Kevin Lamarque / Reuters Donald Trump speaks about the Iran nuclear deal in the White House, October 2017.

Why It's Tough to Get Tough on Iran

The Problem With U.S. Middle East Strategy

It’s hard to get tough on Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcements that he would decertify the Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and expand sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) testify to this fact. With these two moves, the Trump administration has expressed its dissatisfaction with the Iran policy it inherited from former President Barack Obama. At the same time, the administration has betrayed its inability (or unwillingness) to dramatically alter the United States’ overall strategy toward Iran. The recent announcements might make the U.S. approach to Iran marginally more assertive, but they will do little to change Iran’s behavior.

The Trump administration is realizing that changing Iran policy is difficult—not because Washington’s problems with Iran are unclear but because they cannot be addressed without changing the United States’ broader policy in the Middle East. In particular, if Washington does not rethink its strategy toward Syria, U.S. Iran policy will remain ineffective.


The United States has several strategic interests in the Middle East. Among them are ensuring the security of Israel and providing assurance to Washington’s Arab allies (including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates), which it does primarily through a sustained maritime presence in the Persian Gulf. Iran is the main threat to all of those allies, and Tehran’s militant clients (including Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and the Houthis in Yemen) are the spear tip of that threat. Deterring Iran and its proxies is thus central to U.S. objectives in the Middle East.  The United States is further committed to stabilizing Iraq, defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and combating ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates elsewhere in the region. Washington has also played a supporting role in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebellion in Yemen.

Iran’s regional strategy is more streamlined. It is centered on countering the United States and

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