If Nobody Knows Your Iran Policy, Does It Even Exist?

The Trump administration’s top foreign-policy priority is the Islamic Republic—but it’s unclear to what end.

National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York on Sept. 25, 2018.
National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York on Sept. 25, 2018. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

What is the Trump administration’s objective with Iran? We’ve all been watching its efforts for months now—including National Security Advisor John Bolton’s announcement on Sunday that the United States had sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Tehran—and I still can’t figure out what it is trying to achieve. That’s partly because President Donald Trump prizes being unpredictable, and his chaotically run administration is either unable or unwilling to provide clear and coherent justifications for many of its policy decisions. If you never tell anyone exactly what you’re trying to do, it’s harder for outsiders to hold you accountable later.

We are forced, therefore, to divine the administration’s objectives for ourselves. Here’s my best guess at some of the possibilities.

Option 1: It’s just Kabuki theater. It’s possible that the broader drama about Iran is mostly posturing designed to keep the Saudis, Israelis, Gulf states, and wealthy Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson happy. Maybe Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton know deep down that the regime isn’t going to fall and isn’t going to renegotiate a better deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But having criticized former President Barack Obama’s handling of Iran, and under pressure from allies and domestic lobbies alike, it was inevitable that Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton would revert back to coercive pressure, even though that approach never worked in the past (at least, not on its own). This interpretation assumes the administration is under no illusions that it is going to work this time either.

To be honest, I don’t think this is what is really going on. If this policy was just smoke and mirrors, there would be little point in exacerbating already strained relations with some long-standing allies by threatening to punish them if they keep buying Iranian oil. That’s a step you’d take only if you really felt it would yield benefits greater than the diplomatic costs. For this reason, I don’t think Option 1 is the real story.

Option 2: Pressure Iran to sign a new deal. According to this view, the goal of “maximum pressure” is to force Tehran back to the table and convince President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to accept the 12 demands that Pompeo laid out a year ago. In this scenario, an increasingly desperate Iran will end its support for Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the Houthis in Yemen; stop trying to influence politics in Iraq; and accept more stringent restrictions on its nuclear capabilities (or maybe even abandon them entirely).

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, as long as we’re dreaming, I’d like a private jet, along with a big pile of cash to pay for its operations.

The problem with this lovely vision is that it won’t work. Tighter sanctions on Iran are unlikely to convince it to accept all of America’s demands, especially when the United States no longer has the multilateral backing it enjoyed while negotiating the JCPOA. Even much weaker states don’t like giving in to blackmail, because doing so just invites new demands. External sanctions are painful, but they often strengthen authoritarian regimes in the short to medium term. More than a decade of tough sanctions didn’t convince Tehran to give up all its enrichment capacity before, and it’s not likely to do so now.

There’s a further problem with this rosy scenario: Why would Iran agree to any sort of deal with the same president who tore up the JCPOA and who has repeatedly broken promises to numerous business partners and boasted about lying to close U.S. allies? If Option 2 is what the administration is trying to accomplish, it is likely to be disappointed.

Option 3: Regime change. Instead of a new and better deal, Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton may well be genuinely interested in toppling the clerical regime, and they may have convinced themselves that inflicting ever increasing amounts of pain on the Iranian people will finally lead them to rise up and overthrow the mullahs. Bolton and Pompeo have said as much on various occasions, and Bolton’s close (and reportedly lucrative) association with Iranian exile groups is consistent with that objective as well.

No government is utterly impregnable, of course, so one can never rule out the possibility of an internal upheaval. But history suggests that the odds are slim. The United States embargoed Cuba for decades yet Fidel Castro’s regime remains in place despite his death in 2016. Sanctions eventually convinced the unlamented Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, but Libyans didn’t rise up against him until after sanctions were lifted, and it still took an external military intervention to topple him from power. There may be plenty of Iranians who don’t like the clerical regime, but most of the population is also intensely patriotic and likely to harbor even greater resentment toward the distant superpower that is working overtime to cripple their economy. Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA also played into the hands of Iran’s hard-liners because it vindicates their claims that the United States is irrevocably hostile and that its word cannot be trusted.

Moreover, regime change is hardly a reliable answer to America’s differences with Iran. There’s no guarantee that pro-American forces would gain power should the clerical regime collapse, and one suspects that pro-American voices in Iran are becoming scarcer as Washington inflicts more and more suffering there. If we’ve learned anything from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Syria, it is that removing an unsavory regime often makes things worse, not better.

