Discussing Europe and Iran with Americans, or: A travelling commentariat to Trump’s first trip abroad
Cornelius Adebahr dissects Trump’s recent wanderings among America’s closest allies.
Europe – the EU and its member states – have a number of fairly existential issues to settle with the U.S. administration, from trade to defense to tackling migration. Some, like the disagreements over the role and use of NATO, have the possibility to become fairly existential. Another serious bone of contention, though much less present in public debates in Europe, is how to deal with Iran. Importantly, this issue could easily draw EU member states in an unwanted military confrontation – as President Donald Trump’s first trip abroad has made clear.
As it happened, the president left Washington, DC on the day that I arrived for a week-long speaking tour through the U.S., sponsored by the American Council on Germany. It was also the day when Iranians confirmed their president, Hassan Rohani, for a second term in office – thus in effect voting for a continuation of the latter’s course of gradual opening to the world. The cornerstone of this approach is the nuclear deal of 2015, which should allow Iran to economically re-engage with the world after years of harsh international sanctions. In what is no small detail, just two days before the poll Washington had extended the necessary sanctions waivers to fulfill its part of the deal.
Yet while the new administration thus tacitly continued the course of its predecessor, the U.S. president struck a very different tone once he landed in the Saudi capital of Riyadh: On Saturday, he announced a 110 billion US-dollar arms deal with the Kingdom, and on Sunday he denounced (Shia) Iran as the leading state sponsor of terrorism in front of a gathering of mainly Sunni leaders from more than 50 Arab and Islamic countries. All the while, European leaders were anxiously waiting for the U.S. president to come to Brussels to see whether the early months of attempted bridge building between the two sides of the Atlantic would pay off at the first photo-op.
Monday: Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte is a typical Southern city, with a history of segregation and important ‘black universities’. In the morning, in the boardroom of the law firm hosting the first meeting, everyone is white. “Does Iran with its middle class, relative political stability, and regular elections have the potential to become a democracy”, a young attorney asks me. That’s a far cry away from how his President had just described the country in the Saudi capital, calling Tehran “a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region […, which] all nations of conscience must work together to isolate.”
While President Trump sips tea with his Arab hosts, declaring jointly with King Salman that “the nuclear agreement with Iran needs to be re-examined in some of its clauses“, I get to experience Southern hospitality not unlike what happened to me so many times in Iran: The educational director of an arts center that my host shows me between talks insists on bringing us the coffee that we apparently need. He ventures off to return ten minutes later with two freshly brewed coffees – not, as I would have thought, from his office upstairs (which already would have been very kind) but from the coffee shop a block down the street.
In an unintended irony, three days later the Defense Intelligence Agency in its annual Worldwide Threat Assessment would refer to the “authoritarian leaders” that Trump met with as “drivers of unrest” in the Middle East – in addition to “civil conflict, ungoverned spaces, displaced populations and refugee flows, insufficient economic opportunity, and corruption”. But then again the President has already declared that he does not rely on his intelligence briefings.
In the evening, at the public university with a group of teachers, the black-to-white ratio is closer to five-to-one. Invariably, early in the discussion one teacher mentions “blackness” as a defining identity – in response to me referring to perceptions of Iranian identity as a ‘great civilization’ which may have contributed to the country’s decision to invest enormous funds into its (purportedly civilian) nuclear program. No doubt, identity questions linger in the Iranian society as much as in the American one – not to forget those Europeans who are trying to reconcile their national and European identities.
Tuesday and Wednesday: Boca Raton, Florida
Landing in the Sunshine State, I recall what friends in DC told me about Boca Raton: That it is mainly known as a retirement home for Jewish Americans from the East coast. In that sense it is fitting that President Trump was first in Tel Aviv and then in Jerusalem during my time in Florida. His Israeli counterparts must have been disappointed that the U.S. Embassy hadn’t moved in the same direction, but they could rejoice about the new Arab-Israeli-American alliance that Trump in effect had touted before his departure in Riyadh.
