Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a ceremony marking the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran February 10, 2017.

Since November, when Donald Trump was elected president, U.S.-Iranian relations have gone into a tailspin. In response to the administration’s triumphalist tenor and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s pledge to “put Iran on notice,” Iran has partially escalated but also shown a modicum of restraint. Flynn’s replacement by Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster offers the Trump administration an opportunity to rethink its approach.

The goal should be to guard against any further escalation of hostilities. After all, unless the administration is willing to wage war with Iran, this confrontation won't achieve anything useful for the United States. What it will do is further strengthen the hardliners in Tehran, a process that is already underway, and undermine moderates such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif less than three months before Iran’s presidential election.

That the United States is in this position is particularly disappointing given that, despite some missteps, the Obama policy team had made considerable progress with Iran through the negotiation of the nuclear deal and Iran’s evident adherence to it. To be sure, the deal was imperfect, but it had been working. Except for a few minor violations, Iran had fully lived up to the accord. And when the International Atomic Energy Agency pointed out the violations, Tehran quickly corrected course. 

Beyond heading off a conflict with Iran—which would have been costly for both sides—the deal halted the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons in the near term and allowed Iran to achieve sanctions relief in exchange. To be sure, the deal was circumscribed and did not press for regime reform, which is something Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his cohorts never would have entertained.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives to deliver a speech in a meeting with military commanders in Tehran, Iran, February 7, 2017.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives to deliver a speech in a meeting with military commanders in Tehran, Iran, February 7, 2017.
At the time, some of the deal’s proponents, such as Benjamin Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications for President Barack Obama, and other top former administration officials, held out hope that the deal would encourage Iran to engage further with the West, although that was never an explicit part of the initial deal. And as it happens, even those in the West who accepted the deal knew that, in its immediate aftermath, Khamenei would likely allow the hardliners to push back because by definition the deal had strengthened the moderates. During the negotiations, he had kept the hardliners in check.

For the deal to be built upon in any real way, the West had to work to strengthen the moderates and undermine the hardliners. In particular, the West needed to avoid the mistake of viewing Iran as a unified regime and of seeing any bad behavior as necessarily representative of the regime as a whole. That meant ignoring red-herring rhetoric from the hardliners while giving the moderates something to show for their efforts. That is why the Obama administration acted expeditiously to end the U.S. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.

Because other U.S. and Western sanctions relating to Iran’s alleged terrorist activities remained in place, and because international banks remained highly skittish when it came to dealing with Iran, economic relief did not come quickly enough. Overall, the administration made too few efforts to help Iran economically, as other terrorism-related sanctions were kept in place. The Obama team, it seemed, had taken its eye off the ball. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and others knew that Iranian moderates needed a post-deal economic boost to secure their position.

Thus, even prior to the U.S. election, the dynamics inside Iran were trending well in favor of the hardliners. Khamenei allowed the Revolutionary Guard and others to begin increasing their support for Shia militias in Iraq, the Houtis in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Syria—all of which had been reined in during the run up to and in the negotiations for the Iran deal. Unsurprisingly, these behaviors then became convenient fodder for critics of the deal, who now had yet more supposed evidence of Iran’s intransigence. 

With Iran due for presidential elections in May, the West is running out of time. Even worse, the Trump administration seems intent on pursuing policies that would do the exact opposite. For example, Flynn and Trump adviser Steve Bannon proposed placing the IGRC on the terrorist list. But that would be ill-advised because it would directly escalate tensions. 

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his new National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump announces his new National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S. February 20, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
The same goes for the movement in Congress to impose fresh sanctions on Iran for its missile testing activities, which were not covered by the nuclear deal. Likewise, it was clumsy to “put Iran on notice” and to enact new “small ball” sanctions, which merely put a few additional individuals and firms in travel and financial jeopardy, but in the eyes of rival Iran were perceived as threatening and requiring an escalatory response.

 If the Trump administration continues in this vein, it risks a highly destabilizing escalation and the empowerment of the hardliners for years to come. What’s more, before long, Iran would have ample incentive to violate the deal. To be sure, picking a fight with Iran may offer some choice red meat for the Republican base, but it amounts to a major strategic error that will do long-standing harm to U.S. national security interests.

McMaster must put the United States on a more strategic course that militates against conflict with Iran. Instead of implementing punishing new sanctions that aim to harm Iran economically—certain to be escalate tensions—the new administration should either avoid them or merely add to the sanctions on unsavory individuals and assorted foreign firms that have not already been sanctioned for bit roles in the former Iranian nuclear program. If that happens, Iran will continue to adhere to the deal.

For now, signs from Iran are somewhat positive. The yearly celebration of the founding of the Islamic Republic (expected to be a bonanza for the hardliners) turned out to be muted—excessively so, which was a clear sign of at least momentary moderation from the top leadership. In addition, a series of prominent hardliner clerics—including some of the leading clerics in Qom—have in recent days publicly expressed their support for keeping the nuclear deal in place.

But Iran is always careful to mix friendly moves with harsher signals, such as this week’s war games, smaller rocket firings, and additional incendiary rhetoric from the IRGC. Sifting through the contradictions requires deft strategic acumen; there is always a portion of Iran’s rhetoric that is intended for domestic audiences and as a way for hardliners to save face. The new administration and Congress should thus tread carefully when it comes to Iran and only in accordance with a thoughtful strategic plan. Unless the United States wants to veer toward conflict, it is time for cooler heads to prevail.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now