Trump and Iran’s Nuclear Program – The Hamiltonian Perspective

From Britain, Pragmatically Distributed receives this question from prolier than thou:

So how does wanting to rip up the Iran nuclear deal fit in with this Hamiltonian ethic? By all accounts it’s been successful, and opening up to trade with America is surely in America’s interests. What are the critical American interests which require these kind of entanglements with Iran?

In the first place, the deal itself is dubious simply because it was signed by a terrorist supporting Iranian government with an outgoing “American” President whose policy has been to overthrow Western-allied Muslim dictators in Libya and Egypt, and intentionally replace those regimes with ones led by Islamic terrorists.  At a minimum the deal should be subjected to a very skeptical review by a Trump administration; and that administration should be free to alter or scrap this deal as it sees fit.

Aside from the questionable nature of the agreement itself and the equally questionable nature of the parties who agreed to it, there is the general issue of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Trump’s broader opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weaponry remains true to the best traditions of Hamiltonian foreign policy realism because his goal maintains the regional status quo, which is currently:

  1.  The reality of a nuclear Iran does not have to be factored into the present actions of regional powers because Iran is not nuclear at present.
  2. Ensuring Iran does not become nuclear – regardless whether the means to accomplish this involves harsh sanctions or an Israeli and/or American air attack against that program – leaves the region in its present strategic condition.

In the case of Iran it is, interestingly, the arguments of non-interventionists which are radical because an Iranian nuclear arsenal would alter in undesirable ways these current considerations for Iran, its neighbors, and the United States.

Even assuming the probability Iran would use a nuclear weapon in a first strike is zero (used either directly or by covertly handing them to a terrorist proxy) a nuclear weapon gives Iran immunity from the consequences of future non-nuclear aggression.  Western experience with Pakistan has demonstrated that a Muslim bomb allows an unstable, hostile government to safe harbor terrorists such as Bin Laden and attack its neighbor, India, with Kashmir separatists without having to fear conventional retaliation.

Nuclear weapons would give Iran considerable freedom to push the envelope of what terrorist and military activity it can engage in similar to that which Pakistan now enjoys.  It is not difficult to see realistic scenarios where Iran would use them as shields for their hostile behavior:  They may attack oil tankers in the Persian Gulf with conventional missiles in order to raise oil prices, or force the West to give into diplomatic blackmail (more airlifted Swiss Francs?) knowing that the West would be hesitant to counter-attack.  Even the risk of moderate financial sanctions in response to greater Iranian aggression would be curtailed.

Of course, the probability a mad Iranian government would launch an unprovoked first strike is not zero.  If it is still only one in billions, it is still higher than it is today when Iran has no nuclear capacity – therefore, keeping a weapon out of that nation’s hands in the future is still worthwhile from a strict cost-benefit analysis; ignoring their program is reckless.

Then there are the strategic responses Iran’s neighbors would make if Iran becomes nuclear:  Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey would likely begin developing their own programs to deter Iran.  Israel would accelerate development of their missile defense systems which in turn would met by an arms race of Muslim nuclear powers to develop more advanced missiles to defeat Israel’s shield.

These region-wide responses would be still more dangerous considering all of these regimes may be potentially brought down at a later date by very radical native movements who would then inherit control of the previous regime’s arsenal.

Non-interventionists have compared an airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to the Second Iraq War.

In truth, the non-interventionist case against an Israeli and/or American airstrike against Iran is similar to their destabilizing arguments made before the First Iraq War.  In 1990-1991 non-interventionists would have permitted Iraq to shift regional power to itself with its occupation of oil-rich Kuwait and threaten pro-American regimes in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Jordan.  The correct action of interventionists in the First Persian Gulf War was to restore the region to the old status quo through a limited military action that did not overthrow the enemy regime or require us to rebuild the enemy afterwards.  An airstrike would likewise be a move in favor of the current order, not require post-war nation building, nor overthrow the existing enemy regime.

In the case of modern day Iran, it is advocates of preserving the option of an air assault who are the real champions of stability and the opponents of an attack who are promoting anarchy just as was the case during the buildup to Operation Desert Storm.

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2 thoughts on “Trump and Iran’s Nuclear Program – The Hamiltonian Perspective”

  1. Thanks for the comprehensive answer. A few points.

    If maintaining the status quo falls within the parameters of Hamiltonian foreign policy that would seem to give America an awful lot of scope for involving itself in the world’s problems. As the famous quote goes, ‘things are going to have to change if we want them to stay the same’.

