Sanctions “hurt Iranians.” That was the un-startling revelation by an American think-tank personality, a “friend-of-Iran,” in a recent radio interview. Well, of course they do. But the larger goal is to force the behavior of the regime; regrettably, but to be brutally honest, “hurting Iranians” is part of the process to pressure the leadership. The think-tank interviewee’s other non-insight was to suggest that “Tehran’s strategy is to wait Trump out.” The interview, conducted before Tuesday’s elections, saw the friend-of-Iran opining that Tehran will hope that the Democrats take over one or both chambers of Congress. Here’s the reality check: if history is any guide, the Republican defeat in the House of Representatives might instead prove detrimental to the health of the “Islamic Republic.” All things considered, Iran would be better off if the Republicans had retained control of both the House and the Senate.
Because of the structure of the US government, the executive branch is much more autonomous in foreign policy than it is over domestic policy. In local affairs, presidents have to build consensus, court legislators, convince citizens and push laws through both chambers of Congress. As a result of the arduous nature of American legislation, presidents slam through their domestic agenda in their first two years in office, when their party often has better control of Congress.
Former president Barack Obama scored two major achievements – the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) and the Dodd-Frank law on banking – between his election in 2008 and the time his Democratic party lost Congress in 2010. Similarly, president Donald Trump has crammed his signature promises into his first two years, during which Congress passed substantial tax cuts and tried to repeal Obamacare.
After losing Congress, Obama refocused his policy on foreign affairs. Because a Republican Congressional majority threw a wrench into Obama’s domestic program, he began to focus more on the wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya, as well as on his ambitious plan to restore US relations with Iran. The Democratic loss of the Senate in 2014 further accelerated Obama’s push on his last hurrah, or what he deemed as his signature foreign-policy achievement: The nuclear deal with Iran.
Like Obama, Trump will increasingly feel the Democratic squeeze on his domestic interests. And like Obama, in order to compensate for internal paralysis, Trump will refocus his attention on foreign affairs, especially Iran. Sanctions on Tehran already have kicked back in this week, and it is likely the president will up the ante.
Since his election in 2016, Trump has shown unparalleled interest in confronting Iran and cracking down on its destabilizing activity in the region. Trump has said that Iran used the money it received under the nuclear deal not to improve living standards in Iran, but to fund Tehran’s loyalist militias, who are sowing chaos and destruction throughout the region.
Whereas Obama saw the nuclear deal as the cornerstone of improving relations with Iran, Trump sees it as a boost for Iranian troublemaking, and thus an impediment for restoring good relations between the world and Tehran. Iran knows that Trump is not its friend, and hence, Iranian lobbyists in Washington spelled out the Tehran’s strategy: Wait out Trump.
Trump’s presidency ends in January 2021, unless he wins a second term. While Tehran and its friends hope that the Republican loss in Congress will foreshadow his presidential loss in 2020, there is little evidence that the two are connected.
Losing the House relieves the president of vast responsibility for whatever policy failures happen on his watch. Unlike the past two years, during which Trump and his party controlled all branches of government, now with the House of Representatives outside of Trump’s control, when things go wrong he can simply blame the Democrats in Congress, and thus save some face and popularity.
Furthermore, the loss of an incumbent president in his battle for reelection is such a rare occurrence in modern American politics, especially if – come summer 2020 – the economy continues its remarkable growth. Should the economy keep up its head of steam, Trump’s reelection would look almost certain, though Congress will probably remain in Democratic hands until the end of his presidency, and possibly beyond.
Such a scenario means that Iran’s strategy of waiting out Trump might have to be stretched out to six, rather than two, years, which poses questions about the ability of Iranians to survive Trump’s crippling sanctions.
A much better outcome for Iran – though counterintuitive – would have been for the Republicans to keep both chambers of Congress until 2020, which would have kept Trump busier with domestic affairs and further weakened his reelection chances. But unlike what Tehran and its friends in Washington might think, Republicans losing the House might prove to be well against the interests of the Iranian regime.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.
AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE