What Donald Trump Can Learn From Former President Nixon About Iran
To deal with Iran, Donald Trump should take lessons from former President Richard Nixon’s ‘Ten Commandments’.
Because of his incessant personal attacks against the media, Donald Trump is likened to Richard Nixon. But, rarely are these comparisons made in the domain of foreign policy. That’s unfortunate. Nixon’s Ten Commandments of Statecraft are one legacy—of the only US president to resign—in which today’s Republicans might take pride.
And, if there is one contemporary context in which these Commandments matter more than all others – even more than a trade war – then it is nuclear war.
Nuclear war is less theoretical than at any time since Nixon’s presidency. Even if the Korean peninsula is denuclearised thanks to a Trump-Kim summit, the risk of a nuclear arms race and conflagration involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel is real.
The July 2015 Iran nuclear deal (formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is the risk-mitigating device: by 12 May, Trump must choose whether to keep or scupper it. In deciding, what lessons should the 45th American president draw from the 37th president?
The answer: follow Nixon’s Ten Commandments, which James Humes (a speechwriter for Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George HW Bush), reveals in his 1997 book, Nixon’s Ten Commandments of Statecraft – His Guiding Principles of Leadership and Negotiation.
Against eight of these Ten Commandments, Trump sins.
Rather than pull out of the Iran deal, he should meditate on and practice those eight. His doing so may bring the Middle East peace and stability, the promised land envisioned by the preamble of the deal.
Trump Is Faithful To Two Of Nixon’s Ten Commandments
Never give up unilaterally what could be used as a bargaining chip. Make your adversaries give something for everything they get.
Nixon understood sacrificing an advantage for no gain wins America neither popularity nor respect.
Trump guards his bargaining chips, too. And, like Nixon, he senses an opponent’s concession need not always be matched reciprocally. Thus far, he has conceded nothing either to Iran or the P5+1 (i.e., the other Permanent United Nations Security Council members, plus Germany), which are parties to the nuclear deal.
Never let your adversary underestimate what you would do in response to a challenge. Never tell him what you would not do.
The “unpredictability” of an opponent is its “unvoiced threat”, said Nixon. He responded in kind, sometimes disproportionately so. He didn’t mind the ‘madman theory’ circulating in the Soviet Kremlin: maybe Nixon’s crazy, maybe he might just press the button.
Doubt about his irrational willingness to use American power was ‘a weapon in statecraft’ to help contain Soviet Communism.
Trump excels at not conveying to Iran what he might or might not do: he keeps leaders in Tehran and Qom guessing by saying they would “have bigger problems than they have ever had before” if they try to develop a nuke.
But Trump Transgresses Against Eight Of Nixon’s Ten Commandments
Always be prepared to negotiate, but never negotiate without being prepared.
Nixon’s legal training and practice taught him “fact finding is the mother’s milk of negotiation”.
Trump is unprepared until he ‘finds’ the ‘facts’ of the 159-page Iran deal.
Therein lies one ineluctable fact: the deal fulfills its central goal of extending Iran’s ‘breakout time’ (the time it needs to build a nuclear weapon) to at least one year, to the benefit of America, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
First, Iran’s ability to produce weapons-grade uranium at its two enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordow, is curtailed. The deal cuts Iran’s uranium stockpile of about 10,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent, to 300 kilograms, of no more than 3.67 percent enriched uranium (down from 20 percent), and keeps the caps for 15 years.
The deal bars Iran from installing more than 5,060 centrifuges at Natanz for 10 years, which must be the oldest, least efficient models, and from any uranium enrichment at Fordow for 15 years.
Second, the possibility of Iran producing weapons-grade plutonium at its Arak heavy water reprocessing facility is eliminated. Iran must re-design and re-build this facility, with certification by an international partnership.
Iran can build no new heavy water reactors or accumulate heavy water for 15 years.
Third, Iran must grant access to International Atomic Energy Association inspectors, including to any site they deem suspicious, and to monitor continuously Iran’s declared nuclear sites.
