With a May 12 deadline looming, the Iran nuclear deal is on life support. Donald Trump appears intent on unraveling one of his predecessor’s top foreign policy achievements: Avoiding war with Iran and preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon. Trump opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) from the outset of his presidential campaign, and his disdain for it has grown since entering the White House. To date, Trump has threatened to withdraw from the accord; badgered European allies for supporting it; extorted them with ultimatums to unilaterally renegotiate its terms; and decertified it despite evidence to the contrary. Most recently, Benjamin Netanyahu tried using known information about Iran’s nuclear program – with Trump’s approval – as justification for stumbling into war – or worse, potentially concocting one like the George W. Bush administration in Iraq.
All of this begs the question: Does Trump’s team have an Iran policy? At first glance, it looks like they do. Dig a bit deeper, however, and dangerous strategic incoherence bubbles to the surface. If we take the Trump administration at face value, its Iran policy seemingly consists of three broad-based pillars: viewing Iran as a zero-sum adversary in the Middle East; pushing Europe to adopt a more confrontational Iran policy across the board, and that doing so is important and achievable; pursuing regime change in Iran. Each of these pillars has been tried and failed by Trump’s predecessors dating back to 1979. There is no reason to believe they will succeed today. However, the demise of diplomacy and rising risk of war puts the cost of Trump’s likely failure at an all-time high.
Dancing in the Dark
This much is clear: The Trump administration is uniformly hawkish on Iran. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called Iran “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” saying on multiple occasions that the three most dangerous threats facing the United States are “Iran, Iran, Iran.” Current Secretary of State and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo boasted that “one of the first things the President did is to go build a coalition of [Persian] Gulf states and Israel to help find a platform which could uniformly push back against Iranian expansionism.” Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that U.S. policy will “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of government.” Newly-minted National Security Adviser John Bolton’s lust for bombing Iran has been well documented over the past 17 years.
Many in the Washington foreign policy establishment would agree with such pursuits as part of any U.S. strategy on Iran. Upon closer examination, however, these core policy principles are flawed. Expressing a desire to “roll back” Iranian influence, “improve” the JCPOA, and pursue regime change is very different than having a coherent strategy for doing so. There is no clear center of gravity in Trump’s Middle East policy. Instead, it operates hand to mouth, situation by situation, Trump visit by Trump visit. To that end, the Trump administration has sought to sufficiently jeopardize the JCPOA’s survival in an effort to generate leverage vis-à-vis Europe to compel the Europeans’ increased cooperation on two fronts: Taking more hardline positions against Iran’s regional policies and missile program; and unilaterally renegotiating the terms of the nuclear accord.
Taking on Tehran
As Trump’s team tries to strong-arm Europe into acquiescence, they are already pursuing their own haphazard efforts to “rollback” Iran. 15 years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, American troop levels have increased by over 2,000 in the past year, the fight against ISIS has continued in order to “avoid an ISIS 2.0,” and stabilization and reconstruction efforts will reportedly soon commence, perhaps requiring even larger troop deployments. In Syria, there are now four times as many troops as previously acknowledged by the Pentagon, and an open-ended military presence has been announced.
However, endless wars and perpetual militarism are neither a means nor an end without clear goals and concrete metrics for success and failure. Trump’s team wants to compete with Iran for influence in places like Iraq and Syria, but has yet to figure out a viable way to do so. In Syria, competing with Iran defies Trump’s impulse to avoid deeper involvement and instead delegate the lead to Russia. In Iraq, it conflicts with Trump’s allergy to anything that resembles diplomacy and nation building.
The Trump administration’s efforts to “roll back” Iranian influence in the Middle East appear even more strategically incoherent when America’s traditional partners in the region are factored into the equation. Since entering office, Trump has green-lighted the Saudi-Emirati blockade of Qatar; Riyadh’s holding the Lebanese Prime Minister hostage; Israeli gambits on Jerusalem and the peace process; and deepening the depth and scope of Riyadh’s humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. In each of the aforementioned theaters, Iran is more influential today than it was prior to Trump’s presidency. Perhaps more troubling is the increasingly apparent reality that Trump has given the Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis a blank check to pursue their Iran-obsessed agenda without much criticism from his administration—or consideration of American interests.
