Commentary: Different goals in Iran and China

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

The president has engaged America in a grand struggle to reshape the modern behavior of two of the world's oldest civilizations — Persia and China — at the same time.

Pressing both to change is not crazy. What's crazy is the decision to undertake such a huge endeavor without tightly defined goals, without allies to achieve those goals, without a strong and coherent national security team and without a plan on how to sync up all of President Donald Trump's competing foreign policy objectives.

After all, Trump is unilaterally breaking the 2015 denuclearization deal with Iran's dictator while trying to entice North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong Un, into a denuclearization deal that he's supposed to trust the U.S. president will honor. Trump is sanctioning China on trade while trying to enlist its help to denuclearize North Korea. Trump is imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on America's European allies while needing their help to confront China on trade and Iran on nukes.

And last week Trump came within 10 minutes of bombing Iran — but wisely pulled back — in retaliation for its shooting down of a U.S. drone, at a time when we cannot stabilize Iraq, or get out of Afghanistan without leaving chaos behind, absent the cooperation of Iran.

But we are where we are, and I will give Trump credit for one thing: He has imposed real pain on Iran — virtually choking off all its oil production through sanctions — and on China — with $250 billion of tariffs on its exports to the U.S. and a total ban on products from its biggest telecom equipment company, Huawei. In short, Trump has created real leverage for transactional or transformational deals with both countries.

The big question is: Can the president be disciplined enough, patient enough and deft enough — cue the skepticism — to translate the pain he's imposed on them into specific, tangible and lasting gains for America?

Because China and Iran are two very different problems. China makes real stuff of value, while Iran makes real trouble of concern.

China has its eye on dominating the two most important industries of the 21st century: artificial intelligence and electric cars. It intends to use AI to perfect its authoritarian control at home and electric cars and batteries to liberate itself from dependence on the "old oil" of the last century. Iran, by contrast, is led by a narrow-minded, aging cleric who's been focused on acquiring the most important technology of the 20th century, nuclear weaponry, to help it dominate its region, push the U.S. out and win a struggle with the Sunni Arabs over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad from the seventh century — Shiites or Sunnis. In the process, Iran's clerical leaders are suppressing a hugely talented and culturally rich people, blocking them from realizing their full potential.

For all of these reasons, we can settle for a transactional deal with Iran, but we need a transformational deal with China.

Keeping Iran and the Arab states away from nuclear weapons for another couple decades would be a good achievement. It could be a simple transaction — easy to verify and one that our allies could sign on to, as well as China and Russia. Iran, given the economic pain it is under, would have a very hard time saying no.

Then we could sit back and let transformation emerge from within Iran, the only place it can emerge from.

China poses a much more profound challenge. If we were to allow China to use the same abusive practices it employed to dominate the manufacturing and assembly of low-margin, high-volume goods to now compete directly with us for the high-value-added, high-margin technologies of the 21st century — like 5G telecom, new materials, AI, aerospace, microchips — we'd be crazy.

But China's current growth model is central to keeping the Communist Party in power. It's not something Beijing will abandon easily. That is why I believe the market is underestimating how difficult it will be to strike any transformational deal that gets China to fully abandon its abuses. And a small transactional deal won't cut it.

And that's why I also keep saying: This is no ordinary moment. This is the big one, folks. What's at stake with Trump and China is what kind of global economy we're going to have going forward. What's at stake with Iran is what kind of global nuclear nonproliferation regime we're going to have going forward.

The stakes simply could not be bigger, which is why I believe 2019 will be a pivotal year — like 1945 and 1989. I just hope it ends as well.