    Hamilton’s America was a very different place, free of lobbyists and special interest groups. No-one would have suspected that Israel or Saudi Arabia were influencing American foreign policy back then (amongst others) whereas they certainly will now. Before you can pursue a Nationalist line don’t you have to tackle the underlying causes that have prevented America from taking Trump’s before, as well as the reasons that America failed to stay on that course? If not, how much credibilty will America have that his course of action really is his own, and how can America ever be free of the interests and lobby groups that won’t just go away because he wants them to (assuming he does)?

    America was a new country with a clean slate in international terms 200 years ago. But this is no longer the case. The Iranians have a long back catalogue of legitimate grievances with America and the West including deposing their elected goverment at the behest of the oil industry and the backing of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Can Trump really expect, demand or deserve to be treated as a clean slate under these conditions?

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment, is Hamilton’s position still tenable in the modern interconnected world? I imagine a globalist critics of yours (or Trump’s, if you are correct) policy would say that the ease of international terrorism, global communications and travel, global ideologies, the interconnectedness of trade and economies and the power of modern weapons–as in this example with Iran–make it impossible for America to be anything but involved in world’s affairs, as they are interested in America. Again, he’s not starting with a clean slate and America has made a lot of enemies over the years.

    The thrust of your argument does seem to assume that if Trump does not tear up the deal then Iran will get nuclear weapons. But what is your reasons for saying this when there has been no indications that Iran is trying to advance in that direction? America had the option anyway of reviewing the deal if Iran was not living up to it, and in your example of cost-benefit analysis is it really worth tearing up an agreement that Iran seems to be abiding by when the cost is that Trump will be seen to be impoverishing Iran just getting on it’s feet–something which if accomplished could help by ‘draining the swamp’ of American resentment in that nation and thus building the prosperity and trade that could have helped build a stronger peace?

  2. Thanks for the comprehensive answer.

    The pleasure is mine.

    If maintaining the status quo falls within the parameters of Hamiltonian foreign policy that would seem to give America an awful lot of scope for involving itself in the world’s problems. As the famous quote goes, ‘things are going to have to change if we want them to stay the same’.

    During his lifetime Hamilton, of course, could not envision the specific foreign policy issues that America would confront from the early 19th century to the present.

    But his general foreign policy principles are the foundation of the realist diplomatic tradition followed by Hamilton’s ideological heirs in the Federalist, Whig, and, finally, Republican parties. And this tradition called for an active American diplomatic stance.

    The example he set and his successors refined over 200 years called for turning America into a wealthy global power, investing part of the nation’s wealth into a strong military that would support American diplomacy, prefer friendly authoritarian governments to unstable Utopian movements, and use military force only as a last resort to defend security and business interests.

    Hamilton’s fellow Federalist Party member, John Quincy Adams, wrote the Monroe doctrine which began the process of fulfilling Hamilton’s wish to transform the entire Western Hemisphere into an exclusively American sphere of influence. By the late 19th and early 20th century Republican presidents overtly interfered in Latin American politics for the benefit of our corporations.

    Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who collected and published Hamilton’s writings, led the Imperialist wing of the Republican Congress. He and Republicans like him such as Teddy Roosevelt supported war against Spain, annexation of the Philippines, continued American influence over Latin America, and American entrance into WWI (which Roosevelt later regretted but Lodge never did).

    America acting as an Empire of Capitalism (“Take the Oil“) is staying faithful to the long term intentions of Hamilton himself. Limiting Iran’s options to interfere in the strategically important Persian Gulf fall well within the scope of Hamiltonian foreign policy.

    Hamilton’s America was a very different place, free of lobbyists and special interest groups. No-one would have suspected that Israel or Saudi Arabia were influencing American foreign policy back then (amongst others) whereas they certainly will now.

    There is nothing wrong with those lobbies because we share common strategic objectives with those nations. Our Middle Eastern alliances, and our world wide relationships generally, are the legacy of the coalitions we built to defeat Soviet Russia. These relationships are still useful and worth maintaining.