Perhaps the most telling example of Trump’s lack of a coherent policy came this past October, when he announced his strategy to push back against Iran in the context of decertifying the JCPOA. Despite talking about Iran for nearly 20 minutes, he provided little more than a laundry list of complaints about the Iranian government and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rather than a strategy on how to push back against them. American allies in Europe have also taken notice of the administration’s policy incoherence. One former European ambassador to Iran recently told me: “I certainly think direct U.S.–Iran dialogue ought to be revived. It’s just an absolute axiom that much as one may oppose Iran, if you choose to oppose what Iran does elsewhere in the Middle East, they are a factor.”
From Iran’s nuclear program to its regional policies and everything in between, the Trump administration is searching for a new object for controversy and for keeping Iran in a defensive position. Trump’s withdrawing from the JCPOA and Netanyahu’s dog and pony show should therefore be viewed through this lens of rollback. Efforts to overthrow Assad and subvert Lebanon are also part of the rollback offensive – and so too is America’s never-ending dream of regime change in Tehran. Another former European ambassador to Iran emphasized to me that many EU officials are deeply concerned regarding the Trump administration’s disorganized efforts vis-à-vis Iran: “There is no doubt that this is an offensive, but we know that this offensive is not a viable proposition.”
Regime Change Resurrection
Thus far, the Trump administration’s rhetoric regarding regime change has been more visible than its actions. In addition to Rex Tillerson’s aforementioned remarks, Mike Pompeo (while still a member of Congress in 2016) called for action to “change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime.” President Trump himself has fired off multiple tweets about regime change. In reality, however, it is difficult to gauge the depth and scope of his administration’s regime change efforts because they are largely covert. Trump tapped the CIA officer who oversaw the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and America’s drone strike campaign that killed thousands (including civilians) to run the agency’s Iran operations. To hear U.S. government officials tell it, Congress has continued allocating funds to the State Department for “Iran Democracy” programming – efforts that will likely increase as Trump’s team throws the kitchen sink at Tehran. Beyond that, details remain murky.
Regime change efforts, both in word and deed, are not new to American policy. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had, to varying degrees, laced regime change into their respective Iran policies—Bush significantly outweighing his successor. However, many current and former senior officials from both America and Europe are deeply skeptical of this approach. Not only has it repeatedly failed, but it also demonstrates a frightening lack of lessons learned from the Iraq war and its subsequent inquiries. Moreover, America’s track record of meddling in the internal politics of countries around the world is not good. Its track record of doing so in Iran has produced zero success.
A former senior State Department official who served as U.S. ambassador to multiple countries articulated a sentiment that is accepted by governments everywhere except Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi: “The true voice in Iran is what the Iranian people decide. While plenty of Iranians have problems with their government, I know of no Iranians who are prepared to sit back and say foreigners can tell them what their voice is,” he told me over tea in his office. “They know their voice, and eventually that voice will come through, but any attempt to impose outside views on Iran will run into the absolutely concrete reality of Iranian pride and dignity and determination to tell the foreign interferer to get lost. So, this administration’s [regime change] policy will fail. This is not a winning wicket to bat on, to use a British expression.”
For Team Trump, It’s Personal
There is also a less understood dynamic driving Trump administration’s strategic incoherence on Iran: Personal grudges. Trump’s animus against Iran appears to be largely driven by his gut. His impulse to try to be the anti-Obama is well documented, and that has translated into neither a policy nor a strategy, but rather a series of actions carried out in an effort to simply not be Barack Obama. From jeopardizing the JCPOA’s survival, to striking airfields in Syria, to declaring Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, the only discernible common thread in Trump’s decision-making is proving that he is different than his predecessor. Trump’s obsession with killing the Iran deal is remarkably straightforward: He called it ‘the worst deal ever’ during his presidential campaign, although he clearly did not know the details, nor could he describe why it was bad. And once he entered office, he despised the fact that many of his advisors were asking him every 90 days to sign off on “Obama’s deal” – until one day he simply refused to do it anymore. When Trump’s desire to be the anti-Obama is mixed with the foundational Islamophobia that he has repeatedly displayed at home and abroad, a clear picture of where the President is coming from on Iran emerges.
