Vocal Europe: Are you surprised by the presidential elections’ outcome that Mr Trump becomes 45th president of the US?
Michael Rubin: Yes, I think almost everyone was and whoever says they were not, is lying. I did believe Trump was underrepresented in the polls—I travel a lot in rural areas like Kansas, Pennsylvania, southern Virginia, and Ohio—and it was clear to see that there was widespread disgust with Washington, but I believed that Clinton would win more of the swing states and clinch the presidency narrowly.
VE: What is your take on the elections’ result and its overall implication on the US-Iran relations in the coming months and years?
MR: The basic question many of us—both Democrat and Republican—had prior to the election was whether the Obama administration’s foreign policy would be an outlier or the new normal. The Democratic Party’s nomination of Hillary Clinton, a centrist, rather than socialist Bernie Sanders pretty much guaranteed that Obama’s policies in the Middle East would remain an outlier. No matter who won, the new president would be far less solicitous of and deferential to Iran. Whether on ballistic missiles, excess heavy water, or the necessity to inspect Revolutionary Guards-controlled bases, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have deferred to Iran’s interpretation. Both Clinton and Trump would take a far tougher line. There was never the breakthrough after the Iran deal that Obama and Kerry hoped for, however. Relations remained cold, largely because of the xenophobia and ideological hostility of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There may be some commercial dealings, but there will be no significant change in relations.
VE: Mr Trump called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – known commonly as the Iranian nuclear deal- as one of “the worst deal” he has “ever seen” and declared that his priority would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran”. Should we expect any major changes in the ongoing US-Iran relations, particularly in the nuclear deal?
MR: President-elect Trump criticized the deal consistently in his campaign. Legally, there is no impediment for walking away from it: it was ever approved by a majority of senators, and it was never submitted to the Senate for ratification as a treaty. It will be harder to walk away from the corollary UN Security Council Resolution 2231, but there have been enough Iranian violations at the margin and disputes over interpretations, that it will be possible to declare Tehran in violation and step back. That said, the way the JCPOA is designed, rather than calibrate reward to compliance over the length of the deal, Iran received all of its benefits up front. If Trump simply shreds the agreement, Iran really loses nothing and the U.S. loses the admittedly lax monitoring the JCPOA put in place. What I expect is that the United States might ratchet up terrorism sanctions at the level of individual U.S. states and would also be less willing to encourage business.
VE: Referring to the words said by Mr Trump; ‘’I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS”, do you expect any shift of the US’ position in Syria?
MR: Yes and no. Yes, I would expect the stated position of the United States to shift toward reconciliation with Assad in the belief that he can better bring security and constrain radical Islamists. (This is a position with which I disagree). But, no, because despite Obama’s rhetoric, the reality of the U.S. position is that for several years, it has been shifting toward greater conformity with that of the Syrian government and Russia.
VE: It is not a secret that the Obama Administration and President Erdogan have been at odd on my domestic, regional and international issues. Do you think that the Trump Administration will have a better understanding with President Erdogan?
MR: The early indications are yes. In my book Dancing with the Devil, a history of U.S. diplomacy with so-called rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I detail a historical pattern where almost every president enters office blaming the failures of diplomacy on their predecessor rather than their adversary. That was the case with Hillary Clinton when, as Secretary of State, she launched the “reset” initiative with the Russian government. And it was the case with the Obama administration initially when it sought renewed engagement with the Assad regime after Bush had given him the cold shoulder. Obama was initially very close to Erdogan. He described him as one of his top foreign friends. Even Obama’s own national security council privately questioned how close he had become to Erdogan. But, by 2013, Obama recognized just how erratic Erdogan had become and how Erdogan was supporting the Islamic State and Nusra Front behind-the-scenes. Trump may enter office blaming Obama for the poor relations with Turkey, but he will eventually come to see that the problem is Erdogan.
VE: Mr Trump’s top military adviser Michael T. Flynn pens a piece for the Hill magazine, liken Fethullah Gulen – a Muslim cleric who lives in the US, to Ayatollah Khomeini. Furthermore, he said Turkey is the US’ strongest ally against ISIS and a source of stability in the region. Do you think that the new Trump Administration will extradite Mr Gulen to Turkey based on the Turkish government’s allegations that he and his movement masterminded the attempted coup of 15 July in Turkey?
MR: Flynn’s articles raised eyebrows because it was at such odds with Flynn’s previous work and the reality of Erdogan. It has since emerged that Flynn did not declare a lobbying relationship with a Turkish company close to Erdogan. Accordingly, Flynn might now be the first ethics scandal of Trump’s post-election team. The fact of the matter is that, whatever one thinks of Gulen, the Turkish government has yet to provide any evidence that he was involved in the events of July 15. The dossiers it did turn over were just general castigations of Gulen’s movement. Even if Trump wants to turn Gulen over, Erdogan will be frustrated: There is a rule-of-law in the United States and a process which the president simply does not have the power to short-circuit. If Gulen is turned over, however, I suspect relations will get worse because the extradition will convince Erdogan that blackmail and bluster work.
*Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.