As the Obama presidency fades from the scene, its most consequential and catastrophic legacy in foreign affairs is its Iran policy. Iran’s clerical leaders today possess a nuclear infrastructure that is gradually expanding and is blessed by the international community. For the first time in its modern history, Tehran is in a commanding position from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Iran’s leaders continue to castigate the United States from their platforms while their Revolutionary Guards taunt the American armada patrolling international waters. The incoming Trump administration should not just tinker with this legacy but cast it aside altogether.
President Barack Obama was the architect of his own Iran strategy, and brought to it his own peculiar concerns. For Obama, the success of the policy was measured not by the traditional benchmark of whether it arrested Iran’s ambitions, but by the extent to which it propitiated a nation he thought had been abused for too long by the United States. His historical illiteracy was nowhere more on display than in Iran, as he reduced complex events to bumper-sticker slogans: America had overthrown a legitimately elected government of Iran in 1953 and then buttressed a cruel despot for nearly three decades. The clerical leaders are not hardened anti-Western ideologues but mere nationalists whose legitimate prerogatives have been trampled upon by arrogant Americans. And the Islamic Republic’s imperial surge is a legitimate expression of a regional stakeholder. If a little history is a dangerous thing, in the hands of Obama it was absolutely toxic. The sum total of his achievements was the worst nuclear agreement in the history of U.S. arms-control diplomacy and an emboldened Iran rampaging across the Middle East.
The starting point of any sensible Iran policy will be to revisit key aspects of the Iran deal, which is formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The agreement’s rapidly expiring sunset clauses ensure that Iran will soon embark on developing advanced centrifuges that operate efficiently at high velocity. Its research-and-development concessions are already allowing Iran to modernize its nuclear infrastructure. And its economic concessions have damaged the once-formidable sanctions architecture that effectively hemmed in the mullahs’ ambitions. All these core aspects of the accord must be reconsidered.
Although the proponents of the agreement insist that its international support makes it inviolable, it is important to note that the JCPOA was rejected by the House of Representatives and that 58 senators went on the record opposing it. An agreement rejected by a majority of legislators has no credibility. The sovereignty of the U.S. Congress outweighs any international body’s embrace of an agreement damaging to American national interests. Should the Trump team wish to revisit or even abrogate the JCPOA, they have sufficient domestic political authority to justify their moves.
The question then becomes: To what type of civilian nuclear program is Iran entitled? At the moment, Iran is on the path of not just enriching uranium domestically but industrializing that capacity once the JCPOA’s restrictions expire. The United States should set aside the agreement’s sunset clauses and insist that Iran is entitled only to a modest and largely symbolic program. Whatever uranium Iran enriches must be permanently shipped abroad for processing into fuel rods that are difficult to convert for military purposes. And Iran may never have advanced centrifuges but must limit itself to small cascades of primitive machines. An oil-rich Iran does not require an elaborate nuclear network operating thousands of advanced centrifuges while accumulating tons of enriched uranium.
In attempting to persuade the Europeans to join the United States in strengthening the JCPOA, the new administration has some important cards to play. President Donald Trump will have a period of honeymoon in the alliance: The European leaders will initially be eager to get along with him. All these states have higher priorities than a flawed arms-control agreement with an unsavory theocracy. If setting a new Iran policy is one of the most important issues to the new president, they will be inclined to help. Given Trump’s nascent relationship with Vladimir Putin, Russia might be more forthcoming on this issue than it has been. And should the Russians and the Europeans prove receptive, China will not wish to remain the sole and lonely obstacle to sensible revisions. Still, the manner in which the case is presented will be crucial.
In challenging some of the most problematic aspects of the agreement, the U.S. will merely be asking its partners in the so-called 5+1 (the U.S. plus Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) to return to the principles that they accepted up to 2013. It was the official 5+1 position until then that Iran would be entitled only to a small cascade of primitive centrifuge machines and that it could expand its program only after it satisfied the international community that the program was strictly for peaceful purposes. The reelected Obama administration, eager for an agreement and a legacy, cajoled other members of the coalition to abandon these positions for the sake of a deal; the new Trump administration would be asking the alliance to return to positions that it very recently considered prudent.
But revising the JCPOA should not be the sole objective of a revamped Iran policy. During both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, the United States did not have an actual Iran policy, but rather only a series of arms-control formulations. The most sensible contribution the Trump administration can make to regional stability is to conceive a strategy that stands up to Iran in the region and puts its domestic regime under stress. The “supreme leader,” Ali Khamenei, is presiding over a state with immense vulnerabilities, and the task of U.S. policy is to exploit all of them.
As it begins its transition to power, the Trump team should be wary of the accumulated wisdom it is bound to receive from the diplomatic corps and the intelligence community. In their briefings, the professional bureaucracy will insist that the mullahs are firmly in control of their state and that the regime’s hold on power is absolute and immutable. The professionals will likely warn that any attempts to forcefully confront Iran will only empower the so-called hard-liners. Such anachronistic postulations must be set aside if America is to have a successful Iran policy.
In the summer of 2009, the presidential election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power by rigging the vote presented the theocratic state with the most consequential crisis of its lifetime. The Green Movement that exploded on the scene was a coalition of disenchanted clerics, restive youth, disenfranchised women, and impoverished elements of the middle class. The regime managed to regain control of the streets through brute violence against its own citizens, show trials in which regime loyalists confessed to fantastic crimes, and continued repression. However, the essential link between the state and society was severed during that summer’s riots. The Islamic Republic was never a typical totalitarian state, as its electoral procedures and elected institutions provided the public with at least impressions of democratic representation. That republican element of the regime provided it with a veneer of legitimacy — and in 2009, that legitimacy vanished. The clerical regime lingers on, but a state that relies on a terror apparatus cannot forever stifle the forces of change.
