Dear President Trump, Let’s Talk About Iran

An open letter to the U.S. president on how to deal with the Islamic Republic—and his own administration.

President Donald Trump jokes about a letter given to him by a sheriff after meeting with sheriffs from across the country in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump jokes about a letter given to him by a sheriff after meeting with sheriffs from across the country in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C. T.J. Kirkpatrick-Pool/Getty Images

Dear President Donald Trump:

We’ve never met, and given that you’re not much of a reader, I doubt you even know who I am. But maybe—just maybe—someone on your staff will bring this letter to your attention.

I’m writing because your Middle East policy, and especially your policy toward Iran, seems really confused at the moment, and I’d like to help you out. I’ll try to use small words—the best words!—the same way you do whenever you tweet or when you speak at those big rallies of yours.

Just between us, Mr. President, you made a mistake when you tore up the nuclear deal with Iran. I still wonder if you actually understood its provisions because you seem to get a lot of things wrong whenever you talk about it. But never mind that: I’m sure you thought it was the right move at the time, and you may even have believed it was a “terrible” deal. But here I’m afraid you listened to the wrong people. Instead of taking advice from Sheldon Adelson, Mohammed bin Salman, or Benjamin Netanyahu, you should have heeded the wise counsel of James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, all of the United States’ European allies, or your buddy Vladimir Putin. They understood that the Iran nuclear deal was pretty good and that it was achieving its main purpose: keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And they would have been happy to work with you to build on that agreement and address other concerns about Iran.

Now look where you are. The United States walked away from the deal and compounded that error by threatening to punish other states if they stuck to it and continued to trade or invest in Iran. With the situation heating up, the United States finds itself with no major power support for its position. Moreover, it undercuts the moderates who genuinely hoped to turn Iran into a non-revolutionary country—which is what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says is the long-term goal—and strengthened the hard-line forces who have long viewed the United States as irrevocably hostile and untrustworthy.

Which brings me to my second point. Your policy of “maximum pressure” isn’t working the way your advisors said it would. I’m not quite sure what the real goal of the policy is—are you hoping to get a new nuclear deal, topple the regime, or maybe just contain Iran’s regional activities?—but we don’t seem to be getting closer to any of those goals. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests Iran’s regional activities have not diminished (I personally think the report is a bit alarmist but still), and the Iranians are gradually edging away from the nuclear deal and thus getting a bit closer to an actual bomb. Given that the United States walked away first, you can’t really blame them (though of course you’ll try). Iran’s leaders also seem to be going out of their way to show you that they won’t be cowed, coerced, or browbeaten into submission, and the whole situation threatens to drag you into exactly the sort of war you always said you wanted to avoid.

Mr. President, it’s important that you understand why this confrontation is playing out this way. Iran’s response might seem confusing because the United States is vastly more powerful and additional economic sanctions are undoubtedly creating serious hardships there. So why isn’t Tehran saying “uncle” and agreeing to do whatever you, Bolton, or Pompeo want? Is it because its leaders are stubborn religious fanatics who just won’t see reason?

Nope. Here’s what’s really going on. If a much weaker country like Iran let you bully it once, you might conclude that you could bully it again. And then again. Or whenever you wanted. It is therefore in that country’s interest to show you that it can’t be intimidated and get you to give it some of what it wants in any subsequent agreement. That’s what Iran’s leaders mean when they talk about the need for the United States to show “respect.” They’re not just trying to save face; they are telling you that America’s superior power isn’t enough to get them to capitulate and that you’ll have to bargain fairly, even if you hold more high cards than they do. You may have noticed that North Korea, Mexico, and some other countries are acting the same way, consistent with what some scholars argue too.

Let me explain this to you in a way I’m sure you’ll grasp. Remember that advice you got from Roy Cohn, who told you to tell the Justice Department, after your real estate company was accused of race discrimination, to “go to hell” and to go on the offensive instead? Cohn taught you that when your position is weak, you have to attack even more, to keep people from taking advantage of you. That’s basically what Iran is doing and why “maximum pressure” isn’t working. Do you get it now?

More broadly, your entire approach to the Middle East is based on the mistaken belief that a combination of unconditional support for familiar U.S. partners (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf states, etc.) and unrelenting hostility to long-standing adversaries like Iran is the path to success. But here’s what your advisors aren’t telling you: Just as you like to say that you’ll always put U.S. interests first, America’s so-called friends in the region are out for themselves too. That’s why the country’s current partners (and their supporters or paid lobbyists in the United States) are happy to watch America confront Iran while they look on from the sidelines.

In foreign policy, we call this strategy “buck-passing.” Instead of taking on costly burdens or dangerous risks, smart states try to get others to fight their battles for them. Sometimes this isn’t possible—the United States couldn’t pass the buck to others during most of the Cold War, for example—but today’s Middle East is one place where you can and should. All we really want there is a balance of power so that no single country is able to dominate the region and the oil keeps flowing to world markets. The good news is that no country today is in a position to take over the region; if anything, the region is more divided than it has ever been. There is therefore no reason for the United States to be on the front lines there, no matter what you’re hearing. Instead of letting Middle East states pass the buck to the United States, it should be passing it back to them.

Lastly, a good way to make your Middle East policy more effective would be to establish a businesslike relationship with Iran as well. Why? Because it will give them less incentive to sprint for a bomb, and it would give you more leverage when dealing with everyone else. When Pompeo goes to Riyadh, you want Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to know that Pompeo’s next stop is Tehran. That way, the crown prince has a reason to do at least some of what Pompeo asks of him. And when he’s in Tehran, you want the Iranians to know his next stop is Tel Aviv so that they start thinking about ways to keep you happy, too. And in Tel Aviv, you want the Israelis to know that Pompeo just came from Iran and is headed for Ankara or Beirut next so that they don’t take U.S. support for granted either. The United States should be more like Russia or China, both of which talk to everyone in the Middle East, a policy that gives them more influence than they would have if they dealt with only one side.

I realize what I’m suggesting would be a big adjustment and would probably require you to replace some of your top advisors. But so what? I’m not trying to flatter you, but I can’t think of any president who was better at reversing himself without apology, and you are without question the best president ever when it comes to getting people to leave your administration. As you said awhile back, given the shambles that your advisors seem to have dragged you into, it might be a good time for a bit more housecleaning.

Mr. President: I didn’t vote for you, and based on your performance thus far, it’s unlikely you’ll be my choice in 2020. But I don’t want the U.S. standing in the world to decline any further, and I certainly don’t want you to repeat the same mistakes that your predecessors—and especially the George W. Bush administration—made in the Middle East. So I hope you’ll think seriously about the advice I’ve given. Oh, and one more thing: If by some rare chance you decide to take it, I won’t be bothered at all if you don’t give me any credit.


Stephen M. Walt

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

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