That being said, Trump is not the only one in his administration with a personal grudge. The vast majority of political appointees serving in senior roles on Iran policy are white men with military backgrounds who view the Iranian government through the prism of “payback” after losing in Iraq. To hear one career U.S. government official tell it: “These guys are looking to settle scores, American interests be damned.” This sentiment is also widely acknowledged by current and former officials in both America and Europe. Few would deny that Trump is surrounded by a very hawkish set of advisors on Iran, some of them more ideological than others. People like Pompeo and Bolton are quite ideological. But some like Jim Mattis and senior National Security Council staffers, who are not particularly ideological, are veterans of the post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East where the United States has found itself on the opposite side of Iran in a number of theaters—particularly in Iraq during the first five years after America’s invasion.
Schizophrenia in the Halls of Power
There is an irony attached to this strategic incoherence: The Trump administration’s efforts to subvert the JCPOA and use it as leverage to compel European policies on a variety of other hawkish fronts has produced the opposite effect. They have managed to frame a discussion where all anyone is talking about is the JCPOA—which is daft because the deal is the one thing that is working. To date, none of America’s European allies have prioritized other issues that relate to Iran. Instead, they have indicated a willingness to discuss other issues while reaffirming that their top priority in any Iran policy is keeping the JCPOA alive and fully implemented by all sides.
This reality has produced yet another irony. Many Trump administration officials and supporters have claimed that the Obama administration allowed the tail to wag the dog – it overly focused on the nuclear deal and was thus inattentive to other elements of Iran’s policy in the Middle East. Beyond the inaccuracy of such claims, it was obvious to everyone that the nuclear file needed to be the priority—everyone, that is, except people who never wanted a deal with Iran in the first place. The only statement of priority that Trump has given to date regarding Iran’s nuclear program is the fact sheet his administration issued on the day he decertified the JCPOA. And yet, the fact sheet emphasizes that blocking all of Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons as the top priority, so even Trump’s team recognizes the centrality of the issue.
So, where does Trump’s Iran policy—or lack thereof—lead? If the past 16 months are any indication: nowhere good. Paradoxically, gaming out his policy is not a question that is amenable to the analytical process because the President has no policy preferences. In other words, you cannot figure out what he is trying to achieve and what risks he is willing to take. What is it that his administration cares about? When it talks about Iran in the region, what is it that they are talking about exactly? What is it that’s so important to the American national interest that they are willing to risk a real national security threat from a proliferation concern? It doesn’t add up.
If this appears schizophrenic, that is because it is. For example, after announcing his displeasure with the JCPOA, intent to “roll back” Iranian influence in the Middle East, and pursuit of regime change in Tehran, Trump ham-handedly requested a meeting with Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly. Mike Pompeo followed up that stunt with one of his own, sending a letter to IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. The unprofessionalism and malpractice in this administration across the board is striking.
Until the Trump administration makes a clear, uniformly held strategic decision about America’s role and objectives in the Middle East, its policy incoherence is all but guaranteed to continue. Without doing so, it will be unable to define what U.S. interests are, and unable to act in accordance with those interests . As Trump’s team stumbles from one misstep to the next, none of them are occurring in a vacuum. With the possible exception of the fight against ISIS, all of the conflicts raging in the Middle East have gotten worse under Trump’s watch. This is compounded by the diplomacy deficit now facing Washington and Tehran.
The Obama administration had resolved this problem through the establishment of numerous bilateral channels of communication, but career U.S. government officials now say that almost none of those channels are utilized by Trump’s team except for the Joint Commission that was created as part of the JCPOA. A former senior State Department official who also served as U.S. ambassador to a variety of countries around the world was grimly honest when providing me with his assessment of Trump’s trajectory on Iran: “We’re going to be in a whale of trouble getting out of where we are right now.”
