National security was the supposed motivation for President Trump’s executive order on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Given that immigrants from the seven named countries have not killed a single person in a terrorist act on US soil in this century, the security argument is weak. That this executive order is instead the beginnings of a ban on Muslims and that it is part of an attempt to make Muslim Americans second-class citizens for the purposes of domestic race politics seems clear from admissions of administration insiders such as Rudy Giuliani. Ironically, however, the executive order has severe negative security implications for US foreign policy in the Fertile Crescent and Iran.
Both Iranian leader Ali Khamenei and most American politicians saw the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement reached between the UN Security Council and Iran to limit Iranian uranium enrichment to civilian purposes, as a one-off deal that held no promises for improved Iran-US relations. Still, some Iranian reformers and some American liberals (and businessmen) entertained hopes that it could lead to a lessening of tensions between the two countries. Iran will emerge as a major new market for investors and manufacturers. Before he left office, President Obama approved the sale to Iran of 80 Boeing and 100 Airbus civilian aircraft for Iran Air’s fleet, which is dangerously aging as a result of sanctions. While the Airbus order has gone ahead, the Boeing deal may be in limbo, and is opposed by Republicans in Congress.
Trump’s executive order on immigration, which blocked Iranians, probably ended these tentative steps toward better relations and put paid to any US corporate dreams of an Iranian bonanza. The Iranian government swiftly prohibited Americans from visiting Iran. The move helps isolate Iran and hurts reformists, youth, and women. It strengthens the hands of Iran’s hard-liners, enabling them to portray the United States as racist, with some Shiites speaking darkly of a “war on Islam.” Trump has handed Iran’s regime an enormous soft-power victory. The new tiff also ensures that the billions of dollars to be made in the Iranian economy will go to Russia, China, and any European firms willing to risk the ire of Trump’s Treasury Department. It is hard to see how Iran is disadvantaged at all by these developments. It is easy to see how the United States has lost an enormous business opportunity and has also lost the contributions to American society of the typically highly trained and energetic Iranian immigrants to this country.
When we say “security” in that part of the world, moreover, we are nowadays saying “ISIL.” The primary allies of the United States in the fight against the brutal radicals of ISIL have been the Kurds and fighters of Shiite Muslim heritage. Trump just banned Iraqi and Syrian Kurds from coming to the United States. The United States now has some 250 Special Operations troops embedded with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, helping them in their effective fight against ISIL in northeastern Syria. Trump also banned citizens of the two Shiite-majority countries, Iraq and Iran. Washington has had a tacit battlefield alliance with Iran and the Iraqi militias, which it has backed in the long, hard slog against ISIL. The Iranian and Iraqi Shiite help has saved large numbers of American lives, which would have been lost if the United States had had to intervene with infantry.