U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has singled out Iran as a uniquely dangerous regional actor that must be confronted for the sake of peace and stability in the Middle East. In the last year alone, the administration of President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, announced its intention to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Syria and the wider region, and pushed for what Pompeo has called an “Arab NATO” to stand against Iran’s regional advances. Such policy shifts have led critics to question the administration’s true intentions toward Iran. Some wonder whether U.S. policy in the Middle East possesses any coherence at all, while others are certain that the administration’s real agenda is to instigate a war for regime change in Tehran. Neither interpretation fully fits the facts, and both fail to account for the evolution of U.S. Iran policy over time.

The Trump policy is not as inchoate as it appears. Nor is it a simple reversal of former President Barack Obama’s program: “isolate and roll back” as opposed to “embrace and empower.” In truth, U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran has rested not on a single objective—whether confrontation or engagement—but on the relative weight accorded to four different priorities. These include nuclear nonproliferation, regional stability and counterterrorism, human rights and democracy inside Iran, and the normalization of U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations. Shifts in U.S. policy and differences between administrations are best seen as differences in emphasis within this grid.

Former President George W. Bush, for example, favored democracy promotion and nuclear nonproliferation. By contrast, Obama wagered on normalization, such that he was willing to make concessions on the nuclear issue. Now the Trump administration has shifted the priority to regional stability, which includes combating Islamic extremism, a term that Trump applies to Islamic Iran just as much as to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) or the Taliban. Trump’s overriding objective is to negotiate a new deal with Iran that stops its “malign” influence in the region and blocks its ballistic missile program, something increasingly worrying the Europeans as well.

Washington’s new emphasis on regional security and its efforts to contain Iran largely fit the circumstances, although its alienation of European allies has been counterproductive. The administration would do well to keep its regional strategy in focus and to be distracted neither by calls for military regime change nor by pleas to preserve the nuclear deal at all costs.

A New Priority

In the last two years, Washington has made an abrupt pivot, but not an irrational one. The Trump administration rightly saw a low return on investment in the Iran deal. The sunset clauses were in fact so short that they will soon expire, and the makers of any new deal will have to renegotiate them anyway. The administration’s claim that this defect justified scuttling the deal has been unconvincing. But the deal did nothing to address Iran’s regional role, and negotiating it even as Iran entered Syria suggested that the United States had bowed to pressure to turn a blind eye on such activity. Moreover, the current administration is right to discern no appetite for normalization in Tehran. In fact, after four decades of revolutionary fervor, the regime’s power centers, notably the military-security establishment and seminaries, are radicalizing rather than moderating. Tehran’s disinterest in further engagement was evident even before Trump took office, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei moved swiftly to squash any hope that the nuclear agreement would open the way for future talks on other issues. 

Trump has abandoned normalization and made countering Iran’s regional advances an overriding priority. He declared Iran a rogue state and a threat to regional peace and security in 2017. The following year, he withdrew the United States unilaterally from the nuclear deal. In a speech in Cairo just this January, Pompeo announced that preventing the emergence of an Iranian-led regional order was at the very center of the United States’ Middle East strategy. And the United States has taken steps that reflect this reordering of priorities.

Trump has abandoned normalization and made countering Iran’s regional advances an overriding priority.

Together with the Polish government, the Trump administration organized a conference on Middle East security in Warsaw this February with the clear intention of mobilizing an international coalition to repel and disrupt Iran’s regional influence. When European allies balked at the program, the organizers expanded the scope of the conference. But the meeting’s core objective all along was, as Pompeo put it, to “get Iran to behave like a normal nation.” The following week, the United States hosted senior officials from six Gulf states plus Egypt and Jordan to discuss a new security arrangement, the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), also dubbed “the Arab NATO”—an initiative Trump first announced during his visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017.

Warsaw and MESA are critical steps toward creating a security architecture intended to compensate for a reduced U.S. troop presence in the region. The approach is consistent with the administration’s larger strategy of offshore balancing and its insistence that local actors take greater responsibility for their own security, and it shows that the administration has focused above all on checking Iran’s power in the region. Ultimately, Washington seeks to strike a new deal addressing this concern.

Pompeo has more than once enumerated 12 criteria Iran must meet in order to become a “normal” member of the international community and have all U.S. sanctions removed. From this list, variously articulated, it is possible to discern the relative weight given to others among the four priorities. Domestic reform does not rank high. The United States, under Trump, would like Iran’s people to have greater political liberty and more economic opportunity at home, but neither democracy promotion nor nation building will be a U.S. priority (a central point of Trump’s 2017 UN General Assembly speech). Interestingly, the Kabuki show around Iran’s nuclear program that preoccupied previous administrations has become remarkably muted—probably because the issue was never as pressing as it was made out to be, given that Iran remains many years away from an effective nuclear arsenal even if it wished to weaponize.

Instead, Pompeo has proclaimed the paramount U.S. goal to be “expelling every Iranian boot from Syria”—a particularly improbable aim given Iran’s victorious campaign there. Nonetheless, Trump’s Iran policy, centered on the broader objective of regional stability, takes account of realities that tend to be ignored by those invested either in preserving the nuclear deal at all costs or in ginning up conflict with Iran.

