What We Can Expect from Trump & My Message to Iranians on Trump: Prove Him Wrong by Fighting for Peace & Human Rights

The Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) conducted another interview with me (see previous one here) a few weeks ago about both what both Americans and the world can expect from Trump, and about U.S. relations with Iran in the Trump era; while I am grateful that their published version included much of my original commentary, some of my comments more critical of the Iranian government did not make it into the final version, understandable given the realities of the Iranian system and media climate; whether you disagree with such censorship or not, here, I have provided the full text of my original interview so that readers may get a fuller context and a more accurate sense of the balance in my overall take and message, though there is nothing inaccurate in the versions posted by ISNA per se.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse January 27, 2017

By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter: @bfry1981) January 27th, 2017; original interview conducted December 24th-26th, 2017; here is the English version of the interview published by ISNA on January 24th, and here is the Farsi (Persian) version

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Iranian Student News Agency (interviewer: Atefeh Moradi): The US election has passed, but we can truly see the polarized atmosphere in American society; how do you anticipate the political and social situation after 20 Jan.?

Brian FrydenborgTo be honest, it will be pretty awful. 53.9% of voters chose a candidate other than Trump, including 48.2% for Secretary Clinton, to Trump’s 46.1% (f this seems strange, just look up Electoral College on the Internet, and you will see that American elections are based on voting majorities divided into specific regions, not an absolute national majority). Yet Trump and his party will control the White House and both houses of Congress (with a large majority in the House and a small majority in the Senate), as well as the federal judiciary once Trump starts making judicial appointments and getting them confirmed, including filling that all-important vacant Supreme Court seat. For at least the next two years and likely even a longer period, this means almost 54% of Americans who voted will have no real power to check President Trump and his Republican Party from enacting an agenda they very forcefully do not support.

The one real exception to this is the filibuster, a Senate rule that, on most issues, allows the minority to prevent passage of something that cannot get at least 60 of 100 senators to support it; however, each new Congress can make its own rules, and Republicans will have the power to get rid of the filibuster if they choose to do so, which would become increasingly likely if Democrats use it block Trump’s and the Republicans’ agenda. If this happens, the Democrats lose their one way to check Trump independent of any help from Republicans, and, thus, will be powerless if Republicans stay united. Yes, in some ways, the Republican Party has not been this divided since the 1960s, but if one looks closer, this is not the case: while conservative public intellectuals and publications, many former Republicans officials (including both living former Republican presidents), and numbers of important major Republican political donors and fundraisers either privately or publicly oppose Trump, this is a tiny elite within the scope of the party as a whole; only a handful of senators and a small portion of Republican representatives in Congress consistently and publicly opposed Trump; nearly the entire Republican membership of Congress either supported Trump or dared not opposed him, and with the megaphone of the presidency on top of his Twitter-following of nearly 18 million people, Trump will be seeking to loudly intimidate any opposition, whether within his own party or not, and those within his own party will be highly vulnerable to this pressure as Trump can easily use it to rouse his followers. The political stalemate of the last six years will end as one party, led by Trump more than anyone else, will control the highest levels of the entire federal government.

What this means is that the nearly-54% will certainly see many of their hopes dashed and their fears realized, in particular women and minorities like African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans who have been subject to abuse of power by the private sector and the government at the local, state, and federal level. A Trump Administration seems poised to either stop actively protecting these groups from abuses with any vigor at the least, or to actively undermine some of the protections and gains they have enjoyed in civil rights that have been enacted in recent years. Either way, racial, ethnic, and religious tensions that have been simmering and occasionally exploding into riots and violent attacks over the past few years in America are likely to get dramatically worse under Trump and serious civil unrest is a real possibility; this will especially be the case if Trump keeps acting the way he has been, which is to say, in ways that do nothing to assure groups fearful of a Trump presidency that they will be respected and have their needs and concerns addressed seriously.

ISNA:Some analysts believe Trump campaign’s rhetoric is not the cornerstone of his policies, what would be your stance toward this?

BF: I would call this out as wishful thinking. While Trump’s stated positions have shifted so many times it’s been easy to lose count, his rhetoric and his style have stayed fairly consistent, and the overall content of his rhetoric makes it clear that many of his harsher policies are going to be pursued with vigor; any doubt about this should have been erased by his cabinet picks announced thus far. Even if he ends up enacting a milder form of some of what he has discussed, such policies will still be game-changers and move the country sharply to the right policy-wise. But as a practical matter, his supporters—and, within the Republican Party’s group of elected officials, a strong core of the Republican House members—will insist that he carries out his promises, and Trump, ever so needful of admiration and validation, won’t want to disappoint his biggest fans. So his constituents and counterparts in Congress will make it hard for him to backtrack, even if he wants to, which on most issues he probably does not. 

