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The Problem with Trump’s Iran Strategy

It’s that he doesn’t have one.
September 17, 2019
The Problem with Trump’s Iran Strategy
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a United Nations Security Council meeting on August 20, 2019 at the United Nations in New York. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran’s “proxy war” with Saudi Arabia got a little bit closer to the real thing over the weekend when Houthi rebels attacked the kingdom’s oil infrastructure and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Tehran.

Pompeo was accurate in saying that it was Iran, and not Yemen, that deserved scrutiny. But the fact remains that the current administration does not have an Iran policy of any sorts while we are on the brink of an unnecessary military conflict. It’s full-on crisis management—for a crisis that didn’t need to exist in the first place.

President Trump and his advisers have no clue what they are trying to achieve other than mere economic pressure. The National Security Strategy—drafted under the supervision of then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and signed by the president, the person responsible for it as the chair of the National Security Council—names Iran as a priority. The National Defense Strategy produced by the Department of Defense names Iran as a second priority behind China and Russia as top priorities. Pompeo has spent most of his time, at least publicly, dealing with Middle East security. The assistant secretary of state for the region was finally confirmed two and a half years into the administration. There is still no assistant secretary of defense in charge of the Middle East. National Security Adviser John Bolton was just fired for being too hawkish in the Middle East. A year before that, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired for being too dovish in the Middle East. The president ran against regime change before hiring Bolton, a well-known proponent of regime change. Pompeo claims that regime change is not a policy but has met with Iranian dissidents.

The maximum pressure campaign has been nothing but heavy sanctions. That’s all fine and good, but sanctioning is a tactic, not a  strategy or a policy. Sanctions are not even the only form of economic pressure—empowering regional rivals economically is one other form, for instance.

The administration decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka JCPOA and Iran deal), unilaterally. Many conservative critics of the agreement had counseled patience to force the Iranians out of the deal by imposing sanctions unrelated to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Trump was not patient, and in objection, the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians decided to stay in the agreement. This has made economic pressure on Iran more difficult and imposition of U.N. Security Council sanctions impossible, thereby negating the “maximum pressure campaign.”

An element of the Trump administration’s Iran non-strategy has been balancing Iran’s hegemonic aspirations through providing military assistance to Iran’s adversaries and our Arab Persian Gulf partners and Israel, known as offshore balancing. There are so many problems with that. Professors Hal Brands and Peter Feaver have made a strong case for why offshore balancing is a shortcut to conflict. Yet again, they are being proven correct.

First of all, the United States is far superior to Iran in all conventional terms and more of a deterrent than its Arab Persian Gulf partners and Israel combined—in fact, in some ways, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel combined are inferior to Iran. Further, the United States is significantly less vulnerable to Iranian proxy attacks than Arabs and Israel are mostly because Iran doesn’t have any proxies in our homeland. All these factors give us more leverage and power to deter Iran.

Second of all, it is always better to take care of your own business, especially when it is so cheap to do so. The United States’ military is more responsible, more professional, and better equipped than others’—and again, more resourceful. Avoiding any engagement in Yemen has created our dilemma, whether or not to continue our support for Saudis and Emiratis in light of their terrible negligence of the conditions of Yemeni civilians, and this has made the prospects of continuing to balance Iran there under a Democratic administration implausible. It also makes deterrence easier, as the weaker opponent, in this case, Iran, is much warier to engage in direct confrontation with a superpower as opposed to a regional power it can potentially outmatch.

Then came the spring and summer attacks in the seas. During the spring and summer, Iran attacked a Japanese oil tanker, seized a British one, and downed an American UAV in international airspace. First, the administration didn’t respond. Then, it didn’t respond. Finally, it responded but called it off. As the attacks went unanswered each time, the tension of the next one increased.

In the meantime, the president said that he was willing to meet Iranians with no preconditions, and his advisers repeated it—all on the record—and then he lyingly denied that he had ever said it. All of these happened as reports came out that the administration was considering a $15 billion bailout for Iran to bring it into talks.  Yesterday, he said that he was “not looking to get in a new conflict, but sometimes you have to.” Translation: I have no idea what I’m going to do—not quite his “this aggression will not stand” moment. 

And now, as the United States is entering another round of conflict management with Iran, there is no national security adviser to smooth the process.

So, what is the endgame here? Does the administration want to talk? Does it want containment? Does it want to do them both simultaneously, as some experts have suggested?

Here lies the problem. As everybody rushes to opine about the administration’s approach toward Iran and its endgame, everybody seems to be missing the bigger picture: What is that you want, President Trump? Unfortunately, nobody inside the administration seems to know, either.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.