Option 4: Create a pretext for preventive war. Another possibility is that the administration is trying to use maximum pressure to goad Iran into restarting its nuclear program. Once it does, so the argument runs, Europe, Russia, and China would line up behind the United States and support (or at least tolerate) a military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. The logic is straightforward: Killing the JCPOA undercut the Iranian moderates who had argued that compromising with the United States would get Iran out of the penalty box and gradually re-establish normal relations with the outside world—and ramping up the pressure even more will marginalize any Iranian officials who still favor staying on this side of the nuclear weapons threshold. Once Iran restarts its program, leaves the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), or takes some other apparently irrevocable step, the path is (supposedly) clear to the sort of preventive war that people like Bolton have long advocated.

Make no mistake: If this is what Trump or his underlings are doing—and last week’s profile of Bolton in the New Yorker gives ample grounds for worry—it would be another one of those giant roll-of-the-dice bets that the United States keeps making (and losing) in the Middle East. Bombing Iran’s nuclear infrastructure to smithereens won’t eradicate the knowledge of how to build it, and it will send a powerful object lesson to Iran (and others) about the downsides of being a nonnuclear power. Qaddafi was overthrown and killed after giving up all his WMD, Iran could get bombed because it doesn’t have nuclear weapons yet, but a murderous tyrant like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gets repeated one-on-one meetings with Trump, who claims that the two of them have fallen “in love.” If you were a senior Iranian strategist, what lesson would you draw from this pattern of behavior?

And don’t forget: If Iran really does control a vast and powerful network of obedient proxies around the region—as the Trump administration and Iranian alarmists routinely claim—why assume that they are going to sit back and do nothing as Uncle Sam whacks Tehran? That’s what the Middle East really needs: another wide-ranging, bitter, costly, and inconclusive war. Well, what did you expect from the same strategic geniuses who thought toppling Saddam Hussein would solve all the United States’ problems in the region?

Option 5: Containment-plus. There’s a final option, however, and I think it’s actually the most likely. The maximum pressure campaign—including the threat of secondary sanctions against U.S. allies and partners—is intended simply to weaken Iran and reduce its influence within the region. In this scenario, all the talk of regime change and hints that “all options are on the table” are just palaver—or the kind of boastful swaggering that Pompeo seems to enjoy. One could acknowledge that pressure won’t alter Iran’s overall policies, won’t lead to regime change, won’t produce a better deal, and may not even push Tehran into leaving the NPT and opening the door to preventive war. All it might do is force Iran to cut back on its support for some of its local partners and thus crimp (though not eliminate) Iran’s regional influence.

This is the best justification I can think up for what the administration is doing, and it’s barely possible that this is in fact what it has in mind. There’s only two problems with it: It does heighten the risk of war, and it doesn’t point the way toward any long-term solution to regional instability. It rests on the assumption that Iran and the United States are irrevocable enemies with no common interests, and it keeps the United States firmly tied to a set of Middle Eastern allies—especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—that have become accustomed to taking U.S. support and protection for granted and are increasingly deaf to its advice. It guarantees that the United States will remain at odds with a populous, well-educated quasi-democracy that cannot help but be a central player in the Middle East, and it goes a long way toward pushing that country closer to China and Russia. From the standpoint of Geopolitics 101, it’s a dumb move.

Let’s bear one more thing in mind. Despite the threat inflation that pervades the U.S. national security discourse, the current situation in the Middle East has at most a small direct effect on the security of Americans at home. (To the extent that it does, it is more likely to be the relatively modest danger posed by Sunni extremists like the Islamic State, and even that danger is far from existential.) In other words, it is hard to see how continuing to whack Iran at every turn does anything to make Americans safer or more prosperous. I understand why Saudis, Israelis, and a few others worry about Iran—though I think their fears are overblown, too—but it is by no means obvious why it is in America’s interest to take the lead in confronting their problem. After all, Israel has a very powerful military of its own and a substantial and sophisticated stockpile of nuclear weapons, and Saudi Arabia outspends Iran on defense by a margin of more than 3 to 1. Iran has hardly any conventional power projection capacity, an obsolescent arsenal of weapons, and cannot hope to dominate the predominantly Sunni states of the Arab world. It has made good use of local militias but mostly by taking advantage of others’ mistakes (such as the decision to topple Saddam in 2003).

If the United States does not take the lead in confronting Iran, some may argue, then the local powers will be forced to act and the Middle East will dissolve into even more competition, chaos, and violence than exists today. Maybe so, but if peace in the region were America’s true objective, then it would have tried to build on the JCPOA and position itself as an honest broker in the region as a whole. To do that would require real diplomatic leverage with all parties, which in turn requires talking to all of them and not be excessively beholden to any. Given that America’s core interests are to help maintain a stable balance of power (so that no local or external power can control the region), discourage proliferation, and tamp down violent extremism, a more evenhanded policy would make sense. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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