ISNA: In regard with Trump’s cabinet nominees, can you anticipate the upcoming Washington policies?

BF: The best sign that Trump might move into a “governing mode” and power down his “campaign mode” would have been putting moderate people who could unite the country into key positions of power, most notably selecting either Mitt Romney or David Petraeus as Secretary of State. By picking big-oil CEO Rex Tillerson (a Putin ally) as Secretary of State, but also along with virtually all of his other choices, Trump made it clear he has no intention of generally pursuing a more moderate course. Instead, he has assembled the most extreme and most right-wing cabinet and White House in American presidential history. A simple look at his choices and their records make this beyond dispute, so there should be no confusion as to what to expect from them. In several agencies—the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, the Department of Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency—Trump even appointed people who don’t believe in the agencies core missions or are downright hostile to them. Others, like Dr. Ben Carson for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Nikki Haley for Ambassador to the United Nations, are supremely unqualified; still others like Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman are outright extremists. And those who will be running the economy hail from the billionaire class. So those who are saying “Let’s wait and see…” are deluding themselves if they mean in any way to imply that a moderate course is a possibility and that moderates and liberals should not jump to conclusions: Trump’s behavior, actions, and selections are sending a clear message that would be foolish not to acknowledge.

ISNA: The US nuclear suitcase is in Trump’s hands now, do you think there should be any doubt about it?

BF: Let’s put it this way: should we think Trump would use nuclear weapons for fun or just on a whim? No. But the man’s character and temperament are so vastly different from every single president before him, and unsuited to the responsibility of the decision to use or not use nuclear weapons, that if a crisis with a major power like China erupted, I would be worried to have Trump as a Commander in Chief. If one recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis, WWIII and nuclear war were avoided because the cooler heads of both Kennedy and Khrushchev prevailed; the only way the phrase “cooler head” and the word “Trump” can fit into the same sentence is with satire. So if a truly grave situation did emerge, yes, we should be worried that Trump would be more likely to both threaten and use nuclear weapons than any previous American president in a similar situation. As it is, Trump is already calling for America to expand its nuclear arsenal, and the last thing that is good for the world now is a new nuclear arms race.  

This, in particular, concerns Iran, and Iran is in a tough position. Should Iran resume uranium enrichment because Trump follows through on his pledge to end the nuclear agreement from the U.S. side between the great powers and Iran, this would likely cause two things to occur: 1.) an attempt by Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear program of its own, and perhaps Turkey, maybe even others, and 2.) an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities that would likely be supported or joined by a Trump Administration, sparking a wider war in the Middle East, likely between the U.S. and Sunni-led powers on one side and Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in one form or another on the other. Yemen and Bahrain could easily become battlegrounds, and there is reason to consider as a serious possibility Russia joining or at least supporting the Shiite side, as Russia now already has something of an alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian Government through Syria’s Civil War.

ISNA: Trump repeatedly said that he is not for JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal], although EU senior officials say it is beyond Trump’s authority to make any changes to this agreement; what would be your explanation on this issue?

BF: Trump can definitely end U.S. participation in the agreement, and can get Congress reapply the sanctions that were removed as part of it (these are separate from the current sanctions regarding military and terrorism issues). Would it be fair if Trump broke the agreement with Iran? No. Would it be understandable, even justified, for Iran to resume uranium enrichment under those circumstances? Of course. Yet sometimes, what you have the right and ability to do isn’t always the right choice, and the question Iran’s leaders will have to really ask themselves is this: is it really in Iranian interests to do so? Because if it does, the possibility of an Israeli strike—however unjustified or justified, leaving that question out it—supported or even joined by the U.S. becomes highly likely, and that is a situation that will be no good for Iran and Shiites all around the Middle East, especially those who are living under oppressive Sunni governments, or for the Middle East in general, not good at all. It will result in large losses of life and perhaps catastrophic economic and physical destruction.

