The Benefits of Trump’s Transactionalism

At the UN, the president managed to skate between two seemingly conflicting realities: intense opposition to the Islamic Republic, and acceptance of its role as a regional power broker.

Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

President Donald Trump’s remarks on Iran to the UN Security Council on Wednesday were, in many ways, predictable: He accused the Iranian regime of exporting “violence, terror, and turmoil,” and made the case for why the Islamic Republic should never obtain nuclear weapons. And then he said something that wasn’t so predictable. “With all of this said, I want to thank Iran, Russia, and Syria for, at my very strong urging and request, substantially slowing down their attack on Idlib province and the 3 million people who live there, in order to get 35,000 targeted terrorists,” Trump said. “Get the terrorists, but I hope the restraint continues. The world is watching.”

We’ve seen a version of this before. Last year, as Trump took to Twitter to denounce North Korea, he would occasionally throw in a laudatory remark about Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. He did the same thing with Iran after withdrawing from the multilateral nuclear agreement in May. His administration has unveiled crippling sanctions and called out Iran’s regional activities and its pursuit of ballistic missiles in order to, in the words of several administration officials, “change its behavior.” But even as Trump and his top officials spent the past two days and the run-up to the UN General Assembly meeting threatening Iran and promising “severe consequences” for anyone who doesn’t comply with U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Trump tweeted Monday: “Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!” (Rouhani denied he had made such requests.)

Which brings us back to Trump’s remarks on Wednesday at the UN Security Council in which he thanked Iran, Syria, and Russia for their “restraint” in Idlib. The president made clear, yet again, his administration’s ideological opposition to the Iranian regime. But he also had to acknowledge the Islamic Republic’s role as a regional power in Syria, and its ability to prevent humanitarian suffering in Syria.

This may seem odd given that Trump has made it more difficult for refugees from Syria and elsewhere to resettle in the U.S. Indeed, he reiterated Monday at the UN that refugees should be settled close to the countries they fled from, even though only about 1 percent, the worst-affected refugees, are resettled in Western countries. But the president has also shown a vulnerability to images of children who are victims of conflict. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, famously declined to use force against Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, even after the Syrian leader crossed Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. Trump hasn’t hesitated. Twice he has used U.S. military force against targets in Syria after the use of such weapons, which are proscribed under international law.

The first time this happened was in April 2017 when Assad used chemical weapons in Idlib, the same place Trump referenced on Wednesday. “Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children,” Trump said at the time. “It was a slow and brutal death for so many.” A year later, following Assad’s use of chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta, the U.S. military—supported by Britain and France—struck key government targets in Syria. “The evil and despicable attack left mothers and fathers, women, and children thrashing in pain,” Trump said at the time, calling the attack in Douma the “crimes of a monster.”