Living with Cognitive Dissonance: On Trump’s Decision to Leave the Iran Nuclear Deal

Can the same Trump who lies constantly, flouts the norms of the rule of law, fans the flames of racial resentment and attacks basic notions of fact and evidence offered by journalists and his own law enforcement and intelligence agencies, can this same man be right about leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran nuclear deal of 2015? This instance of cognitive dissonance, of holding two or more contradictory beliefs in our minds at the same time, is staring us in the face. The serial liar, that man who has undermined our alliances and replaces rational explanations with conspiracy theories has made the right decision to leave the JCPOA and to restore and intensify the economic sanctions on Iran in an effort to bring about a definitive end to both its nuclear program and its regional imperialism in the Middle East. In the polarized climate he has done so much to create, Trump supporters forget Trump the liar while agreeing on policy while those of us who oppose him reject any policy he advocates. The desire for consistency generally overwhelms the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. In the following, I make the case for living with the discomfort of accepting that this awful man who is wrong about most everything is right about this issue.

My credentials as a critic of Trump’s authoritarianism, appeals to racism, attraction to conspiracy theories and disdain for basic norms of truth, fact and evidence are a matter of public record. After Obama’s eight years of euphemisms and avoidance of frank talk about Islamism, and his refusal to make a public distinction between Islamism and Islam in general, Trump followed by also refusing to make distinctions, beginning his administration with bigotry via his attempted ban on Muslims. At the time, I noted and regretted their shared refusal to make such distinctions. Bush and Obama refused to distinguish between Islamism and Islam probably because they feared that the distinctions would be lost on a mass public and would thus foster racism and religious intolerance toward Muslims. Trump doesn’t make the distinctions because he gives every indication of thinking that they don’t exist.

Among the many reasons Trump won the electoral college in 2016 was that he understood at a visceral level that since the attacks of 9/11, American political leaders, especially but not only those left of center, had refused to state, namely that those attacks had something to do with interpretations of the religion of Islam known as “Islamism” or “radical Islam.” With their important works of 2002, Paul Berman in New York and Matthias Kuentzel in Hamburg carefully examined the connections between the distinctive 20th century tradition of Islamism and terror. The Israeli historian Meir Litvak, in a series of essays, documented the centrality of vehement antisemitism at the ideological core of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) has offered ongoing documentation of Islamist and Iranian government hatreds and their connections to interpretations of Islam, a documentation that has been read by officials in the United States government as well as by politicians and policy analysts in Washington. In essays on “reactionary modernism” and the terrorists of Al Qaeda and in my research on Islamism, Arab radicalism and Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust, I too drew attention to the distinctive tradition of Islamism that accentuated and radicalized the anti-Jewish texts in the traditions of Islam.

Yet these and other works that drew attention to the Islamist sources of terror did not influence either the Bush or the Obama administrations’ public effort to educate the American public. The odd slogan “war on terror” inaugurated an era of euphemism and avoidance. Authors who subsequently joined the Trump camp denounced the analysts of Islamism as apologists for Islam because we failed to see that the problem was in the religion itself. The result of this dismissal of fact and evidence, especially in the Obama years, was that when a frank discussion of Islamism and the ideological core of the Iranian regime did not come from the political center and the left-of center, it migrated to the right, even to the far right in the name of attacks on “political correctness.” In Steve Bannon and Breitbart News it found a sympathetic ear. In Donald Trump it found its spokesman. Liberals were, in their great majority, intimidated into silence by charges from the left and from the Islamists themselves of “Islamophobia,” defined as an unreasoning and irrational fear of all Muslims and disdain for the religion of Islam in general. A central irony of the post 9/11 years has been that liberals, those whose values and lives were most under assault by the reactionary and totalitarian ideology and actions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, did not wage a political and intellectual battle against these ideas, and by and large liberals continue to avoid this issue.

