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Under U.S. President Donald Trump, the United States has assumed an openly confrontational stance toward Iran. How that stance will turn into policy depends on two main issues. The first is how Trump will treat the nuclear agreement that his predecessor, Barack Obama, reached with Iran in 2015. The second is the extent to which Trump’s administration will attempt to weaken Iran’s position in the Middle East.
Until recently, the White House has suggested that it would pursue a harder-nosed version of the Obama administration’s approach to implementing the nuclear deal, honoring but more stringently enforcing its terms. In other areas, however, the Trump administration has appeared poised to take a far more aggressive line against Tehran. On April 19, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “Iran’s provocative actions threaten the United States, the region, and the world” and promised that an ongoing review of U.S. policy toward the country would produce a new posture that would “meet the challenges Iran poses with clarity and conviction.”
As the White House finalizes that review, U.S. officials will offer competing visions for how to deal with the country, and American allies in the Middle East will seek to tilt Washington’s preferences in their favor. And as Trump considers which of these voices he should heed, he should remember that a more aggressive approach would carry serious risks—not least placing Tehran and Washington on a path toward confrontation that would further inflame the conflicts of one of the world’s most volatile regions.
There are two broad visions for how the United States can toughen its policies toward Iran. Some Trump advisers, led by military figures with extensive experience dealing with the Middle East, such as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, appear to support overtly undermining Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—a view colored by the U.S. military’s experience dealing with the IRGC in Lebanon and Iraq. This camp has been considering proposals that would call, for example, for U.S. sailors to board Iranian ships suspected of transporting arms in international waters. A number of officials and observers have also pressed the administration to sanction the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, and in late March, a bill was introduced to the Senate that would impose terrorism-related and other sanctions on Iran. (Some security officials have argued that sanctioning the IRGC would incite Iranian-backed militias to attack U.S. forces in Iraq while providing the United States with few benefits.)
The other option is for the Trump administration to step up its covert measures against Iran. For example, the United States could do more to help its regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, militarily and financially target Iranian-backed groups in the region, such as Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis. Taken alone, such steps would help the United States avoid a direct confrontation with Iran in the short term. But they would also risk a series of tit-for-tat exchanges that could lock Iran and the United States in an escalatory cycle, as happened in Iraq in the first decade of this century, when Iranian-backed militias frequently attacked U.S. forces.
None of these options differ much from those that were available to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.
None of these options differ much from those that were available to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. The difference is that Iran’s regional position is stronger today than it was during the tenure of either of those presidents, thanks in part to the ouster of Saddam Hussein, an Iranian enemy, in Iraq and to the boost Iran has received in Syria from Russia’s intervention in that country’s civil war. As a result, Iran is better positioned to jeopardize U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Making matters messier still, the Trump administration will have to figure out how to balance a more aggressive approach to Iran with its plans to fight terrorist groups in the region—a priority that Iran shares. In Iraq, for example, U.S. and Iranian forces are both fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) under a de facto arrangement that has so far kept them from accidentally clashing with each other. If tensions between Washington and Iran increase, that kind of unspoken deconfliction will become harder.
At the same time that the White House has come under pressure from various camps in Washington, it has also had to deal with the interests of its partners in the Middle East. Officials from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have all urged the Trump administration to limit its economic and diplomatic engagement with Iran (although the Saudi government has also conceded that the United States should uphold the 2015 nuclear agreement). Earlier this year, officials from those three countries and from Jordan and Egypt were discussing stepping up their intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the United States in an attempt to undercut Iran’s regional influence.
The United States’ first real breakthrough with Iran—the nuclear deal—was a product of multilateral diplomacy and mutual compromise.
As for the particular interests of those countries, Israel is most interested in securing Washington’s backing against what it perceives as the threats posed by Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian Golan Heights. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, seek more U.S. military support for their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Since Trump took office, the United States has dramatically intensified its air strikes against fighters affiliated with al Qaeda in that country. Now, Washington seems poised to deepen its involvement in Yemen’s wider civil war, in line with the Gulf states’ wishes—a shift signaled by the State Department’s announcement last month that it would support lifting restrictions placed by the Obama administration on the sale of precision-targeting systems to Saudi Arabia. This is a relatively low-cost way for the Trump administration to support its Arab allies and signal a tougher stance toward Iran, whose influence in Yemen Saudi Arabia claims to be countering.
As the Gulf states have sought to openly enlist Washington in their feud with Iran, they, together with Israel, have pressed Russia to reconsider the military ties it has developed with Tehran in Syria and to restrain the IRGC in the Syrian civil war. For now, Russia has few reasons to acquiesce. The recent U.S. air strikes against Syria and the maintenance of U.S. sanctions on Russia have seriously damaged the prospects of a rapprochement between Moscow and Washington, in which Iran would be the likely loser. What’s more, Iranian-backed ground forces have proved effective partners for Russia in Syria: Moscow would gain little by cutting them loose.
Iran’s leadership seems to be waiting to see how the United States’ position changes in the coming months before resetting its own foreign policy. Several senior Iranian officials suggested that the Trump administration would avoid expensive foreign entanglements that divert U.S. resources from domestic priorities, such as homeland security and counterterrorism. The latest U.S. strikes in Syria and the United States’ use of its largest conventional bomb to target militants in Afghanistan appear to contradict this view. But those actions have come at relatively little cost for Iran, and though Iran has condemned them, it has done nothing to retaliate. And although the early concerns among Iranian officials that the Trump administration would be able to wedge apart Iran and Russia have largely faded, this does not rule out the possibility that an eventual Russian-U.S. arrangement could come at Iran’s expense.
What is clear for many in Tehran is that the prospect of a thaw with the United States has faded under Trump. Should bilateral relations take a sharper turn for the worse and the nuclear deal collapse, Iran has ready the same contingency plans that it developed during Obama’s presidency, which would let it, for example, ratchet up its nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile programs. For now, however, Tehran has been pursuing roughly the same priorities with respect to the nuclear agreement and its regional interests that it did last year: that is, following through on its nuclear-related commitments, securing its borders with Iraq by containing ISIS, and gaining the upper hand in the Syrian conflict.
As the relationship between Iran and the United States deteriorates, it will be essential for China, Russia, and European countries to encourage cooler heads to prevail in Tehran and Washington. European officials in particular should protect the political and economic ties that they have developed with Iran since the nuclear deal. Doing so would better position them to help de-escalate future tensions between Iran and the United States and to remind their American partners that Iran’s leadership is neither monolithic nor under the exclusive influence of the IRGC.
At the same time, U.S. officials should be realistic about what they can achieve in the midst of the Middle East’s current turmoil. U.S. policy will be most effective if it pragmatically accounts for Iran’s strengths and its perception of its neighborhood’s threats. When figuring out how to approach Iran’s ballistic missile program, for example, Washington should account for the advanced capabilities of Iran’s neighbors, especially Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. And when considering how to deal with Iran’s growing ties to regional militia groups, the United States should seek to fill the power vacuums that have allowed those groups to thrive, rather than favor militarized tactics that could exacerbate state breakdown and expand the space for militants.
The United States’ first real breakthrough with Iran—the nuclear deal—was a product of multilateral diplomacy and mutual compromise. To seek to isolate Iran through a primarily military strategy would be futile. Worse, it would risk escalation—and the primary victims of the violence that could follow would be the civilians of those regions of the Middle East already torn apart by war.