As for ‘Possible Military Dimensions’ of Iran’s nuclear program, Iran must allow the IAEA to prevent it from developing a covert nuclear program by verifying Iran has not shifted fissile material to a secret location.
Iran must allow IAEA inspectors to request visits to military sites. The IAEA’s presence in Iran is long-term: for 25 years, the inspectors will monitor Iran’s production of uranium ore, for 20 years Iran will allow them to contain and monitor centrifuge rotors and bellows, and throughout Iran will use only IAEA-approved and technologies, including electronic seals.
Never be belligerent, but always be firm.
Nixon appreciated the difference between belligerency and firmness.
The Quaker President understood Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”
Trump confuses unsocial media with resolve.
Grievous Twitter storms are the daily hallmark of his diplomacy. In their wake is anger, and a reminder of Proverbs 15:2: “The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.”
Small wonder why, on 25 April, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani asked rhetorically: “How can a tradesman, a merchant, a building constructor, a tower constructor, make judgments about international affairs?” Trump confuses harsh words with resolve, while Rouhani sees their emptiness.
Always remember that covenants should be openly agreed to but privately negotiated.
Nixon eschewed public demands that might alienate an opponent.
Proclaiming openly what he expected would be grandstanding that would off-put the other side.
Better to deal discreetly.
Rather than calmly ‘woo’ Iran, Trump theatrically intones the deal lacks three covenants: restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles; mandatory inspections of Possible Military Dimension sites; and an extension beyond 10 years. So, he publicly demands Iran agree to their incorporation in the deal, tasks the European Union with re-writing the deal to include them, and threatens withdrawal if Iran and the EU fail to do his bidding.
The mere public declaration these covenants are missing is controversial. The deal was never intended to cover ballistic missiles; the IAEA can inspect Possible Military Dimension sites through a special procedure (discussed below), and several provisions (noted above) last beyond a decade.
The Nixonian Commandment would have Trump discuss the status of the covenants with Iran and the EU behind closed doors.
Never seek publicity that would destroy the ability to get results.
Trump’s narcissistic populism impedes his ability to appreciate Nixon’s insight that “publicity is a double-edged sword.” One edge is worth exposing: dignified criticism of Iran for collaborating with Hezbollah against Israel, and abuse of limited sanctions relief to fund extremist proxies. The other edge isn’t: calling the deal “insane” (as he did on April 24) slices the odds of building consensus with Iran and the P5+1.
Always leave your adversary a face-saving line of retreat.
Nixon championed the adage: “Build a golden bridge of escape for your enemies.” After all, as he said, “those whose self-respect is destroyed will, given a chance, retaliate.”
Trump is burning all bridges available to Iran.
The most golden of them is economic development to revive Iran’s dysfunctional, resource-dependent economy through open trade and investment reforms that would see an import-export bridge with the United States, and indeed 163 other bridges through Iran’s accession to the World Trade Organization.
The bridge-building question is whether Iran could become at least as economically robust a trading partner as Turkey, in exchange for its genuine, verifiable commitment to forswear nuclear weapons? Instead, Trump relishes autarkic isolation for a proud Persian civilisation.
Always carefully distinguish between friends who provide some human rights and enemies who deny all human rights.
Nixon said: “To take a magnifying glass to the faults of our friends and turn a blind eye to the record of our foes is not only wrong but stupid.” To be sure, his hard-headed realism prevented him from scrupulous adherence to this advice. Bangladeshis and Indians know well, as chronicled
The Blood Telegram, that he and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, threw out the ‘magnifying glass’ for their ‘friend,’ West Pakistan, as it butchered Bengalis in 1971. Pakistan was the intermediary to their ‘foe,’ Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, and thus central to their goal of opening China, notwithstanding the Chairman’s human rights record.
Human rights analysis plays no role in Trump’s deal calculus. He operates comfortably with Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemeni conflict in which roughly 14,000 have been killed (including over 5,000 civilians). He is silent when Iran puts 26 ISIS suspects on trial (as it did on April 28) for killing 18 in attacks at the Majlis (Parliament) and Āyatollāh Ruhollah Khomeini Mausoleum.