Sometimes, leadership is about swallowing pride and being able to absorb verbal and diplomatic abuse (in this case, coming from a Trump Administration) than it is about confrontation and conflict, even if one feels one’s cause is just. Peace is its own reward and there are a number of outcomes that can be good for Iran that do not involve uranium enrichment. For one thing, after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and watching the Arab Spring churn largely into chaos, destruction, and death, there is virtually no appetite in the U.S. for a war that would involve overthrowing Iran’s government and occupying Iran with American troops; thus, should Iran seek nuclear weapons capability as a way to prevent a U.S. invasion and the overthrow of Iran’s own government, it is trying to prevent something that in all likelihood will not be happening, yet the pursuit of such a goal would be ruinous for Iran, as plenty of military options for the Israel and the U.S. exist, with their superior air forces, that do not involve an invasion or overthrowing the Iranian government.

For another thing, if Trump cancels the agreement and Iran does not resume enrichment, the moral high ground on this issue (apart from other considerations) will be incredibly strong for Iran, and the pressure on Trump and the U.S. from the rest of the world powers will be considerable, so great that the pressure the U.S. faces could be severe and beyond verbal, and if Trump initiates major trade wars with countries like China and Mexico, sanctions against the U.S. for violating the agreement would be even greater possibility that they would otherwise, though not necessarily likely. If Iran can resist the temptation and behave more responsibly than American leadership, the support from Europe, Russia, and China would be that much greater. And, ultimately, those nations are doing far more business with Iran than the U.S. In the end, the temptation to resume enrichment would be great, and nobody likes to undergo that level of pressure, but the longer-term interests of Iran, and the lives of the Iranian people, will be much better served by not pursuing such a course. If Trump behaves poorly and Iran conducts itself with restraint, the stature of Iran in worldwide diplomatic circles will only increase, with a deeper level of respect than it currently enjoys. It Iran tried to match Trump taunt for taunt, insult for insult, threat for threat—as some of his former Republican rivals tried to do—Iran will only be seen as more like Trump than as conducting itself in a more dignified manner, and Trump’s Republican rivals show there is no out-Trumping Trump: if there is one thing the Republican primaries taught us, it is that Trump always wins when his opponents sink to his level. Finally, Iran can know that many American people will appreciate this restraint, and should politics shift and Democrats make a comeback, new people who noted Iran’s praise-worthy restraint would be empowered by such restraint to improve U.S.-Iranian relations and support Iran should it pursue policies that defuse tensions and further peace.

ISNA: And finally, do you believe amid tensions which still are in the two countries’ relationship, especially regarding US sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program, and that so far have not vanished as was predicted after JCPOA, that it would be possible that Iran and US could be better friends rather than enemies?

BF: Well, the relevant nuclear-related sanctions have been removed by the Obama Administration; other sanctions related to other matters are separate issues. But to whether Iran and the U.S. make better friends than enemies, of course we make better friends. It just becomes much harder with Trump and the Republican Party running America’s foreign policy, and especially if the sanctions that have been removed by Obama are reimposed by Trump. Clinton would have been tough, but fair, with Iran: she would have honored the JCPOA, and have used that a basis to work for breakthroughs with Iran on Syria, Iraq, Israel, and other regional issues; such work might have led to the lifting of other non-nuclear sanctions. I have always believed that Iran and the U.S. have plenty of issues with which they can find enthusiastic agreement. And I think it’s overdue for a grand ayatollah to come to Washington and for a president to go to Tehran.

And yet, the biggest obstacle to having the JCPOA become a springboard for further cooperation thus far has been Syria. I’ve personally been disappointed in Iran’s actions when it comes to Syria. As old as the concept and word “terrorism” has been around, it has been used by oppressive leaders as an excuse to crush opposition and impose iron-fisted rule. This can be the case if there is no actual terrorism or, in the case of Syria, if there is very real terrorism, even the worst in the world. Iran has good reason to fear Sunni extremist terrorism from the likes of ISIS and al-Qaeda, but one can stand against terrorism while also condemning the slaughter of Syria’s people on a massive scale by the Assad government. I understand and respect that Assad is an Alawite and that Alawites are religious cousins of Iran’s Shiites, but history will judge Iran for its support of Assad and Russia’s assault on large segments of Syria’s civilian population, not just terrorists. Even with ISIS in charge of Mosul, with the Iraqi Army having the U.S. as an ally and behaving in a relatively restrained way towards civilians, look at how much worse the civilian killings and refugee situation is for Aleppo with the Syrian forces’ assault backed by Russia (it is interesting that Iran has advisors, forces, and/or militias involved in both operations, and can easily tell the differences in the conduct and brutality of the operations for themselves even if it does not acknowledge these differences publicly). In particular, I was saddened that Iran did not forcefully condemn Assad’s relatively larger-scale use of chemical weapons against his own people back in the fall of 2013, because I know how horribly Iranians and suffered when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in an even more massive way against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, with the support and cover-up of the Reagan Administration, one of America’s most shameful acts.

