The large and influential Iranian-American community could do more to help improve relations between Washington and Tehran. Image: iStock

When Donald Trump began his longshot bid for the US presidency back in 2015, one of the policy positions that differentiated him from other Republican contenders was his willingness to question the wisdom of going to war in Iraq.

Image: iStock

I remember watching the Republican debate held in South Carolina in February 2016, when Trump was asked whether he thought former president George W Bush should have been impeached for his role in the Iraq war. Trump did not answer the question, but said, “The war in Iraq – we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran is taking over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. So George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty. We should not have gone into Iraq, we have destabilized the Middle East.”

Trump absolutely nailed it when it comes to the Middle East. By removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power, the US created a power vacuum in Iraq and destabilized the previously precariously power balance between the Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia and the Shia bloc led by Iran. The US spent trillions on the “war on terror” in the Middle East and incurred thousands of casualties, while infrastructure crumbled back home. Trump was right when he said there should not be any more nation-building abroad.

For Trump even to question the Bush family carried notable political risks, as it is perhaps one of the most storied dynasties in the US Republican Party. And questioning Bush’s legacy cut to the core of the party’s soul. The party prides itself on championing a strong military force and projecting US power overseas to protect and advance American interests.

However, in the end, many voters decided that they had had enough of the establishment, and Trump won the Republican nomination and subsequently the presidency. American voters are tired of foreign military interventions, and Trump’s election was a clear reflection of that.

Since he became president, Trump has shown that he has no stomach for foreign military interventions and has tried to withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan

Since he became president, Trump has shown that he has no stomach for foreign military interventions and has tried to withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

However, if he is not careful, he may find himself following in the footsteps of his predecessors and starting a war with Iran.

And in spite of the rising tensions resulting from such actions as the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, it is still possible for Trump to forge a different path and secure a legacy for himself. He himself is opposed to going to war in Iran, a position he reaffirmed during his remarks in his recent state visit to Japan.

Trump has repeatedly refused to be swayed by his advisers and instead acted on his instincts. This is admirable, but it can be a double-edged sword if not done correctly.

Unlike any other US presidents in modern memory, Trump can afford to change his policy positions without paying any political price. Many Americans voted for Trump because they wanted something different, and they do not expect things to stay the same. As well, Trump has a history of flip-flopping on his positions, so there is a clear precedent.

Take North Korea as an example. Trump repeatedly clashed with its leader Kim Jong Un during the early days of his presidency. He even threatened to destroy North Korea in his first speech to the United Nations in September 2017. Kim fired back, even nicknaming Trump “Dotard.”

But then something amazing happened. In a short span of a few months leading up to their historic meeting in Singapore in June 2018, the tone between Trump and Kim changed dramatically. And after the historic Singapore Summit, Trump praised Kim as very smart and very talented. The two men exchanged letters and even held a second summit in Hanoi in February of this year.

Even though the Hanoi summit failed, it is obvious that the impact of these two meetings has been very positive. It definitely lowered tensions in the Korean Peninsula and both sides have an interest in making diplomacy work and keep talking. One very good example of that is Trump contradicting his advisers on May 26 by playing down the impact of the North Korean missile tests conducted during his state visit to Japan.

Trump has upended decades of US policy on North Korea and set a new direction forward. With American voters wary of another military intervention, it will be very hard for future US presidents to overturn Trump policy on North Korea.

Now is the time for Trump to do the same thing with Iran. The US has vast cultural influence in Iran, but it has not been using it to its full advantage. Younger generations of Iranians are avid consumers of US movies and music. Despite bans by the Iranian government, Hollywood movies are easily accessible on the streets of Tehran for about a dollar apiece through digital pirating. A generation of young Iranians has grown up familiar with American culture.

And younger Iranians are more ideologically moderate and cosmopolitan than their parents’ generation. They know what is going on outside Iran and they have been bravely fighting to bring their country in line with the modern era. Many young Iranians aspire to live in peace with the US, and Trump should know that the current Iranian regime doesn’t represent those aspirations. Iranians below the age of 30 constitute the majority of the population and represent the future of the country.

Iran’s current reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, who represents young Iranians, has been fighting a losing battle to maintain a moderate approach toward the outside world as the conservative forces led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have gained ground since the election of Trump. By scrapping the approach of his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump has stymied the rise of reformist political factions within Iran who would have had a fighting chance of taking control of the country, heralding a new era.

Throughout history, some of the greatest turnarounds have come from within countries, not from outside. Attempts by reformist outsiders to intervene have often ended in failure. Take China, for example: its current reformist path is credited to its late leader Deng Xiaoping. US president Richard Nixon even made a trip to China and laid the groundwork for the present Sino-US relationship.

The US should pay heed to its experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. A confrontation with Iran would be no different.

Trump has made it very hard for any Iranian leader who wants to seek peace with the US. He wants to neutralize the threat of Iran, and this is not the way to go.

Trump should graciously extend a hand of friendship to Iran and resume the Obama-era approach toward the country. If Japan and the US, which were once the fiercest of enemies during World War II, can be the closest of allies now, the same scenario can be imagined for the US and Iran, which were once staunch allies before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

President Nixon did a Nixonian approach with China, and it is high time for President Trump to do a Trumpian approach with Iran.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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