Is Washington Too Focused on Iran’s Nuclear Program?

Why It's Time for the U.S. to Prioritize Rolling Back Tehran's Regional Gains

A man carries a giant flag made of flags of Iran, Palestine, Syria and Hezbollah, during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, February 2016. Raheb Homavandi / REUTERS

In announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, U.S. President Donald Trump made clear his disapproval of the accord and outlined a laundry list of complaints about Iranian policies. But he left perhaps the most critical question unaddressed: What, precisely, is U.S. policy toward Iran? 

For nearly a decade, the nuclear question has crowded out serious deliberations over a broader policy toward Iran. Yet Iran’s nuclear program is inseparable from its overall national security strategy, which focuses on the projection of nonconventional power far from Iran’s borders. Similarly, U.S. concerns about Iran’s nuclear endeavors are rooted not just in a principled stand against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction but in deep unease about the Iranian regime’s broader actions and intentions. And it is easy now to forget that prior to the conclusion of the nuclear deal—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—U.S. allies in the Middle East other than Israel were more concerned about Iran’s regional policies than its nuclear pursuits.

One of the chief criticisms leveled against former U.S. President Barack Obama by critics of the JCPOA was that he focused on the nuclear issue to the exclusion of all others and that the agreement itself institutionalized this focus by trading comprehensive sanctions relief for Tehran’s restraint solely in the nuclear realm. Ironically, first by emphasizing the need to fix the agreement, and now in insisting that a new deal be negotiated, Trump risks repeating the error.

While the United States has debated the JCPOA, Iran has advanced in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere with little resistance, and prospects for war between Iran and Israel, or Iran and Saudi Arabia, have increased significantly. What Washington really needs is a new Iran policy, not just a nuclear policy—and the will to roll up its sleeves and carry it out.


Despite the polarized debates among outside analysts pitting regime change against

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