Thus, I was hoping that Iran could be the conscience of the Assad regime since it is clear that Assad and Putin have almost none when it comes to Syria’s people. Imagine if Iran was seen not only to be a protector of Shiites, but also of Sunnis in Syria? I still believe that Iran can act within Syria as a force to reduce the brutality and killing of the civil war, something very clearly in line with more mainstream Islamic teachings since the time of the Prophet Muhammed himself, who during war generally urged humane treatment over brutality (after all, the very first verse of the Quran refers to Allah by the title of “the Merciful,”) and to act to push against Assad’s government’s and Russia’s military’s acts of indiscriminate killing.  

If Iran were to ensure that Assad, if(?)/when(?) victorious, shows mercy and takes great care to protect civilians, Iran can play the most constructive role of any power in Syria given the present realities, eclipsing Russia, Turkey, the Gulf, and the West (including the U.S.) in helping to make a humanitarian difference and saves lives. It is beneath the dignity of Iran to be an accomplice in the abuses of Assad against his own people, and Iran can be more than just a no-questions-asked ally like Russia, which is even taking part in the mass killings with its air force and heavy weapons. While Iran’s own government has its issues with human rights, it has never done anything to its own people that rises to Assad’s level of brutality, even in the suppressions that followed the end of the 1979 Iranian Revolution; during the run-up the Revolution, the Shah, too, did not even come close to Assad’s current levels of mass murder. 

Part of the spirit of the Iranian Revolution was originally one of standing up to oppression; for Iran to be true to itself and its ideals, it must work to help alleviate the suffering of Syria’s people, not just Alawite, but Sunnis, too, Kurds, and all of Syria’s people, especially to protect civilians at the mercy of Assad’s government and Russia’s air force who have been shown no mercy or next to none. With its troops on the ground and its close ally Hezbollah heavily involved in fighting in Syria on Assad’s behalf, and with Assad’s own official forces so heavily depleted, Iran is in the best position to do something about human rights and saving lives in Syria. If it does so clearly, visibly, and verifiably under international observers, it will win hearts and minds all over the West and the Sunni world, in addition to the Shiite world. 

If it helps Assad kill genocidal or near-genocidal-numbers of Syrians and turns a blind eye to this reality, it will be behaving just like Russia is now and like Saddam Hussein behaved in Iraq, and far crueler than the Shah. I believe Iran can be better than this, and if that happens, maybe not under Trump, but eventually the American government will show substantive appreciation for such actions of protection and mercy, along with the rest of the world community. But right now, with the world horrified not just by ISIS (and rightfully so) but also by the Assad government’s actions in Syria and especially Aleppo (and rightfully so), Iran is associated with this killing in Syria and it makes it harder for the West to proceed on negotiating with Iran when it comes to other issues, negotiations that may lead to the removal of non-nuclear sanctions. In fact, Iran turning a blind eye to mass killing in Syria makes it that much harder for other regional partners to trust it in working to find common ground on and resolutions to other important Middle Eastern issues.

Any who doubt that Iran and the U.S. can find common ground should look only to the crisis with former-Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki from 2014, when the Obama Administration, Iran, Iraq’s Shiite political establishment, and Shiite religious leaders in both Iran and Iraq came together to insist the divisive Maliki step aside to give new, less divisive leadership a chance, giving eventual rise to the far more accommodating team of Dr. Haider al-Abadi (more on that in my article here). Iraqi, Iranian, and American interests are all better-off as a result, and especially the Iraqi people, thus proving American-Iranian cooperation can bring about positive change to the region. 

Ironically, the Trump Administration will be far less concerned about human rights than other recent American administrations and is seeking to come together with Russia, which makes Iran’s respect for human rights all the more important when it comes to Syria. I can say one thing: to be seen coming together with Putin and Trump in working against human rights and ganging up against Sunnis will not raise Iran’s standing globally, nor will it make things better for the people of the Middle East, whether they are Shiite, Sunni, or of other faiths; the last thing that is in Iran’s and the region’s interests is a worsening of the Sunni-Shiite conflict already playing out across the region. With the rise of Trump, Iran has a unique chance to be a champion of human rights, peace, and mercy in a region where now even fewer powers are acting towards those ends. I hope Iran’s leaders and people together see that this is a great opportunity for them, even in spite of the many challenges, some unfair, Iran may face in choosing such a course. But the right course is often not the easiest, as the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and the major Shiite Imams Ali and Hussain, so revered by Iranians, amply demonstrate.

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