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What to Expect in Future Iranian – U.S. Relations

By Marvin Zonis

It has long been argued that President Trump can be usefully characterized as having a narcissistic personality disorder. (See, for example, the essays in Bandy X. Lee, MD (editor), The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President - Updated and Expanded with New Essays. Also see Jerrold M. Post, MD and Stephanie R. Doucette, Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers.)

“People with the disorder can:

·         Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance

·         Have a sense of entitlement and require constant, excessive admiration

·         Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it

·         Exaggerate achievements and talents

·         Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate

·         Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people

·         Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior

·         Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations

·         Take advantage of others to get what they want

·         Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

·         Be envious of others and believe others envy them

·         Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious

·         Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office

“At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they perceive as criticism, and they can:

·         Become impatient or angry when they don't receive special treatment

·         Have significant interpersonal problems and easily feel slighted

·         React with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make themselves appear superior

·         Have difficulty regulating emotions and behavior

·         Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change

·         Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection

·         Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation.”


President Trump comfortably fits this characterization. Not surprisingly, he is especially prone to feel slighted and, more often, humiliated.

Many recent books have described occasions when, as President, he has felt humiliated. Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig in A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America vividly describes a meeting in “The Tank,” the highly secure room at the Pentagon, when Trump met with senior generals and felt humiliated by the briefing he was getting from them and from Secretary of State Tillerson.

More importantly, President Trump has felt continuously humiliated by Iran.

He has experienced recent U.S. Iranian relations as a series of humiliations inflicted by Iran on the U.S. and, by extension, on him personally.

*The overthrow of the Shah;

*The seizure of the U.S. embassy in November, 1979 and the capture of 52 Americans imprisoned for 444 days;

*The seizure by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps of two U.S. riverine command boats, which through navigational error had entered Iranian territorial waters. After negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, the American sailors were released after 15 hours;

*In May and June, 2019, explosions hit six tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which the U.S. blamed on Iran;

*Iran shot down of an American drone in June, 2019, claiming it had entered its territory;

*In September, Iran launched a drone attack against the Saudi oil processing facility at Abqaiq, putting the facility out of operation for several days; and

*Iran resumed nuclear enrichment beyond levels specified in the JCPOA.

These are just the most obvious highlights of Iran’s ‘thumbing its nose’ at America. President Trump has not reacted well. In May of 2018, he abandoned the nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama along with Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany.

But his sense of Iranian driven humiliation only deepened with subsequent events and when some of his most ardent supporters on Fox News began to fault him for not reacting more forcibly to Iranian provocations.

A sense of being personally humiliated is always followed by a sense of rage. It appears that the President’s rage drove his most recent fateful decision -- the assassination of General Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. The decision was apparently a violation of U.S. law since no compelling evidence of an imminent threat has been presented. It was the first killing of a foreign military leader since the second World War when the U.S. shot down a plane carrying Admiral Yamamoto, the commander of the Pearl Harbor attack.

What is likely to follow is a renewed Iranian commitment to break out of the stranglehold of President Trump’s sanctions. That will mean more and not less of an Iranian aggressive foreign policy – mobilizing Shiite militias and attacks on U.S. allies and oil shipments – all done with care to avoid U.S. casualties.

The hope that sanctions have driven the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow their regime seems fanciful to this long time Iran observer. The regime has not lost its will to govern. It will use whatever is necessary to thwart anti-regime demonstrations. Nor does the widespread opposition to the regime have any leadership.

If any leader were to arise, that leader would be dispatched quickly. It is well to keep in mind that the opposition candidates in the Iranian presidential election of 2009 – widely believed to have been the winners – have been kept under house arrest ever since the regime declared them, fraudulently, to have lost that election. Without leadership, it is unlikely that the opposition can ever become a significant threat to the regime.

Another fanciful hope is that U.S. sanctions will deprive the regime of the funds it needs to finance its aggressive foreign policy. The support of Shiite militias is not an expensive proposition – they are not buying F-35s at about $100 million each -- and the regime will deprive its own population in order to maintain its standing across the region.

What this suggests is further Iranian provocations followed by further experienced humiliations on the part of the President followed by more military and political action by the United States. How this cycle ends, absent significant U.S. secret diplomatic overtures, now absent, is difficult to see.