The Iran nuclear deal emerged in the context of the past decade’s history of euphemism and avoidance regarding the issue of Islamism and terror in the aftermath of 9/11. Furthermore, President Obama, a worldly and cosmopolitan politician, did not use the bully pulpit to tell the American people what the Iranian leaders actually believed about their goals in the region and the intensity of their antagonism to the West and to Israel. He made the classic error of underestimating the regime’s driving ideology and thus assumed that a change of policy by the United States would bring a change of policy in Tehran. In eight years as president, Obama did not give a single major speech, much less a series of speeches, to educate the American and world public about the ideological passions of the Iranian theocracy. His State Department, under Hilary Clinton and then John Kerry, did not engage in a major and persistent campaign to publicize the antisemitism and threats to destroy the state of Israel that came with regularity from Tehran. Then in the course of the negotiations with Iran, Obama and Kerry separated the nuclear issue from the Iranian regime’s ideological orientation, hostility to Israel, sponsorship of terrorism in the Middle East, and its support of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Syrian dictatorship. As Michael Doran pointed out in an important essay of 2015, the Iran nuclear deal was not only about nuclear weapons. It also constituted a broader effort at rapprochement and détente in the hopes that the regime in Tehran would moderate its behavior. It was a gamble that a gesture of good will by the United States and the other participants in the negotiations would be reciprocated by Iran in the form of a change of its foreign and military policy. The gamble of separating the nuclear issue from the overall political issue of Iran’s actions in the region did not pay off.

There was also a disturbing and often unnoticed aspect of the structure of the negotiations with Iran. The countries most menaced by the Islamic Republic, Israel and Saudi Arabia, were not at the table while others, especially Russia and China, which faced no threat at all, were. Britain, France and Germany also participated, hoping that gestures of good will toward Iran would lead Iran to refrain from threatening them (and instead to offer them lucrative business opportunities). In that sense, the absence of those most threatened at the talks recalled the absence of Czechoslovakia at the Munich talks as the “great powers” of 1938 negotiated about its fate.

Had Obama listened to critics of his policy and modified the American negotiating strategy accordingly he might have gained enough support in the Senate to give the agreement the status of a treaty. He did not do so. Opposition to the deal in the Congress came mostly but by no means only from Republicans. Though all Republicans in the Senate opposed the deal, the leading and most well-informed critic of the JCPOA in the United States Senate was Robert Menendez, a Democratic Senator from New Jersey and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who offered detailed criticisms in numerous hearings and speeches. Yet the Obama White House made clear that those who opposed the deal would be accused of advocating war, a charge that was effective in silencing most dissent within the ranks of Democrats.

In a series of blog posts at The Times of Israel in 2015, I offered a close reading of the text of the JCPOA. I noted that the deal did not insist that the Iranian regime cease its threats to destroy the state of Israel, threats which, as Assistant United States Attorney Henry Kopel has argued, fall under the rubric of incitement to genocide in the United Nations Genocide convention. It left important military sites in Iran uninspected. It created large economic incentives for the signers of the deal, especially the British, French, Germans, Russians and Chinese, to overlook or excuse Iranian cheating and thus created levers to deter an American “snap-back” of sanctions. Its sunset clauses meant that within ten years, the most severe restrictions would be lifted. It would make it possible, as Netanyahu pointed out, for Iran to eventually build the bomb even by adhering to the terms of the treaty. It prematurely lifted economic sanctions rather than intensifying pressure to bring about a better deal. David Horovitz, the editor of the centrist Times of Israel, has recently summarized the core problems with the JCPOA, recalling Israel’s exclusion from the talks and the multiple blunders that brought it about. Mark Dubowitz, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, offered yet more detailed and expert criticism in essays and in testimony in congressional hearings.

Like other arms control negotiations, the JCPOA understandably and necessarily focuses attention on technical details. However it was a mistake for Obama and Kerry not to raise the core political issues in the talks as well. The desire for a deal overrode a willingness to raise the issue of Iranian violation of the incitement clause of the Genocide convention or to insist that it cease to support terrorism and military intervention in the Middle East. The United States did not insist on making an end to Iranian government sponsored antisemitism a potential deal breaker. The separation of the technical fr-m these political issues helped to produce the flawed agreement.

In response to critics, the Obama administration replied that the only alternative to the deal was war. That was never true, but it was a revealing admission that, as Kuentzel has recently pointed out, the United States was indeed responding to Iranian threats and extortion. One of the administration’s officials sank into the gutter when he/she called Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” apparently because the Israeli Prime Minister had the good sense to listen to his military advisers who advised against a solo Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. That was a low point in American relations with Israel, one that must have sent a comforting signal to the Iranian leaders. Such a public insult to Israel weakened the American negotiating position and strengthened that of Iran which obviously noted the Obama administration’s eagerness for a deal and willingness to distance itself from the issues raised by the Israelis. The bitter irony of the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, and then of the election of 2016, remained what it had been since 9/11. When criticisms of the reactionaries in Tehran did not come from Obama-era liberals and when those liberals who did make such criticisms were dismissed, a different kind of criticism, less informed and hostile to Islam in general, came to the fore. That criticism was picked up by Donald Trump, who therefore gained credibility in an electorate much of which could see through the illusions of the JCPOA.