Talking to students at Florida Atlantic University, there apparently is not much prior knowledge about Iran. “It’s all so complicated that people hardly talk about Iran,” the teacher explains. Some have in fact heard of the nuclear deal “between Iran and the US”, prompting me to name the other five countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) plus the EU that negotiated and signed the agreement. Yet, contrary to their president, the students at least know where the Middle East is, and that Israel is in it.
What they did not know is that, despite all the mutual hostility between Iran and the U.S., many people in Iran actually like America as a country. And, what is more, despite decades of sanctions, U.S. companies are (still) selling their goods on a thriving market of around 80 million people. I mention iPhones and Pampers, but what really excites them is my original “Made in Iran” Coca-Cola bottle. Yes, that fizzy drink is not only sold in Iran but also actually produced there, just like its Pepsi competitor. “How is that possible with all those sanctions?”, the students ask. Answer: Through an Irish subsidiary that sells the syrup to an independent Iranian bottling plant, licensed by the U.S. Treasury as export of agricultural products.
This way, the Atlanta-based soft drink giant not only makes money of such sales but also preserves its brand among Iranian consumers. Nearly four decades after U.S. businesses left the country in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, people in Iran still rave for American consumer goods, from food and drinks (with real Coke and faux KFCs) to electronics and showbiz. If only the politics would not get in the way, on both sides.
Just as President Trump hits the tarmac in Brussels, the Windy City welcomes me.
Thursday: Chicago, Illinois
A lunch discussion at the Goethe Institute brings together Americans and Germans at a time when the waves are riding high in the EU capital: The president refuses to pledge Article-5 solidarity with NATO partners. Instead, he upbraids his fellow leaders in public over the “massive amounts” they “owe” to the alliance for not spending two per cent of their gross domestic product on defense – which he feels is “not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States”.
It seems that the King of Saudi Arabia, “a wise man” in Trump’s words despite his unhinged military campaign in Yemen – which is more likely to breed radicalism and terrorism than to quell it, is a better friend of Trump’s than America’s 28 NATO partners. These are long-standing allies that responded to the 9/11 attacks by, well, invoking for the first and, so far, only time the “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us” Article 5. Moreover, after having already been individual members of the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State, they now decided to have NATO join that coalition too, responding to President Trump’s call to do more to fight terrorism. Yet, to no avail with the U.S. President.
It’s especially the prominence of Saudi Arabia in President Trump’s approach to the Middle East that leaves people at the Chicago discussion scratching their heads. Not only did the majority of the 9/11 terrorists come from that country, but also the (Sunni) Wahhabist ideology and Salafist theology espoused by the Saudi royal court is what fuels the ideas and ideals behind the self-declared Islamic State. Other arguments the participants make highlight the demographic differences between Iran – singled out by Trump for its support to terrorism – and Saudi Arabia – allegedly at the forefront of combatting that very evil: From levels of education to (relative) distribution of wealth to basic (albeit limited) democratic rights, these indicators are mostly in favor of Tehran.
Re-balancing the perceived courting of Iran by the Obama administration at the expense of traditional Arab allies before and after the conclusion of the nuclear deal is one thing, a participant noted; reversing it altogether by completely aligning with the Saudi view of the regional power relations at the expense of America’s own interests is quite another, he said. What more is there to say?
Friday: Boston, Massachusetts
Before I can actually arrive at my final stop, I seems that I have to experience the vagaries of American road and air travel. The cab ride to Chicago airport takes twice as long as expected given that the only road leading there is fully congested due to construction work. I thought I had planned comfortably but in the end am arriving literally one minute (!) late at the airport: Because of automated check-ins, I am simply not able to check in with luggage 44 minutes prior to departure. Where ‘back in the old days’ you might get a stern look or a forgiving smile from an airline agent, here it is simply ‘no chance’.
