Why Should Iran Trust The United States?

The Trump's Administration's rhetoric and actions have given the Iranians no reason to trust the United States going forward.

As the world continues to ponder the meaning behind President Trump’s over-the-top late-night Twitter tirade aimed at Iran, Daniel Larison points out that the President’s remarks, combined with those over the weekend by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, gives the Iranians little incentive to deal with the United States:

Trump and Pompeo may say that they want Iran to agree to a “better” deal, but everything else that they say and do shows that they have no interest in any agreement that might be acceptable to Iran. The administration’s demands have put Iran in the position of choosing between defiance and humiliating surrender with nothing in between, and like any other self-respecting government the Iranians are choosing defiance. The U.S. under Trump has already proven that it can’t be trusted to honor its agreements with Iran when the president reneged on the nuclear deal. The goal of the administration’s Iran policy is now unmistakable: the destabilization and overthrow of the regime. It is clear that the administration has no interest in defusing tensions through diplomacy, and it is instead looking to pick a fight with Iran over anything and everything.

The fact that the Trump Administration has no interest in resolving its differences with Iran via diplomacy should have been made clear long ago in the form of the President’s rhetoric and actions vis a vis the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). From the start of his campaign, the President made his animosity toward the JCPOA exceedingly clear, and it was generally in line with what had become conservative orthodoxy on the issue. Throughout his campaign, for example, Trump repeatedly bashed the agreement, misrepresented what it actually entailed, and claimed without providing any real supporting evidence that he could have negotiated a “better” deal without actually specifying what he would have done differently. Despite this, he regularly used the agreement as a means to attack President Obama, former Secretary of State Clinton, and others who had a role in negotiating or supported the agreement.

Trump continued to attack the agreement after becoming President, but at least initially held off pulling the trigger on the deal. A year ago, for example, the President lifted sanctions as required under the agreement, although it was clear that he was only doing so reluctantly. Later in the year, Trump once again stopped short of a full withdrawal but at same time declined to certify to Congress that Iran was in compliance with the agreement. This action came notwithstanding the fact that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both said on the record that Iran was complying with its obligations and that staying in the agreement was in the national interests of the United States. He also took this step despite the fact that the  International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is charged with monitoring Iran’s compliance with the agreement, has said each time it has been required to report on the status of the agreement that Iran is living up to its obligations under the agreement. Finally, in May of this year, the President announced that the United States was withdrawing from the agreement notwithstanding the fact that America’s European allies were strongly arguing against such a step and that there was simply no evidence that the Iranians were not complying with the agreement. Thus, here we are at the point where the President is reduced to making bombastic threats over Twitter and the Secretary of State is reduced to comparing the leaders of a sovereign, albeit repressive, nation to the Mafia.

Larison goes on to make an interesting contrast between the Administration’s apparent policy toward Iran and the manner in which it is handling North Korea:

The Trump administration’s intense hostility towards Iran and its willingness to engage with a nuclear-armed North Korea sends a clear message to North Korea and the rest of the world. The administration is showing that the U.S. will treat nuclear-armed states with some measure of respect while treating states that abide by their nonproliferation obligations like trash. Iran is still complying with the terms of the nuclear deal, but the Trump administration has given them every incentive to scrap it and follow North Korea’s example.

This is similar to the lessons that nations like Iran and North Korea can learn from the way in which Libya was treated. In the wake of the Iraq War, of course, that nation gave up its nuclear and WMD research efforts, settled various claims regarding acts of terror that it had sponsored in the past, and generally sought to re-enter the world community after decades of isolation with the goal of ensuring the survival of the regime. Instead of survival, though, Libya ended up finding itself the target of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in a civil war that ended with the collapse of the Gaddafi regime and the death of Gaddafi himself. By contrast, while the President did behave in a bellicose manner toward the leader of North Korea for the better part of a year, he has been quite charitable toward him over the past six months, and even took the extraordinary step of meeting him for the first summit meeting between an American President and the leader of the DPRK.

Based on how things proceeded with the DPRK, of course, there’s been some speculation that Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric toward Tehran is intended to provoke the same reaction it did from North Korea, with the idea that it will force them back to the negotiating table. This appears to also be the logic behind the Administration’s strategy of increasing the sanctions on Iran in a way that hurts the economy and causes problems for the regime with the Iranian people. This strategy only makes sense, though, if one believes that the Iranians will react to this the same way that the North Koreans did, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that this is not the case. In no small part, this is due to the fact that, despite the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Europeans, Russia, and China remain supportive of the regime and continue to deal with Iran as if the agreement were still in place. As long as that’s the case, then the odds of the Iranians suddenly becoming compliant with the Administration’s wishes are quite low. This is especially true given the fact that Iran is nowhere near being in the same condition as North Korea, and is in many respects far stronger and far more able to withstand the kind of unilateral sanctions that the United States will be able to impose. Rather than weakening the resolve of the mullahs, the latest rhetoric coming out of Washington is likely to strengthen it. Meanwhile, the United States has walked away from the one agreement that has actually brought Iran to the table. Given all of that, the leadership in Tehran would be wise to wonder what reason they have to trust the United States in any future negotiations.


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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    Trusting the United States means trusting Trump, and why would anyone do that?

