US President Donald Trump is addicted to the game of “chicken.” In game theory, “chicken” is the game in which two people drive automobiles towards each other on a collision course. The driver who swerves out of the way before the other is deemed a “chicken” — a coward. The chicken loses face and is humiliated. The driver who doesn’t swerve is the victor.
If neither driver swerves, however, there is a collision that is calamitous for both sides.
The key to winning “chicken” is to convince the other driver that you are serious about not swerving. One way to do this is to put your credibility on the line. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, US President John F. Kennedy went on national television to announce that the Soviets had placed missiles in Cuba and demand that they remove them. If he had backed down to Moscow, he would have been finished politically.
Another way to convince the other side you are serious is to act a little, well, crazy. Even though a collision is in neither side’s interest, you act as if you are willing to suffer the consequences of a crash no matter how bad those consequences may be. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is skilled at this art.
Trump’s threats to effectively pull out of the nuclear agreement with Iran by decertifying Iranian compliance is one of the many games of “chicken” the US president is engaged in. “Chicken” is by nature a dangerous game. In the case of the Iran deal, it is a reckless one as well.
If the goal of Trump’s threats is to get Iran to swerve, he has never clearly defined what that means. By all analyses — including by the US State Department — Iran remains in compliance with the terms of the agreement, so there is no behaviour in that realm that Tehran is being asked to swerve from.
Iran undoubtedly is active in several regional crises in ways that counter US interests, so perhaps this is where Trump wants to see a swerve. The nuclear agreement, however, was strictly limited to that one issue. The Iranian leadership and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have huge stakes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is unlikely they will swerve by reducing their involvement in those countries.
The most reckless mistake Trump is making is failing to understand that, if Iran does not swerve, the resulting calamity would be far more damaging to the United States than to Iran. If Trump fulfils his threat to decertify Iran, a move that could start a process in which the US Congress reimposes sanctions on Tehran, he will, in effect, be launching a new game of “chicken” but this game would be against Europe and the other signatories to the nuclear agreement.
If Iran remains in compliance with the agreement’s terms, Europeans will not reimpose sanctions, even if the United States does. European businesses would continue to explore opportunities in Iran without competition from US businesses.
If Trump and the Congress were to impose secondary sanctions against European companies that do business with Iran, they would only create further bitterness between the United States and its traditional allies.
Daniel Serwer, a former US diplomat who teaches conflict resolution at Johns Hopkins University, wrote recently: “It is hard to see how our traditional allies will continue to support us on many issues if the administration makes the mistake of undermining the [Iran deal].”
If, on the other hand, Iran were to react to Trump’s decertification by reneging on the agreement, Tehran would be free to initiate a crash programme to develop nuclear weapons within one or two years. This could provoke an Israeli or joint US-Israeli military strike, with unimaginable but certainly destructive regional consequences.
In April 2016, when the prospect of Trump occupying the White House seemed laughable, Deepak Malhotra and Jonathan Powell wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About Negotiation,” in which they noted the profound difference between “buying real estate” and “ending wars, building coalitions, structuring global agreements and balancing military and diplomatic leverage.”
Their prescient conclusion: “The Donald Trump approach to negotiation would be not only ineffective but also disastrous.”
The best that can be hoped for is that Trump performs one of his quiet cave-ins.
If wiser voices, including those of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, prevail, Trump will not decertify Iran. He will, instead, create a distracting uproar over something such as criticising US athletes, praising Nazis, insulting Congress or a cabinet member or firing Robert Mueller — anything, really — so the world loses sight of the fact that his boastful threats were empty.
The world, however, would be a safer place if Trump swerves.
Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.
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