On standby for the next available flight, I quickly learn about my (dwindling) options: All flights to Boston for the next 24 hours being oversold, I cannot even be sure of reaching my transatlantic return flight the next afternoon. A storm front on the East coast further delays the flight, and the lottery that is the standby system shows me going down from No. 7 to No. 13 (with more valuable customers putting their names on the list) and up to No. 5 again (those frequent flyers probably getting bumped up to business class as other people changed their plans). Finally, my name starts to climb up on that ever-changing screen, and I am No. 1 when passengers are already boarding. I finally get onto the plane which departs two hours late, landing in Boston at 1.30 am – which to my fellow travellers seems to be the most normal thing in the world.
Back to politics: The luncheon discussion at the Boston Goethe Institute draws a crowd fairly steeped into the subject matter: An Iranian student on a visa to the U.S., an American married to an Iranian, an Iranian-American who had left her country after the 1979 revolution, and a State Representative who had lobbied against Massachusetts imposing its own sanctions on U.S. businesses dealing with Iran. This would turnout to be the most discerning audience of the week – a university town true to form.
In the discussion, the student from Iran points out how much the political image of America in her country has changed over the past decade. Of course, it was only the more extreme view of hardliners like the Supreme Leader who welcomed the election of President Trump as showing the ‘true face’ of America. (In what was probably an unintended riposte, some American hawks endorsed President Rohani’s hardline challenger, suggesting that he represented, well, the ‘true face’ of Iran.) Yet the 2015 debate in Washington about whether or not to accept the nuclear deal as well as current attempts to again increase the pressure on Iran while remaining sanctions have prevented the economic recovery Tehran expected in return for putting limits on their nuclear program, have led many Iranians to believe that the United States is unfaithful. Dangerously, many Europeans – after the spying scandal and in the face of Trump’s collision course over common values – would tend to agree.
Speaking of sanctions, this is the day after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed new sanctions legislation, mainly targeting Iran’s missile program and its domestic human rights abuses. Lawmakers apparently worked closely with former administration officials with intimate knowledge of the deal in order to make the new measures ‘JCPOA-proof’. Ironically, the senators had not displayed such care during the previous term, when they could be certain that then-President Barrack Obama would veto anything that clearly violated the deal. Now, with no such safeguards in place, they have to be more careful not to make Washington the ultimate deal-breaker.
The most symbolic impression of that week, however, would occur to me in the morning over breakfast in a small coffee shop in Boston’s hip Back Bay area. On the day that President Trump meets with fellow leaders from the Group of Seven in Taormina, I realize that my table is adorned by an original newspaper article from July 1943, headlining “Allies Invading Sicily”. That today, nearly 74 years later, the erstwhile enemies (Germany, Italy, and Japan) are meeting the then-allies (Canada, France, the UK and the United States) as strong partners on that very island, is continued reason to believe in the power of international cooperation over confrontation. Yet that the leading nation then and now, the United States, is questioning precisely these principles, putting instead forth a mercantile, zero-sum “my way or the highway” approach, is all the more concerning.
After landing in Berlin, talk of President Trump’s forays into foreign lands has subsided, giving way to news from home: His son-in-law is under investigation for his Russia links; the repeal of Obamacare is going nowhere after the White House’s own Office of Budget and Management has projected a huge increase of uncovered persons under the proposal passed by the House with much fanfare last month; and his budget proposes so steep cuts to social security that even fellow Republicans regard it as merely “an opening bid”. One is tempted to hope that this could all be over soon; however, the damage done to the image of the United States abroad in general and to transatlantic relations more particularly is done.
On Sunday, a visibly frustrated German chancellor tells her audience on the campaign trail, in clear reference to her encounters with the U.S. President during the previous days, “the days when Europe could rely on others are over to a certain extent.” Her conclusion: Europe (that is the EU minus the Brexiting UK) must take her fate into her own hands. Maybe this is indeed what the U.S. President has wanted all along, to be in bed with autocrats that buy arms for billions of dollars rather than with critical allies that benefit from America’s security guarantee?
A trip outside of Trump’s DC tells you that this is not the case for ordinary Americans. Trump has become the swamp that he declared to drain. What we need now is more, not less people-to-people contacts that can be eye-opening for both sides.