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 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.)
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