Differentiating levels of egregious behavior and expressing disagreement to match these levels, while maintaining commitments to allies, is the sophisticated, subtle Nixonian combination that Trump needs to use to enhance American prestige and influence.
Always do at least a much for our friends as our adversaries do for our enemies.
Nixon adhered to the view that “my friend’s enemies are my enemies.” Nixon stood loyal to Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when a Soviet-backed coalition of Arab armies nearly destroyed the Jewish state.
Risking détente with the Soviet Union, Nixon put American forces on alert, and Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz, recounted “President Nixon saved Israel.”
Trump does little for his friends. Australia, Canada, EU, Japan, and Mexico are Exhibits 1-5 from the Section 232 steel and aluminum trade war he ignited. In the deal context, Israel – yes, Israel – is Exhibit 6.
Trump is not the friend of Israel, in an alliance against Iran, that he is made out to be.
Friends tell friends uncomfortable truths. The truth is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s April 30 ‘Iran Lied’ presentation was a tragi-comedy. No true friend of Israel would have condoned a presentation that was so easily and swiftly rebutted.
Within 24 hours, the EU (including the United Kingdom), plus the IAEA made clear (1) there was nothing new in Netanyahu’s presentation, (2) Iran had no nuclear program after 2003, (3) the deal legalises Iran’s pledge not to pursue nukes, and (4) there is no evidence of Iran cheating on that deal.
It is no act of friendship to facilitate diminution of trust in the credibility and judgment of Israel. In 1973, Nixon did not ‘cry wolf’ to Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev, but in 2018, Trump enables Netanyahu to do so. Israel faced an existential threat in 1973. Israel faces existential threats today, from radical Islamist groups, and from hideous anti-Semitism that is all too common across the world.
But, Israel does not face an existential threat from the deal itself, a fact senior Israeli defence and security specialists get.
Never lose faith. In just cause faith can move mountains. Faith without strength is futile; but strength without faith is sterile.
Arguably Trump’s gravest sin is against this Commandment.
Nixon believed American democracy was superior in theory and practice to Soviet Communism. It’s tempting to accuse Trump of nihilism, of believing in nothing larger than himself, but the fairer point is the President has no faith in the IAEA, no faith in the deal provisions on PMDs and dispute resolution, and no faith in the future.
Maybe South Korean President Moon will get his wish and see a Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Trump.
But for now, it’s worth recalling who actually has won the Prize: the IAEA. The 2005 award went to the IAEA (shared with Mohammed El Baradei) for “efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way.”
The IAEA has not rested on this laurel. It polices the deal, with over 400 surprise, snap inspections in 2017 (double the number from 2012, before the deal).
As for PMDs, if Iran impedes or blocks IAEA access, the deal has a clear dispute resolution mechanism: a committee of the P5+1, and Iran, hears the complaint, and if it fails to resolve the dispute within a prescribed period, refers it to the Security Council.
Finally, the positive approach to the Iran deal is the way Nixon treated arms control with the Soviets: start with one doable agreement, then use it as a foundation for another deal.
If Trump wants Iran to curb its ballistic missiles and regional military escapades, then he ought to use the current deal as the basis for the next two. Why cast the deal into the rubbish bin, along with faith in its basic bargain: Iran complies in exchange for meaningful relief from crippling sanctions?
Exodus 31:18 teaches the Ten Commandments were “written with the finger of God.” He has big hands. President Trump might do well to size up at least to that of Nixon. A ‘No deal situation’ gives Iran radical freedom to build a nuke, and then the relevant Biblical analogy may be in Revelations about Armageddon.
(Raj Bhala is the inaugural Brenneisen Distinguished Professor, The University of Kansas, School of Law, and Senior Advisor to Dentons US LLP. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent the views of the State of Kansas or University, or Dentons or any of its clients, and do not constitute legal advice.
(The copy was published in an arrangement with BloombergQuint. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and The Quint neither endorses them nor is responsible for the same.)
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