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Why is Donald Trump Obsessed with Iran?

The president’s obsession with Iran is by no means absurd. It fits perfectly with the Trump administration’s grand foreign policy strategy.

Exactly 4 minutes, interrupted by a dramatic pause to gain the (cold) applause of the United Nations General Assembly. This is the time that US President Donald Trump dedicated to attack Iran in his first speech at the UN on September 19. If this fact is not surprising in itself, it becomes astonishing vis-à-vis the approximately 3 minutes that Trump spent speaking about the issue that is rocking the international community: North Korea.

The entire world was waiting for a solution to the Kim question. While Trump spoke harshly about the North Korean leader, calling him a “rocket man” on a suicide mission, he soon turned to the other country he hates the most. Trump’s obsession with Iran was one of the leitmotivs of his 2016 presidential campaign, which has since translated into a particularly aggressive rhetoric once in office.

Trump’s anti-Iranian posture is not new in the history of US politics. As Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, reports: “Iranian-American relations have been beset by mistrust and occasional outbreaks of vitriol and violence for the past three decades.”

Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil” speech of 2002. However, the Obama administration took a different path by establishing dialogue with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Promoting the re-inclusion of Iran in the international community through a multilateral, nonproliferation treaty was the major outcome of Obama’s bittersweet policy in the Middle East. Trump does not share the same opinion.

A regional strategy behind Trump’s obsession

In front of the UN General Assembly, President Trump called the JCPOA an “embarrassment for the United States,” promising once again to cancel the deal under the pleased gaze of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The rest of the speech concerning Iran followed the same arguments that Trump addressed in May at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh — that Tehran is the safe harbor and financer of Islamist terrorism and that it is responsible for chaos in the Middle East. Yet the message is clear: The alliance between Washington, Tel Aviv and Riyadh is safe and sound.

Trump’s obsession with Iran is neither casual nor unpredictable. Rather than approaching the Middle East through multilateral dialogue, as his predecessor tried to, President Trump remains close to historical American partners in the region. He has chosen a simple strategy: define a clear enemy and build an aggressive narrative around it.

Tehran is the perfect target. Still inspired by revolutionary revisionism and hegemonic ambitions, the Islamic Republic of Iran is Saudi Arabia’s ideological and geopolitical rival in the Persian Gulf and more than a problematic neighbor for Israel. Thus, Trump has simply restored the neoconservative narrative of the axis of evil to trace a clear-cut line between good (the US and its allies) and evil (Iran and its policies toward the region).

Short-term benefits for Washington are already emerging. Israeli lobbies on Capitol Hill that were dissatisfied with Obama’s openness toward Iran have welcomed the new stance, while the Saud family is more than prone to signing huge arms deals with Uncle Sam and exporting its capital assets to the US.

Elected with the promise of a rupture with the establishment, President Trump is dealing with Iran as an old conservative politician. He has found an enemy to reinforce America’s relationship with its old and safe allies.

Who said North Korea is more important than Iran?

The UN General Assembly is a forum that matters, especially for small countries that have the rare chance of addressing global issues in front of an assembly made up of equals. Heads of state from more powerful countries, however, come to the UN headquarters in New York to share their global strategy. That is what Trump did by stressing his America first policy and by identifying the major enemies of the United States: North Korea and Iran. Fifteen years after the Bush speech, another Republican president has restored what remains of the axis of evil.

Iran is certainly not the most peaceful nation on earth. Tehran defends its independence by pursuing an active and sometimes controversial foreign policy in the Middle East. The support of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon and the alignment with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad contrasts with US interests in the region.

However, Iran seems on track with the implementation of the JCPOA, and its potential nuclear threat toward the international community is far more limited than North Korea. But reality is not Trump’s primary concern. For the president, it is not a question about how powerful and threatening the enemies of America are to US interests. What is at stake is the definition of who is an ally and who is a belligerent. This will help the administration justify its foreign policy strategies.

Within the Trump administration’s narrative, Pyongyang and Tehran are comparable targets in two different but equally crucial regions. In East Asia, US hegemony is directly confronted by China. Thus, the rogue behavior of North Korea represents an ideal situation to strengthen ties with Japan and increase the military dependence of South Korea upon the US. Trump is gaining from Kim Jong-un’s madness.

The Middle Eastern situation is even more complex. Israel and Saudi Arabia are very demanding allies, and Washington’s policy in the region is far more uncertain than the one in East Asia. The Syrian Civil War and the presence of the Islamic State are polarizing the regional actors more than ever, casting a dangerous shadow on the post-conflict reconstructions of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. Yet the Trump administration has chosen to accept the emerging cold war. The US is strengthening its alliance with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, and Iran is the direct target of this bloc. But it is the rising alignment between Tehran, Ankara and Moscow that is increasing the level of confrontation in the Middle East.

Albeit highly reprehensible, President Trump’s obsession with Iran is by no means absurd. It fits perfectly with the administration’s grand foreign policy strategy. Yet Tehran and Pyongyang will probably remain the best enemies that the White House could find on its path.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Michael Candelori / Shutterstock.com