When he entered the Oval Office, Donald Trump must have been daunted by the Middle East situation he inherited. The Arab state system had largely collapsed, and a vicious theocracy in Iran was on the march, with its ambitions sharpened and its nuclear program essentially intact. President Barack Obama had been too preoccupied with his pivot to Asia to worry about the Mideast’s ancient blood feuds. He approached Iran through the prism of arms control and misunderstood the mullahs as reasonable men seeking a place in the community of nations. His lasting legacy, the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is now Trump’s central problem — and, despite the howls of the commentariat and the consternation of European chancelleries, Trump and his generals are beginning to usher in a sensible Iran policy.
For centuries, Persian monarchs and mullahs have seen Iran as the center of the region’s politics, a natural hegemon for a disorderly Middle East. It was a role that the Occidental powers had once arrogated to themselves, but in the end neither the British nor the American empire discharged that obligation. They were too culturally distant, too infatuated with their Western paradigms of development, and too ignorant of the slippery politics of the Middle East. The sun has long set on the British Empire, and an America humbled in Iraq is wrestling with its own limitations of power. Barack Obama presented retreat as a grand strategy and was all too comfortable with the surge of Iranian power.
The Middle Eastern leader who has benefited most from Obama’s abdication of responsibility is Iranian “supreme leader” Ali Khamenei. Today, Khamenei stands as the most successful imperialist in Iran’s modern history. The shah, even at the height of his power, did not have a commanding position in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. The politics of Lebanon largely eluded him, and Syria remained outside his reach. But as the region’s governing order crumbled in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the Islamic Republic was there to claim the spoils. The civil wars in Iraq and Syria, both exacerbated by Iran, offered the mullahs an opportunity to project their power. This, however, had to be imperialism on the cheap: In the aftermath of its bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s, the theocracy is reluctant to suffer casualties.
It was in the Lebanon of the 1980s that Iran first developed a strategy that would serve its ruthless rulers well. The Islamic Republic’s objectives in Lebanon were simple: Keep the government weak as a means of preventing the emergence of a cohesive state capable of governing all of its territory, and then train and arm an Arab Shiite militia that would engage in violence on Iran’s behalf. Hezbollah proved Iran’s most lethal progeny — not just the arbiter of Lebanon’s politics but a terrorist organization with global reach and capable of waging war throughout the region. This was the paradigm that Iran took to Iraq in 2003 and to Syria in 2011. Today, Iran stands as the most consequential outside force in Iraq, as its clients have infiltrated the ministries and security services and its Revolutionary Guards are commanding numerous Shiite militias. In Syria, the Moscow–Tehran–Hezbollah axis has won the war and preserved the Assad dynasty by means of Russian air power, Iranian military advisers, and Hezbollah shock troops. From the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, Iran is busy building land bridges, netting together its imperial outposts.
Nuclear arms have always been central to the Islamic Republic’s regional aspirations. To be a successful hegemon, one needs the ultimate weapon of intimidation. And Iran’s frugal imperialists appreciate that atomic weapons are cheaper to maintain than large standing armies. The JCPOA offered a patient Iran all that it needed for a legal path to the bomb. The United States and its allies recognized Iran’s right to enrich uranium and accepted a permissive research-and-development plan that allowed Iran to construct advanced centrifuges and modernize its aging atomic infrastructure. The deal also included sunset clauses guaranteeing that the restrictions on Iran’s program will expire. In a remarkable act of diplomatic malpractice, Secretary of State John Kerry conceded that the mullahs’ ballistic missiles, which are suitable for carrying nuclear weapons, should remain outside the confines of the agreement. The JCPOA also destroyed the sanctions architecture that had taken a decade to construct. The most crippling sanctions, the ones that had drained Iran’s financial sector and retarded its commerce, were suspended. Although it was the Obama team’s trite talking point that America still maintains an arsenal of sanctions, that arsenal is much depleted by the agreement. Iran stood toe to toe with America during the arms-control negotiations, and obtained a grudging admission from all the great powers that it has a right to nuclear power.
