service, saying that he had “achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime”, Trump has made no comment about Hook’s resignation. This is remarkable, as Hook ran Trump’s policies on Iran for two years, an area that may be one of the most important and controversial for the Trump administration. There are two reasons why Trump has provided no reaction to Hook’s departure:
First, Trump does not believe that Hook has been successful. While Pompeo was right when he said that Hook had been able to exert tremendous pressure on Tehran through Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, all that Trump cares about is winning clear victories; he therefore does not see this campaign as a final “win”, given the Iranians’ continued refusal to sit down to negotiations.
Second, even though Hook was able to arrange prisoner exchanges with Iran to secure the return of Michael White, Xiyue Wang, and Nizar Zakka, which Trump described as “victories”, Trump still feels that Hook has disappointed him in his handling of the Iran issue.
Trump objected to efforts by Hook’s supporters to push for him to replace Bolton as National Security Adviser. Not only does Trump not believe that Hook has been successful as the Special Representative for Iran, but he has begun to resent the entire anti-Iran camp in Washington. This is linked to deeper ideological and political factors that have been reshaping Trump’s foreign policy. In appointing Douglas Macgregor as US Ambassador to Germany, Trump once again clearly demonstrated that he favors foreign policy that primarily protects US domestic interests. A retired US army colonel, Macgregor is known to advocate reform of the armed forces and US foreign policy. He has repeatedly stated that Iran does not pose a threat to the USA, and that the 2003 Iraq War was a fatal strategic mistake. Macgregor’s appointment is therefore a sign that Trump is seeking to appeal more to white US Republican voters who care more about domestic priorities, are deeply suspicious about interventionist foreign policy, and are opposed to new wars in the Middle East. It is therefore unsurprising that the same anti-Iran figures that commended Trump’s adoption of his “maximum pressure” campaign have criticized Macgregor’s appointment as ambassador to Europe’s most powerful country, seeing this move as an indication of a wider trend.
Conversely, Iran quietly welcomed Macgregor’s appointment, which they see as a sign of Trump’s desire to reorient US foreign policy away from military conflict. Ultimately, however, Hook has been replaced by an anti-Iranian hawk, which makes it impossible for the Iranians to predict the future of US policy toward Iran.
It is well known that Trump has found himself in a difficult position since taking office in 2017, surrounded on the one side by neoconservatives pushing for greater military foreign policy, and on the other by his supporters who are calling for greater focus on domestic policies. Trump appears to be moving in that direction, which may be behind his recent dispute with Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican donor and a supporter of Israel and the neoconservative foreign policy agenda.
New special representative Abrams: Hardline veteran diplomat
Elliott Abrams is well known to the Iranians and Trump. Trump REPORTEDLY does not like Abrams personally, as he was one of the republicans who initially opposed his candidacy for the presidency. The Iranians, meanwhile, know Abrams for his fierce anti-Iran stance over the past forty years. Iran does not seem to believe that Abrams – who will manage Trump’s policy on Iran and on Venezuela concurrently – will secure a mandate from Trump to pursue any broad policies against Iran before the November elections. This is the prevailing assessment among neoconservatives in Washington.
Debate is currently ongoing in Washington as to whether neoconservatives should back Trump to secure a better nuclear deal with Iran during a second presidential term, or whether they should support Joe Biden’s campaign and urge him to continue, and to build on, the maximum pressure campaign on Iran – a policy initially supported by Trump, but which he quickly tired of when he did not see immediate results.
The departure of President Trump’s Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, and the appointment of Elliott Abrams as his replacement has raised expectations in the Iran and the wider region. Although Abrams is well known to the Iranians, they do not seem to believe that he will be given a mandate by Trump to pursue any broad policies against Iran before the November presidential elections in the USA. Iran therefore sees Hook’s departure and Abram’s appointment as inconsequential. Nonetheless, this does not mean that Tehran is blind to the implications that this change may have for Washington’s plans.
Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi | 24 Sep 2020
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