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    If I were running Iran I’d buy a bunch of Russian anti-aircraft systems, dig some deep holes and light up a crash program to develop deliverable nukes. It’s the logical move. The Trump administration is set on regime change as the only acceptable outcome, and the only way to be certain of survival is to own some nukes.

    Regime change in Iran is not possible for us unless we use Arab bases, which places us clearly on one side of the Shia-Sunni religious war, but at the same time by so clearly serving Israel’s interests and ‘defiling’ Arab lands, we would revive the flagging hopes of ISIS. We’d get more Sunni terrorists and more Shi’ite terrorists, as would Europe, not to mention setting off another wave of refugees heading north-west.

    And what would we gain? Let’s see, likely huge run-up in the cost of oil, more distance from our allies and. . . and. . . Yeah: fck-all. We’d get a trillion dollar bill and a bunch of corpses. That’s what we’d gain: debt and death.

  3. MBunge says:

    This is similar to the lessons that nations like Iran and North Korea can learn from the way in which Libya was treated.

    And who was President and Secretary of State when Libya was treated that way?

    Do you bother to think this stuff through AT ALL before you post it?


  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” — George Orwell, “1984”

    “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” — Donald Trump, VFW Convention 7/24/2018

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    You’re ignoring a great deal in order to make what you think is a valid point. It’s not. This is not surprising. At all.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @MBunge: If my memory serves me correctly, Doug was opposed to the Libya intervention — and rightly so.

    (I think we should have offered to place Gaddafi in a lovely villa in Guam, to give him a better ending than “sodomized with a bayonet,” and basically send a message to other dictators that we will stand by them if they cooperate with us)

    But, anyway, the point of remembering our past is to try to avoid making the same mistakes over and over, not to say “hey, they made a mistake, so we get to make the same mistake.”

  7. Joe says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?
    — Chico Marx “Duck Soup”

  8. Kathy says:

    To be fair, Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya was a colossal blunder. I can understand the impulse to do so, but the consequences were fully foreseeable.

    Also to be fair, I don’t recall any Republicans who opposed intervention in Libya, to have warned against the sort of thing we’re seeing now in North Korea and Iran.

    Lastly, to be fair, Obama attempted and implemented a plausible solution to the Iran issue. One, mind you, which did not require another decade or two of counter-insurgency warfare in yet another country.

  9. Kathy says:


    (I think we should have offered to place Gaddafi in a lovely villa in Guam, to give him a better ending than “sodomized with a bayonet,” and basically send a message to other dictators that we will stand by them if they cooperate with us)

    I won’t swear to it, but I recall reading recently that such an offer was made and refused. It rings true, FWIW, as power is often the only thing dictators and strongmen care about.

  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    we should have offered to place Gaddafi in a lovely villa in Guam

    He was offered exile (Gaddafi, not Bunge) and he refused.
    There were a lot of reasons for Gaddafi’s demise…Bunge just doesn’t know about them because State TV hasn’t told him about them.

  11. Hal_10000 says:

    This is what I wrote about when Trump broke the deal. Why should Iran go back to the table knowing that anything they agree to could be tossed out on a moment’s notice? Why should anyone?

    One could claim that the deal was poor, and work toward a better deal. This is indeed how we have done things in the past, mostly notably in the decades spent negotiating the Cold War away from the nuclear brink. Treaties were made, complied with, and slowly improved upon over the course of four decades. Would we have gotten better “deals” with the Soviet Union if each Administration had backed out of the agreement the previous ones had made? It certainly doesn’t seem like backing out of the ABM treaty improved things. The subsequent SORT agreement was one of the weakest in forty years.

    The world no longer considers us reliable. And this is going to have consequences for decades.

  12. KM says:

    @Hal_10000 :

    The world no longer considers us reliable. And this is going to have consequences for decades.

    If we’re insanely lucky, we can spin post-Trump America as the family that finally decided to put Crazy Ol’ Uncle Donald in the nursing home because his behavior that family picnic warranted intervention. It only took massive public embarrassment and him sh^tting the bed before we accepted the truth nobody was willing to admit. They going to judge us for being stupid enough to tolerate him but to be fair, most of the world doesn’t hold a high opinion of America’s intelligence level to begin with. The next guy’s going to have to be on point to sell it, though. If we portray him as the dotard he is that managed to charm his way in but got shown the door by an irritated public, it will help soften the blow. Everyone got one in the family -we were just dumb enough to let ours run the family business for a bit before we wised up.

  13. Barry says:

    @KM: The next guy will be unable to sell it, because the world has already seen it in Dubai – Obama – Trump. IOW – bad president – good president – amazingly bad president.

    This has broken the US’ credibility for two decades, at a minimum, IF the next GOP president is not a Tea Party kook.

  14. Kathy says:


    The world no longer considers us reliable. And this is going to have consequences for decades.

    Take the policy of the present split-second. El Trumpo tweeted he wants to abolish all tariffs and subsidies in a deal with the EU.

    Leaving aside the impossibility of abolishing all subsidies, and the complication of what this implies in trade with other regions, how can the EU trust El Cheeto will stick to a deal?

    Perhaps they should ask that Trump deposit $500 million of his own money in an account with a Swiss bank, as a bond the EU can cash when he breaks the deal. It is his word, it should be his money.