Now, in spring 2018, the President infamous for attacking the truth has told his Secretary of State to tell the truth about the JCPOA. On May 21, 2018 in Washington, Secretary Mike Pompeo gave a speech that echoed those made by Senator Menendez in 2015 and indeed included made many points that Menendez and others had made in criticism of the deal. Pompeo noted that Iran pocketed 150 billion dollars and used it to support its wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; expand its missile programs and restock the arsenals of Hezbollah and Hamas. He said that “the mechanisms for inspecting and verifying Iran’s compliance with the deal were simply not strong enough. The deal did nothing to address Iran’s continuing development of ballistic and cruise missiles, which could deliver nuclear warheads… Strategically, the Obama administration made a bet that the deal would spur Iran to stop its rogue state actions and conform to international norms. That bet was a loser with massive repercussions for all of the people living in the Middle East.” Hezbollah in Lebanon has been greatly strengthened. Iran sent thousands of fighters to Syria, thus intensifying the Syrian civil war, displacing over 5 million Syrians within the country and causing 5 million Syrians to seek refuge outside its borders including in Europe. “In Iraq, Iran sponsored Shia militia groups and terrorists to infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi Security Forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty – all of this during the JCPOA […] So the bet – the bet that the JCPOA would increase Middle East stability–was a bad one for America, for Europe, for the Middle East, and indeed for the entire world. It is clear that the JCPOA has not ended Iran’s nuclear ambitions, nor did it deter its quest for a regional hegemony. Iran’s leaders saw the deal as the starting gun for the march across the Middle East.”
Pompeo stressed that the goal of US policy toward Iran now is to compel it to change its policies away from efforts to expand its reach in the Middle East and threaten US allies, both Arab states and Israel. He proposed twelve specific steps Iran could and should take to change its policies of aggression and threat, steps that in contrast to the JCPOA did connect the technical issues of arms control to the political issues of the goals of the Iranian regime. An irony of Trump’s decision is that it is incompatible with isolationism or “America first.” It entails a renewed engagement in the Middle East and a reinforcement of alliances with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and with that forming a coalition of states who share opposition to Iranian expansion.

I wish that it had been a President Hillary Clinton or her Secretary of State that had given the speech Mike Pompeo delivered this past week. However, the reluctance of the Obama administration to confront the core ideological outlook of the Islamic Republic of Iran ruled that out. Despite the polarization of politics in Washington, the intellectual confrontation with radical Islam as a movement and in the regime in Tehran remains a task for American liberals. Radical Islam, not the religion of Islam per se, but a distinct interpretation of it, inspired the terrorists of 9/11 and so many other attacks. It fueled the hatreds that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979 and thus combined Islamist fanaticism with the resources of an oil rich country. The ayatollahs soon turned on liberals and leftists in Iran, jailed thousands and executed hundreds, suppressed freedom at home, spread antisemitic conspiracy theories at home and abroad, and spewed a constant stream of propaganda expressing hatred at Israel and the United States. They did not do so because of American policy in the coup of 1953 or because the United States supported the Shah. They did so because they were part of a religious fundamentalist revolt against the modernizing currents of their own society, modernizing currents that are associated with Western liberal values. Since 9/11 too few liberals and too few prominent Democrats, and almost no one in the Obama administration, would say such things in public, though most must have known they are the truth. So, when the sophisticated and well-spoken refused to speak about the connection between radical Islam and terror or the ideological nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Trump and his supporters had success with a vastly simplified and undifferentiated view that made no distinctions between Islamism and Islam.

Trump’s supporters and enablers will not discuss his lies and contempt for the rule of law, but at the same time, his critics and opponents find it hard to accept that he can be right about anything. However, as unpleasant as it is, it is important to acknowledge that a president who is appalling in so many ways has taken the right and necessary decision to restore the full weight of economic sanctions against Iran in hope of compelling the reactionaries in Tehran to change their policies, cease threatening their neighbors, and stop their threats and incitement against Israel and against our own country. The Iran nuclear deal tested the hypothesis that a change in American policy would change Iran’s behavior and its goals and that the nuclear issue could be separated from the Iranian regime’s core ideology and its general foreign policy. The evidence is before us that this policy failed to bring about the desired changes in Iran’s behavior. Let’s pay attention to facts and evidence that refute the hypothesis and welcome a change in policy that faces realities. Let’s live with the discomfort of the resulting cognitive dissonance.

This essay was first published on May 29, 2018 by the journal Telos in its “Teloscope” section online.

Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book is Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His previous publications include Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009).

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989.
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