This begs the question: If Trump doesn’t pull an about face on Iran policy, what can be done to save the JCPOA and avoid war? A good idea at the wrong time is a bad idea. And presently, the Trump administration is widely—and correctly—perceived as the sole aggressor toward the JCPOA, therefore making otherwise sensible policy recommendations for the U.S. government less viable than usual. Still, there are important steps that Washington can take to keep the nuclear deal alive and avoid a war of choice with Iran. Americans should consider the following:
1) Establish Congressional Roadblocks to Killing the JCPOA and Starting War. Since Donald Trump’s decertification of the Iran deal, Congress has played a surprisingly reasonable role in helping to keep the agreement alive. Both Democrats and Republicans have thus far refused to pass new sanctions legislation containing poison pill provisions that would violate America’s JCPOA obligations. It is imperative that this bipartisan effort should continue for as long as Iran remains in compliance with its end of the bargain. Leaders on both sides of the aisle should add to this effort by stepping up their public discourse about the deal. Democrats and Republicans in both chambers should utilize television, radio, and print media to call out anyone seeking to torpedo the JCPOA. Lawmakers should directly challenge anti-Iran deal policymakers and pundits to articulate a better, more viable plan that ensures needless war is off the table and Iran remains more than a year away from being able to build a nuclear weapon, should it make the political decision to do so.
To that end, leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives should immediately begin legislative efforts that require Trump to seek out congressional authorization before pursuing any sort of military confrontation with Iran. This is consistent with the U.S. constitution, and legislating an enforcement of the constitution’s war powers provides much needed supervision. When the Trump administration announced its plans to maintain a U.S. military presence in Syria to fight Iran after the threat from ISIS recedes, Senator Chris Murphy rightly warned that Trump’s team has zero legal authorization to do so, and moving forward unchecked provides the executive branch with absolute war-making power. To hear senior congressional staffers tell it, many legislators share his concern and may be willing to take action accordingly.
2) Revitalize Track 1.5 and Track II Dialogue Between Iranians and Americans. Precisely because the Trump administration has chosen to unilaterally cut off direct, official channels of communication with Iran, there needs to be a variety of unofficial channels established so that reasonable voices on both sides can resume the conversation when Washington and Tehran move beyond the current setbacks. After the 2003-2005 nuclear negotiations between the EU and Iran broke down, Track II and 1.5 conversations gained momentum during that latter part of George W. Bush’s second term and helped establish some of the intellectual framework for the JCPOA. This demonstrates the importance of having fallback plans for dialogue, even if Trump’s team is forcing them to occur outside of official channels.
In the same vein, senior American officials in the State Department, Defense Department, and Congress should emphasize the importance of Europeans and the United Nations keeping lines of communication with Iran open and growing. Stakeholders on the global scene who have a proven track record of relative neutrality and bringing people together are best suited to bridge the gap between antagonistic parties. Moreover, making sure those lines of communication remain intact is particularly important so that America can capitalize on them when it has another team in the White House that is more inclined to resume direct diplomacy with Iran.
3) On Iran Policy, Widen the Group of Countries That America Talks To. Senior leaders from the executive and legislative branches of government should establish consultative mechanisms with non-traditional friendly countries that meet regularly to discuss Iran policy. At a time of increasingly dangerous tensions in the region, it is important for America to listen to a greater number of ideas and actors to avoid getting misled by self-interested countries or an Iranian version of Ahmed Chalabi. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE clearly have their own agendas – and they do not always align with what is in the national interest of the United States. In addition to traditional discussion partners in the region, America should institutionalize dialogue on Iran policy with Japan, South Korea, and India.
By avoiding dependence on Saudi, Israeli, and Emirati views, Washington will increase the likelihood of getting much needed balance and nuance in its Iran perspective and policy-making. Tokyo, Seoul, and New Delhi have unique points of view on the region and how to best address its challenges, which in turn can help inform American efforts. Moreover, including them in an institutionalized consultative mechanism provides a sense of partnership and vested interest to other actors, so they take the process of offering advice and assistance more seriously and bring something tangible to the table—from intelligence access to diplomatic contacts to economic and military influence.
If Trump follows through with his threat to kill the JCPOA, he will have manufactured a crisis on an issue that was previously resolved. In doing so, the chances of war will go up exponentially—particularly because Trump has abandoned nearly all forms of direct communication with Iran, thereby increasing the likelihood of miscommunication, misperception, and miscalculation. America may choose to needlessly erode its credibility, but there is no reason for Europeans to follow suit on this bridge to nowhere. Their noble efforts to bridge the United States-EU divide on Iran may yet succeed—but at present, they are more likely to fail. With that in mind, Europe must prepare itself to step up and assume the responsibilities for diplomacy and peace with Iran that Trump’s team looks set to abdicate.
Reza Marashi is research director at the National Iranian-American Council. He previously served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, Atlantic, and National Interest. On Twitter: @rezamarashi.
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