    In the specific case of the Middle East, it was Eisenhower* who brought America into the region to prevent Communist Russia from gaining control of the region’s oil wealth. After the Cold War we retained our bases in the area from 1991 to 2001 to protect Saudi Arabia from a renewed offensive by Iraq. After 2001 we have remained involved in the area because of Muslim terrorism. Although terrorism was mishandled by the Bush administration, and actually promoted by the Obama administration, it is the Muslims who ungratefully provoked a confrontation with America after we had defended them from Soviet influence for 4 decades.

    Before you can pursue a Nationalist line don’t you have to tackle the underlying causes that have prevented America from taking Trump’s before, as well as the reasons that America failed to stay on that course?

    Reaching the full potential of Hamiltonian nationalism (which Trump has, seemingly instinctively, adopted as his own) has been obstructed for 84 years by Wilsonian Progressives. To restore Hamilton’s politics to their rightful place as America’s default politics, the Progressives will have to be crushed.

    But that topic will have to wait for future entries.

    The Iranians have a long back catalogue of legitimate grievances with America and the West including deposing their elected goverment at the behest of the oil industry and the backing of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Can Trump really expect, demand or deserve to be treated as a clean slate under these conditions?

    As explained before, Eisenhower meddled in Iran to prevent their pro-Russia regime from entering Soviet Russia’s orbit. As far as I’m concerned Iranians and Muslims in general have no justifiable grievances against our actions which helped win the Cold War – we also supported Pinochet’s coup against Allende but the Chileans have not resorted to anti-American terrorism like the Muslims have. If the Chileans can restrain themselves so should the Muslims, if the Muslims don’t they deserve to suffer the consequences of being in a constant state of hostility with their non-Muslim neighbors.

    To play devil’s advocate for a moment, is Hamilton’s position still tenable in the modern interconnected world? I imagine a globalist critics of yours (or Trump’s, if you are correct) policy would say that the ease of international terrorism, global communications and travel, global ideologies, the interconnectedness of trade and economies and the power of modern weapons–as in this example with Iran

    Interconnectedness does not mean every area of the world is equally important nor that we can’t be selective when and where we exercise our power.

    If anything, Hamiltonian realism is more relevant to conservatives in an interconnected world because it teaches to be active diplomatically but selective, and especially avoid spending resources advancing democracy when good foreign relations are possible with a foreign autocrat (Hamilton set this example when he argued strongly in favor of the Bourbons over the Jacobins).

    America had the option anyway of reviewing the deal if Iran was not living up to it, and in your example of cost-benefit analysis is it really worth tearing up an agreement that Iran seems to be abiding by when the cost is that Trump will be seen to be impoverishing Iran just getting on it’s feet–something which if accomplished could help by ‘draining the swamp’ of American resentment in that nation and thus building the prosperity and trade that could have helped build a stronger peace?

    IF they do go ahead with their nuclear program there are limited costs to voiding the treaty. Iranian trade with the world is insignificant economically, restoring aggressive sanctions or even using an airstrike to stop them would not have global economic impact.

    And I do not see why Americans should have any concern with Muslim resentment when that resentment should be gratitude (see the Eisenhower Doctrine below) and when Muslims have a 1400 year history of waging war and terror against their neighbors.

    Greece has much more legitimate reason to bear resentment against Muslims than the Muslims do against the West, but I don’t see the Islamic world offering to return Constantinople to make amends with the Greeks.

    * https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisenhower_Doctrine

    In the global political context, the Doctrine was made in response to the possibility of a generalized war, threatened as a result of the latent threat of the Soviet Union becoming involved in Egypt after the Suez Crisis. Coupled with the power vacuum left by the decline of British and French power in the region after the U.S. protested against the conduct of their allies during the Suez War, Eisenhower felt that a strong position needed to better the situation was further complicated by the positions taken by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was rapidly building a power base and using it to play the Soviets and Americans against each other, taking a position of “positive neutrality” and accepting aid from the Soviets.

    On the regional level, the intent was that the Doctrine would help to provide the independent Arab regimes with an alternative to Nasser’s political control, strengthening them while isolating Communist influence through isolation of Nasser. The Doctrine largely failed on that front, with Nasser’s power quickly rising by 1959 to the point where he could shape the leadership outcomes in neighboring Arab countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia; in the meantime, Nasser’s relationship with the Soviet leaders deteriorated, allowing the U.S. to switch to a policy of accommodation.

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