No Call for War

 In 2011, President Obama, together with European allies, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei said Assad must stay. Eight years later, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Assad have won. (Russia entered the fray only later.) What is more, by consolidating an armed proxy state on Israel’s border intent on Israel’s destruction, Iran’s regime has pulled off a feat of geopolitical hardball so audacious that even Israel has been forced to accept Hezbollah’s existence as the status quo. Accordingly, U.S. policy must be based on a realistic assessment of Iran’s asymmetric capabilities, which cannot be measured solely in conventional military terms.

The United States is increasingly unwilling to commit to open-ended, large-scale military engagements in the Middle East (its track record with such engagements is in any case not encouraging). So isolating and containing Iran may indeed be the most feasible option still available. Given that Iran does not pose an existential threat to the United States, Washington has little incentive to do more than this. Only a colossal Iranian miscalculation could provoke the administration to recalculate the political costs, at home and abroad, of seriously pursuing regime change.

Only a colossal Iranian miscalculation could provoke the administration to recalculate the political costs, at home and abroad, of seriously pursuing regime change.

Indeed, absent a new congressional authorization for the use of military force, overriding the current law that explicitly prohibits an attack on Iran, it is hard to envisage an anti-Iran military strategy beyond outsourcing to regional partners. The U.S. Fifth Fleet and CENTCOM, together with a few strategically located bases, should furnish quite enough police power to protect U.S. regional interests, which include protecting allies and partners, securing the flow of oil and gas supplies to world markets, and countering Islamic terrorism. Any greater commitment would risk embroiling the United States in regional disputes that ultimately depend on local actors to resolve.

There are many more reasons to avoid a war with Iran than there are to stoke one. The Middle East’s regional drama does not pose an existential threat to U.S. security. Western powers have struggled to find a constructive way to resolve the tensions between the region’s major players and to counter Russia’s renewed influence in the Middle East. But the intended goals of any direct intervention are likely to be frustrated, and in the meantime, intervention will probably make things much worse (the Iraq debacle springs to mind). For all these reasons, the United States would be unwise to risk being pulled into a full-scale hot war with Iran by exaggerating the threat the country poses.

Nor do Iran’s actions justify undermining important U.S. alliances, as Vice President Mike Pence did in Warsaw by issuing ultimatums to European allies to leave the Iran nuclear deal. Not only are multilateral institutions central to securing U.S. interests in today’s multipolar era, but more pertinent, the United States will need the help of its partners in Europe and elsewhere if it is to achieve its goals for regional peace. Demonizing Iran may have the advantage of providing cold war–type clarity, but it obscures the other objectives that shape U.S. policy toward Iran and distracts from such imperatives as crafting a long-term strategy toward China and Russia.

The Long Game

An Iran-centered Middle East strategy should rest not only on a realistic assessment of Iran’s military capacity but also on an understanding of the country’s internal landscape that accounts for how different Iranian groups will respond to U.S. overtures.

There is no serious constituency inside Iran that welcomes American help. In fact, many of the regime’s domestic opponents advocating for greater freedoms—even those languishing in jail or in exilerecoil from U.S. offers of help. They do so not so much because they hate the West, although most Islamists, many leftists, and a surprising number of secular nationalists do. Rather, the Muslim world is exceptional in its often xenophobic need to come to terms with the modern world uninhibited by foreign, and especially Western, influence.

The turmoil that engulfs the Middle East is deep-rooted, and the transformation it is undergoing is too profound and complex to be susceptible to engineering by outside powers. Twenty years of expended blood and treasure by the United States should be testament enough to this stubborn fact. At least since the dawn of the twentieth century, the entire Middle East has struggled to recover from the trauma of the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate. After World War I, the peoples of this region were left to search for a place in the modern world compatible with still potent traditional identities and values and somehow consonant with a history of world-historical significance.

Revolutions and upheavals have buffeted the region for more than a century—from the 1906 and 1979 revolutions in Iran to the Arab Spring in 2011, to name only a few. The forces involved have included a complex mix of nationalist revolt against foreign and colonial domination, social revolt against domestic depredations in governance and economic justice, an enormous upsurge in religious fundamentalism, and, most recently, new demands for popular voice and the accountability of rulers. All of these impulses are modern, emanating from a worldwide political awakening of populations seeking to shape their own future. Yet because the Islamic Republic styles itself the torchbearer for one of “the last civilizational holdout[s] against western power,” the United States should gauge the pace of internal change in Iran in generations, not years.

 U.S. retrenchment from democracy promotion worldwide may be bad news for those Iranian democrats, both inside and outside the country, who are  striving for a more liberal society open to the Western world. But given the democracy agenda’s current defeat in Iran—along with many others, I was arrested and detained in Iran for years for advocating democratic reforms—the United States has little choice other than to play the long game and hope a new vision will emerge from a future generation that embraces both normalization and human rights.

There is no guarantee that successfully pushing back against Iran’s regional advances will lend support to such a new vision, but for now a regional containment strategy occupies the space of greatest overlap between Western capabilities and realities on the ground.

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
  • KIAN TAJBAKHSH is a Fellow at the Committee on Global Thought and Senior Adviser to the Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University.
  • More By Kian Tajbakhsh