“It may be easier to articulate the peculiar difficulty of constraining a Mossadegh by the use of threats when one is fresh from a vain attempt at using threats to keep a small child from hurting a dog or a small dog from hurting a child.”
— Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict
Donald Trump, our right-wing populist president, is in a trap. It is mostly of his own making, and he is desperate to escape it. The supreme irony is that Iran, a defiant foreign power, is springing this trap. Iran once had its very own populist leader, who was trapped and then deposed by the U.S.
Who was this Iranian populist, what was the nature of his trap, and how is his predicament similar to the one that Donald Trump now finds himself in? To answer these questions, we must delve into an important but often ignored part of the 20th century history of Iran, look at recent events in the Middle East, and, finally, consider the past and the present with the insights of Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize–winning conflict strategist.
All Iranians know the sad tale of Mohammad Mossadegh and the 1953 coup that removed him from power, even if pitifully few Americans know this story. Mossadegh was an advocate of self-determination for Iran and opposed the Western powers’ control of Iran’s most valuable natural resource, its oil. Mossadegh rode a wave of popularity and was nominated by the Iranian parliament and then appointed in 1951 by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Iran’s 35th prime minister. He ranks high among the non–West’s larger-than-life leaders during the postwar “independence era”—the era of Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Nyerere, and others.
Mossadegh and his political allies in Tehran went to work immediately. Their most decisive move was to nationalize the oil industry, thereby taking control away from the Anglo–Persian Oil Company. The Iranian oil industry was birthed by British businessman William Knox D’Arcy, who was granted a concession by the Iranian government to conduct oil exploration in 1901. D’Arcy’s venture was costly and bore no fruit, but the British government organized a group of financiers to take over the enterprise, as the British were afraid to cede such a potential resource to Russia. Oil was struck in 1908, and a year later Anglo–Persian Oil was created. A few years further (1914), the British took majority control of the company, motivated by the desire to control a dedicated source of oil to fuel the British naval fleet.
From the time of D’Arcy’s original concession, resentment among Iranians grew over the majority of oil profits flowing to the West. Mossadegh inherited this climate of animosity, and his nationalization scheme reflected it.
But the nationalization policy immediately prompted an escalation of the friction between London and Tehran. The British withdrew their technical experts, abandoned the oil fields, and implemented an oil embargo, coordinated among the cartel of international oil companies known as the Seven Sisters. In response, Mossadegh addressed the United Nations Security Council to gather international support for his cause. American officials tried to act as intermediaries between Mossadegh and the British government, but the British refused to deal with Tehran at this point.
Now comes the crucial portion of the story, the part that has a direct analog in the modern-day struggle between Trump and Iran.
After returning to Iran in defeat, Mossadegh’s dreams of a nation that served its people rather than the Western powers were collapsing. Government revenues were running low. And at this point Mossadegh made a terminal error: He attempted to bluff the Americans into providing emergency funds by informing them that he would otherwise have to turn to the Soviet Union. This attempted leverage failed, and Mossadegh had destroyed his credibility in Washington. In consequence, it was at this point the U.S. and the British came to an agreement that Mossadegh had to go. After an intense propaganda campaign waged by the CIA, he was removed in the military coup of 1953.
Now we turn to the present at look at what Trump hath wrought.
Trump must please the hawks and neoconservatives who comprise the majority of his financial and media support by bringing the current leadership of Iran to heel. Trump had all along despised the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“nuclear deal with Iran” in common parlance) because it was the Obama administration’s work, as revealed by a recently leaked diplomatic memo from Sir Kim Darroch, the just-resigned British ambassador to Washington. But he also had to please his foreign policy minders and has thus attempted to ratchet up the pressure on Iran by increasing economic sanctions.
Furthermore, the “Twitterer in chief” has escalated his social media threats. One notable tweet reads as follows:
“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
While alarming, such a claim has no credibility for multiple reasons. For one, the US does not have the troop strength to invade Iran and drive the ruling clerics from power. For another, the enthusiasm of the U.S. citizenry for yet another Middle Eastern military conflict is extremely low. Even if more drastic measures were taken, say by using nuclear weapons, the Iranians and their allies have threatened to react immediately and shut down the Strait of Hormuz while unleashing a massive arsenal of rockets on Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
At the very least, this would be a global economic catastrophe. At worst, this could spark a world war if Russia and China are pulled into the fray. At that point human civilization could be at risk. Needless to say, any of these outcomes would end Donald Trump’s chances of winning re-election in 2020, and Trump would go down in the history books as one of the worst presidents, if not the worst, in U.S. history.
How might one who specializes in the strategy of conflict view the events of the past and the present in respect of conflict with Iran?
Fortunately, we can consult a deceased master by referring to his manual on the subject. The Strategy of Conflict is the late Thomas Schelling’s most famous work. Schelling was a game theorist and economist who studied bargaining and conflict. The Strategy of Conflict provides a thorough analysis of the many features and varieties of conflict. It is by drawing from this work that one can spot the common critical flaws in the conflict strategies of Mossadegh and, seven and a half decades later, Trump. “While prudence suggests leaving open a way of escape when one threatens an adversary with mutually painful reprisal,” Schelling wrote, “any visible means of escape may make the threat less credible.”
To identify Trump’s mistake, one can reconsider the above-noted tweet, or read a curious report by Elijah Magnier, wherein the journalist and analyst indicates that Trump sought to negotiate a face-saving measure by begging the Iranian government, via diplomatic channels, to allow the U.S. to bomb a handful of unimportant Iranian sites immediately following the recent tanker-bombing episode. Having already shredded the JCPOA and his credibility, this was yet another mistake, as it signaled Trump’s fundamental weakness.
Mossadegh’s similar mistake, as stated earlier, was a bluff that shattered his credibility and led to the American-cultivated coup to depose him. In effect, Trump has made himself a mirror image—Mossadegh in reverse.
The Iranian leadership appears to be well aware of Trump’s lapsed credibility: They could hardly read the request Magnier reports any other way. The Iranians smell blood in the water. This is why they are increasing pressure on Trump by resuming the enrichment of uranium, among other actions.
Unlike Trump, the Iranian leadership seems to be fluent in Tom Schelling 101 and the concept of brinksmanship. As Schelling wrote of brinksmanship in The Strategy of Conflict, “It means harassing and intimidating an adversary by exposing him to a shared risk, or deterring him by showing that if he makes a contrary move he may disturb us so that we slip over the brink whether we want to or not, carrying him with us.”
Trump’s mistakes, and consequently his weak hand, are now on open display, while Iran is committed to resistance. In this sense, a sort of karmic justice seems to be at work, as it was the U.S. that once intervened in Iranian affairs and removed the Mossadegh from office. Now it seems possible that the faux-populist Trump, if he is not directly deposed, could be tossed out of office via the ballot box next year unless he returns to the JPCOA. For Trump that would be a loss of another kind—and a victory for the Iranians 76 years after the original American offense.