BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – THE WASHINGTON POST
Even the most bullish of President Trump’s supporters would have a tough time classifying his performance at the United Nations this week as a success.
His Tuesday address to the U.N. General Assembly will be remembered for the mocking laughter that followed his claim that the Trump administration has, so far, “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
It didn’t get much better the next day: Trump chaired a session of the U.N. Security Council on weapons of mass destruction and nonproliferation, hoping to gin up support for his administration’s hard-line stance on the Iran nuclear deal. “This horrible, one-sided deal allowed Iran to continue its path toward a bomb and gave the regime a cash lifeline when they needed it the most,” Trump complained. “They were in big, big trouble. They needed cash. We gave it to them.”
Instead, virtually every other member country took turns scolding the United States for its undermining of the nuclear deal with Tehran. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and reimposition of sanctions on Iran was condemned by politicians ranging from the president of Peru to the vice president of the Ivory Coast to the foreign minister of Kazakhstan.
Bolivian President Evo Morales launched the most scathing attack, citing decades of malign American interference in the Middle East and then lashing out at Trump for acts like separating migrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United States, Morales said, “could not care less about human rights or justice.” Trump could only thank Morales for his remarks.
If America’s allies were more polite, they seemed barely more impressed. British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted that the terms of the nuclear deal were “the best means of preventing Iran developing a nuclear weapon.”
“For many years, the scale and nature of Iran’s nuclear program raised serious international concerns. The JCPOA was an important step forward in addressing these,” May said, using the formal abbreviation for the agreement forged between Iran and world powers.
“We still … retain the same objective in mind, namely preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and guaranteeing strict international control on the peaceful use of their nuclear program,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “The JCPOA is imperfect, but it is a decisive step in that exact direction.”
Meanwhile, European leaders announced plans to blunt the effects of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which will expand in November. It’s unclear how effective these countermeasures may be, with the Trump administration threatening punitive action against any government or company found circumventing the sanctions. A host of prominent European firms have already decided that trade with Iran may not be worth the risk of legal battles with Washington.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric and unilateral decision-making have allowed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to play the role of the law-abiding victim, adhering to the terms of an agreement that the White House was recklessly casting aside.
In remarks made before the General Assembly, Rouhani blasted the Trump administration’s disregard for the sort of multilateral decision-making that defines international institutions like the United Nations. “Confronting multilateralism is not a sign of strength, rather it is a symptom of a weakness of intellect,” Rouhani said.
Directing her comments to Trump at the Security Council, May said, “Even the most powerful recognized that investing in collective rules-based restraint was the only effective way of addressing national security interests and avoiding unilateral recourse to force.”
Analysts warned of a dramatic “flipping of the script” at the United Nations. “The U.S. president finds himself deprived of leverage, while Rouhani is the one invoking the legitimacy and legality of the international system the United States built. This is no happy occurrence,” wrote David Wade of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He added that “Trump has isolated the United States instead of isolating Iran.”
The White House may not be too bothered by all this. At a rambling press conference on Wednesday evening, Trump scoffed that “it doesn’t matter what world leaders think on Iran.” And many within the administration have no love for the United Nations and its processes, heavy on rhetoric but often light on action.
Moreover, economic realities are squeezing what support Tehran now enjoys. This week, it emerged that India, a leading importer of Iranian oil, would likely comply with the sanctions on Iranian oil exports that will take effect in November.
But Trump still lacks a genuine diplomatic strategy, whether on a new deal with Tehran or a host of other grievances. Critics say the president is far more preoccupied with his political image as a disrupter of the status quo than the actual work involved in reworking existing compacts to his advantage.
“Most presidents would outline a plan to deal with Iran after the nuclear deal, or to transform NATO to cope with the threat from authoritarian states, or to resolve the trade war,” wrote Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But Trump is not one for detail or course correction. In his world, there was a problem, so he did something quickly. And now it’s solved. To say anything else is to suggest the unthinkable—that he is not a magician.”
On Iran, Trump is convinced that his approach will change the regime’s behavior in the Middle East. But others worry about a deeper and more destabilizing backlash. “We have tried sanctions over the years,” said Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom. “We tried isolation, and it only gave the most conservative forces in Iran more power.”
It’s unlikely Trump will heed this message. By the time Wallstrom spoke, he had already left the room.
- Trump also attacked China during the Security Council session, accusing Beijing of conducting a new campaign to interfere in U.S. elections. But he offered no clear evidence to back the claim. My colleagues report:
“‘Regrettably, we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election, coming up in November, against my administration,’ Trump said during remarks at a U.N. Security Council meeting on nonproliferation.
“‘They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president to ever challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade — we are winning on every level,’ the president said. ‘We don’t want to them to meddle or interfere in our upcoming election.’
“Trump presented no evidence for his claims, and his top national security advisers told reporters in August they had not found specific examples of interference ahead of the midterms from countries other than Russia, though they warned it remained a possibility. In his remarks at the Security Council meeting, Trump made no mention of Russian interference…
“‘China has all along followed the principle of noninterference in other country’s domestic affairs,’ Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the U.N. meetings… ‘We did not and will not interfere in any country’s domestic affairs. We refuse to accept any unwarranted accusations against China.’
“Trump’s remarks appear consistent with a White House strategy, devised in the immediate aftermath of his Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to spread blame for election interference beyond Russia to include other countries such as China. At the July summit, Trump appeared to give more credence to Putin’s denials of 2016 election interference than to U.S. spy agencies’ assessment to the contrary.”
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.