Trump's Approach to Iran: Driving US Policy in Circles

Trump's Approach to Iran: Driving US Policy in Circles

Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran.

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Why you should care

The U.S. president’s detour from the road toward peace is backfiring.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

President Donald Trump’s Iran policy looks increasingly like it’s trapped in a cul-de-sac. Following the U.S. administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement in May, the prospects for tightening restrictions on Iran are low. It’s also unlikely that the White House will succeed in engineering a regime change in Tehran, if indeed that is what it really wants.

The 2015 nuclear accord by Obama’s administration had its flaws, but at least it would have sharply limited Tehran’s weapons-related nuclear work for a decade or more. It was also a rare point of convergence for the United States, Europe, Russia, China and Iran — all signatories to the agreement. Pulling out only added to growing U.S. isolation in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and its budding trade wars with Europe and Asia.

It is still unclear what advantage Trump saw in jettisoning the agreement, apart from diminishing Obama-era achievements. That said, the U.S. president and other members of his government had consistently criticized the accord on several substantive grounds. They argued that many of its nuclear-limitation provisions would expire in 10 to 15 years; that it did nothing to constrain Iranian missile development or support for hostile groups opposed to the U.S.; and that its verification procedures were weak and not sufficiently intrusive.

Bellicose tweet-driven rhetoric flying back and forth between Trump and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in recent days makes it sound like the U.S. is ready to use military power if Iranian taunts continue.

The other side of the argument was that the accord bought time. It extended from months to years the amount of time it would’ve taken Iran to muster a nuclear weapon, and many of the provisions, such as the monitoring of its uranium acquisition, would’ve endured in perpetuity because Iran accepted the so-called additional protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Moreover, Obama purposely limited the accord to nuclear issues and did not wrap other Iranian activities into it. His administration made no secret of its opposition to other Iranian activities but concluded that it would be too difficult to get all parties on board with a more sweeping package.

So where does all this leave the Trump administration and its Iran policy? Most of its tools are economic ones. New and renewed U.S. sanctions will hurt Iran because many European and other countries, unable to use U.S. banking services without penalty, will pull out of the Iran market. GE, Honeywell, Peugeot and Siemens, for example, are winding down Iranian operations, and Boeing has announced it will not fulfill a major contract for new aircraft and parts. While these and other steps will cause pain and inconvenience to the Iranian public, it also plays into the hands of Iranian hard-liners who argued that Washington could not be trusted. Also, anti-Iran actions by the U.S. typically cause Iranians to coalesce in defense of their country, rather than cast blame on their political leaders.

Beyond economic pressure, the administration has few viable options. It could seek to renegotiate the agreement to get better terms, but there is virtually no chance Tehran will agree to reopen the accord. European allies tried tightening the agreement somewhat in the hope of meeting Trump’s conditions for remaining in it but did not make much progress. Besides, Iran will cite the repeated certifications of its compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to make the point that there is nothing to renegotiate.

Taken at face value, bellicose tweet-driven rhetoric flying back and forth between Trump and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in recent days makes it sound like the U.S. is ready to use military power if Iranian taunts continue. But Trump has made clear numerous times that he does not want to make or maintain major military ground operations in the Middle East. He has said repeatedly, for example, that he wants U.S. troops out of Syria. So chances are Iran is writing off Trump’s threats as hollow — probably a safe bet.

Finally, it is hard to interpret the administration’s harsh comments on Iran’s government and its endorsement of Iranian popular grievances and dissident groups as anything other than a yearning for regime change in Tehran. But recent U.S. experience with regime change — primarily Iraq — shows how difficult and costly this can be. Iran, by contrast, is about four times the size of Iraq, with a more complex society and stronger military. It’s hard to believe that any appetite for regime change would survive even a cursory assessment of its prospects.

So economic sanctions are the only tools in the shed. These can inflict suffering on Iran but not as effectively as on North Korea. Iran is neither as isolated politically or economically as North Korea, nor is it as broke. And some cushion will inevitably come from the fact that Europe, Russia and China have not left the agreement and will be looking for ways to discourage Iran from pulling out and resuming its nuclear program.

The U.S. administration’s policy, in other words, looks destined to drive in circles. The previous administration confronted an Iran that was barreling along rapidly toward a nuclear weapon. The agreement it devised was imperfect, but insofar as it froze Iran’s nuclear capability, it was the policy equivalent of making lemonade out of lemons. The Trump administration appears now to have done something even more difficult: It turned that lemonade back into lemons.

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