Trump’s task is similar to the one Ronald Reagan faced with the Soviet Union: not just renegotiating a better arms-control agreement but devising a comprehensive policy that undermines the already wobbly foundation of the regime. In this regard, there is nothing as powerful as the presidential bully pulpit. Reagan’s denunciations of Communist rule did much to galvanize the opposition and undermine the Soviet empire. Dissidents in jail and others laboring under the Soviet system took heart from an American president who championed their cause. Trump should study Reagan’s old speeches and emulate his powerful rhetoric.
As it did with Solidarity in Poland, the United States should find a way of establishing ties with forces of opposition within Iran. Given the Islamic Republic’s cruelty and corruption, the opposition spans the entire social spectrum. The Iranians have given up not just on the Islamic Republic, but even on religious observance, as mosques go empty during most Shiite commemorations. Three decades of theocratic rule has transformed Iran into one of the most secular nations in the world. The middle class and the working poor are equally hard pressed by the regime’s incompetence and corruption. Even the senior ayatollahs are beginning to realize the toll that has been taken on Shia Islam by its entanglement with politics. America has ready allies in Iran and must make an effort to empower those who share its values.
Economic sanctions are a critical aspect of any policy of pressuring the Islamic Republic. The experience of the past few years has shown that the United States has a real capacity to shrink Iran’s economy and bring it to the brink of collapse. It was this leverage that the Obama administration forfeited for the sake of a deficient arms-control accord. And it is this leverage that must be reestablished and redeployed. Instead of imploring Europeans to invest in Iran, as John Kerry is doing, we must return to the days of warning off commerce and segregating Iran from global financial institutions. Designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization and reimposing financial sanctions could go a long way toward crippling Iran’s economy. Once deprived of money, the mullahs will find it difficult to fund the patronage networks that are essential to their rule and their imperial ventures. One of the best ways of threatening the theocracy is through the power of the purse.
Pushing back on Iran in the Middle East is the order of the day in Washington, and shrinking the Islamic Republic’s imperial frontiers should be an important priority of the incoming Trump administration. An essential insight of any such policy is to dispense with the false notion that Iran and America have a common enemy in the Islamic State. Such pretenses ignore the fact that Sunni radicalism is the necessary by-product of Iran’s Shiite chauvinism. Destroying the Islamic State requires diminishing the tides of Sunni militancy, which in turn necessitates tempering Iran’s regional ambitions.
The best arena in which to achieve this objective is Iran’s periphery in the Persian Gulf region. The Gulf sheikdoms, led by Saudi Arabia, are already locked into a region-wide rivalry with Iran. The Sunni states have taken it upon themselves to contest Iran’s gains in the Gulf and the Levant. Washington should not only buttress these efforts but press all Arab states to embark on a serious attempt to lessen their commercial and diplomatic ties to Tehran. The price of American guardianship is for Sunni Arab states to do their part in resisting the rising Shiite power of Iran.
Even in a disorderly Middle East, there are opportunities to forge new constructive alliances. The enmity that Saudi Arabia and Israel share toward Iran should be the basis for bringing these two countries closer together. Instead of lecturing the Saudis to share the Middle East with Iran and hectoring Israelis about settlements, as the Obama White House has done, the Trump administration should focus on imaginative ways of institutionalizing the nascent cooperation that is already taking place between Riyadh and Jerusalem. The U.S. should press both countries to move beyond intelligence sharing and perhaps forge complementary trade ties, with Saudi oil being exchanged for Israel’s technological products. History rarely offers opportunities to realign the politics of the Middle East; a truculent Iran has presented this chance.
Although today Iraq may seem like a protectorate of Iran, this is a predicament that most Iraqi leaders want to escape. Iraq was once the seat of Arab civilization and the center of the region’s politics. The Shiite leaders in Iraq take Iranian advice and money for the simple reason that they are locked out of Sunni Arab councils and abandoned by the American superpower. Iraqis understand that Iran has exercised a pernicious influence in their country, further accentuating its sectarian divides as a means of ensuring Iranian influence. Iraq cannot be whole and free so long as Iran interferes in its affairs. A commitment by the United States to once more rehabilitate the Iraqi army and bureaucracy can go a long way toward diminishing their ties to Tehran. No Iraqi Arab wants to be subordinate to imperious Shiite Persians. Once Iraq frees itself of Iranian dominance, it may yet find a path back to the Arab world and once more serve as a barrier to Iranian power.
The tragedy of Syria is that, as the Obama administration stood aloof and preoccupied itself with useless international summits, Iran and Russia possibly succeeded in saving the Assad dynasty. The Syrian army, buttressed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah terrorists, and Russian airpower, is poised to control most of the population centers. This hardly ends the civil war, but the attempt to unseat Iran’s client in Damascus will take considerable effort and commitment by the United States and its Sunni allies. For both humanitarian and strategic reasons, the Trump administration should embrace this task. Pushing back on Iran means harassing its Syrian proxy. At the very least, as the opposition strengthens, Iran will have to face the dilemma of sinking more resources and men into a quagmire or cutting its losses, as the Soviet Union was forced to do in Afghanistan.
Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, Westerners enchanted by the clerics and their mysterious ways have insisted that their regime is essentially a pragmatic one. If only America set aside its animosity, it could forge a new relationship with the much misunderstood theocracy. But in reality it is a revolutionary regime that sees a resumed relationship with America as an existential threat. The clerical oligarchs need an American enemy to justify their repression and their costly and corrupt rule. They know that between our two nations there can never be permanent peace. And this is the most important lesson for the incoming president to learn.
– Mr. Takeyh is the Hasib Sabbagh Senior Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a co-author of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.