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Getting Real About Iran

It’s Not an Existential Threat or an Ally in the Offing

Pompeo speaks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York City, September 2018 Darren Ornitz / REUTERS

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 In the last year alone, the administration of President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, announced its intention to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Syria and the wider region, and pushed for what Pompeo has called an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.

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