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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 rapprochement with Iran, U.S. officials have been less sharply divided. Successive presidents have employed some combination of carrots and sticks, engagement and pressure, with Iran. The George W. Bush administration employed sharper pressure than most but never went so far as to adopt regime change as a policy; and the Obama administration was further leaning in its outreach to Iranian leaders but never seriously adopted the policy of rapprochement or offshore balancing that Obama sometimes intimated he would prefer.
When U.S. policy toward Iran has shifted, it has been less the result of presidential ideology and more a reflection of Washington’s changing perceptions of the threats it has faced and its own capacity to confront them. From the middle of the last decade to the present, the United States has slowly shifted from regarding terrorism and its state sponsors as its chief threat to regarding large, nuclear-armed states such as Russia and China as more worrisome and prolonged counterinsurgencies as a distraction from this priority. The United States has also come to view with greater skepticism its own ability to take on tasks such as regime change, nation building, and counterinsurgency, even as worries have grown about rival states’ erosion of the United States’ advantage at the cutting edge of military technology.
Given the outsize role the United States has long played in the Middle East, it is unsurprising that the U.S. shift has had broader reverberations. As the United States has engaged in a form of strategic retrenchment, there has been no other entity—whether an organization endogenous to the region or another external power—ready or able to step forward to exercise leadership. The result has been the replacement of one ad hoc security architecture with Washington at its center with another that features competing informal blocs of regional powers jockeying against one another with often devastating results.
The challenge faced by the United States in recent years has been to square its own reluctance to increase its involvement in the Middle East with the desire to confront an increasingly aggressive Iran.
This chaos in the Middle East has proven a boon for Iran. Since 2011, Iran has expanded its influence and its footprint in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, often filling vacuums that ultimately result from the weakness of many of the region’s states, in which Iranian authorities are themselves often complicit, and U.S. disengagement. The turbulence has suited Iran’s long-standing national security strategy, which has long focused on cultivating proxies within states and using asymmetric tactics to keep adversaries preoccupied and off balance. In Syria, Iran has found a ready partner in Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself looking to expand Moscow’s influence and capitalize on U.S. diffidence. The result is an Iran that has expanded its regional power even as it has reportedly complied with the JCPOA.
The challenge faced by the United States in recent years has been to square its own reluctance to increase its involvement in the Middle East with the desire to confront an increasingly aggressive Iran. This is not simply a political or ideological imperative, as U.S. allies in Europe and Asia sometimes suspect, but one rooted in national interests. In the American view, Iran’s actions threaten not only the stability of the Middle East, such as it is, but freedom of commerce and navigation in the region’s waterways and the security of U.S. allies.
For Obama, the JCPOA was a way to square this circle. Although his critics have described the agreement as having opened the path to U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, Obama himself likely saw it as paving the way for decreasing the U.S. military commitment to the region while limiting the fallout of such a step by curbing Iran’s most dangerous activities and providing an alternate means, through diplomatic engagement, of addressing others over time.
Trump, for his part, has made clear his disdain for the JCPOA and skepticism toward the notion of rapprochement with Iran. Initially, he considered a compromise—strengthening the JCPOA without renegotiating it, by concluding a protocol with like-minded parties to the deal regarding how it would be implemented and how destabilizing Iranian activities not covered by the agreement would be addressed. Eventually, however, the Trump administration set aside that effort and announced that it would instead abandon the nuclear accord and reinstate U.S. sanctions.
Although this approach is a repudiation of the JCPOA, it does not mark a return of deep U.S. involvement in the Middle East. By emphasizing sanctions and capitalizing on the United States’ preponderant role in the international financial system, it represents a continuation of Washington’s arm’s-length approach to Iran policy. Even as the United States under Trump has threatened the return of harsh sanctions against Iran and those who do business with it, it has not taken substantial new steps in the past 18 months to counter Iran’s regional ambitions. Indeed, U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel told Congress that he had no orders to counter Iran in Syria.
Reversing this state of affairs will require a deeper reconsideration of U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Washington will need to dispense with the black-and-white, all-or-nothing policy debates that have prevailed since the Iraq war and more seriously consider middle courses that entail greater U.S. engagement in the region’s crises without overcommitment. Moreover, Washington should view its Middle East policy as essential to its strategic future in Asia and Europe, where U.S. allies are often dependent on energy imports from the Persian Gulf and preoccupied with terrorist threats arising from the region.
More effectively countering Iran will require that the United States reach more deeply into its policy tool kit, beyond economic sanctions alone. They should be buttressed both by the low-level use of military force—for example, retaining a small American presence in Syria, empowering local allies, and using the threat of U.S. airpower to prevent entrenchment in Syria by Iran and its proxies—and by continued U.S.-Iranian engagement. The former is often regarded as escalatory and the latter as appeasement or legitimation of the Iranian regime, but in reality both are essential elements of a strategy of deterrence. Diplomacy is necessary to convey redlines, explain the U.S. agenda in the region, and understand Iran’s intentions; a willingness to use limited force is necessary to lend credibility to that engagement.
In addition, the United States should not only impose costs on Iran for threatening U.S. interests but erect obstacles to Iran’s doing so in the first place. This calls for ensuring that there are no further easy opportunities for Iranian intervention around the region, by promoting the resilience of regional states in the face of the sort of political and economic meddling that features heavily in the Iranian playbook. Success would also be aided by the development of more functional regional security organizations—one need only look at the current rift within the region’s most coherent multilateral group, the Gulf Cooperation Council, to understand that Iran hardly faces a united regional opposition.
All of these actions—strengthening allies, promoting regional integration, and utilizing diplomacy and force—would be made more effective if done in concert with international partners. This was one of the primary arguments in favor of “fixing” rather than abandoning the JCPOA and should motivate the Trump administration to move quickly to repair international relations damaged by the U.S. withdrawal. This will be an uphill struggle, but the alternatives—tackling the Middle East’s problems alone or neglecting them altogether—are worse.
Leaving the JCPOA marks the end of a road, in one sense. In another, it is just the latest twist, albeit a momentous one, in a decades-long confrontation with Iran that has offered little satisfaction to U.S. policymakers. Success will require not just a plan for reinstating sanctions in hopes of one day bringing Iran back to the negotiating table but a strategy that tackles with urgency the broad and growing set of challenges in the Middle East in which Iran plays a role.