In an October 13 speech, Trump made what may stand as one of the most important and consequential presidential declarations on Iran. Obama had harbored the notion that one could segregate the nuclear issue from all other areas of concern and that, once an arms-control accord was reached, it would tranquilize Iran’s politics. An Iran that was becoming integrated into global markets would moderate and even become a constructive regional power. Trump discarded this fashionable academic notion and focused clearly on the truth about the regime, which he castigated as a brutal dictatorship, animated by a noxious ideology and bent on terrorism. He warned that “history has shown that the longer we ignore a threat, the more dangerous that threat becomes.” In a statement that is bound to haunt the clerical oligarchs, he celebrated the martyrs of Iran’s “Green” democracy movement: “The regime violently suppresses its own citizens; it shot unarmed student protesters in the street during the Green Revolution.” In 2009, the Obama administration shamefully dithered when the regime’s enforcers clamped down on peaceful demonstrators.
Trump pledged to “counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region” — which means the U.S. will focus on the threat posed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. To be sure, recent congressional legislation had already declared the Guards a terrorist organization, but Trump did not shy away from what that declaration requires. It is now the task of the Trump administration to map out the means of squeezing the Guards’ financial empire and figure out ways of defanging their many terrorist proxies. All of this spells confrontation, but history tells us that when Iran faces a resolute America, it tends to retreat. It did so when it released the hostages in 1981, as Ronald Reagan took office, and it did so again when it suspended its nuclear activities in 2003, when faced with George W. Bush’s shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq.
By far, the portion of Trump’s Iran strategy that has garnered the most attention has been his refusal to certify that the Iran nuclear deal is in America’s national interest. The administration has a long and prudent list of proposed amendments to the JCPOA, including the elimination of its many sunset clauses, a more stringent inspection regime, and the placing of limits on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. Under the terms of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, Congress, following Trump’s refusal to recertify the JCPOA, has 60 days to impose sanctions or do nothing. Given the partisan divisions, it is entirely possible that Congress might not act to impose a punitive sanctions package. Such inaction would devastate congressional credibility, as historically it has been the legislative branch that has prodded reluctant White Houses to be more aggressive on Iran. Now that the president has declared that the Iran deal is not in our national interest, if Congress doesn’t follow through with a punitive sanctions package, it will do much harm to its own stature and America’s deterrent power. The masters of Tehran will sense that through our internal divisions lies the path to their victory.
Another trap that the administration has to be worried about is the possibility of prolonged and inconclusive negotiations with Iran. Although Iran’s rulers are fulminating that they have no interest in resuming negotiations, they might opt for a different course should America embark on a truly coercive strategy. This, after all, was the ploy of Hassan Rouhani (who is now Iran’s president) and Javad Zarif (who is now its foreign minister) in 2003, when Iran was unsettled by a determined American president. At that time, they quickly opened talks with the Europeans — talks that lasted two years. Iran did suspend its nuclear program, but the real aim of the negotiations was to delay and blunt America’s aggressive approach. And the ploy worked: Soon, the Bush administration became mired in Iraq’s civil war and lost its appetite for confronting Iran. The negotiations predictably came to an end, in 2005, and Iran fully resumed all of its nuclear activities.
The rulers are clearly alarmed by Trump, but they are not known for acting rashly. They will wait to see whether the Trump administration can mobilize an actual diplomatic-pressure campaign. They will hope that a reluctant Congress and a cantankerous Democratic party may yet preserve the JCPOA and obstruct Trump’s attempt to revise it. If all this comes to pass, they will offer a long litany of their own complaints and hint at their readiness to negotiate. To guard against such maneuvers, the White House should announce that if there are going to be talks, they will be limited to a duration of no more than a year, and that America’s participation will be contingent on Europeans’ pledging to reimpose their sanctions should the talks falter.
As the administration focuses on resisting Iran in the region and revising the JCPOA, it should not lose sight of Iran’s internal vulnerabilities. The Islamic Republic is an ideologically exhausted entity, brandishing tired shibboleths that convince no one. The Green revolt stripped the regime of whatever legitimacy it had; the ties between state and society have been severed. Like the Soviet Union of the 1970s, the Islamic Republic is a relic that can neither reform itself nor accommodate the aspirations of its restive constituents. It continues to dispense patronage in the hope of sustaining the diminishing ranks of its cadres, but the end is in sight.
In one of the most important passages of his speech, Trump put America on the right side of history. “We stand in total solidarity,” he said, “with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people.” Such a declaration needs to be buttressed by a systematic effort to empower Iran’s dissidents, weaken the regime’s organs of repression, and isolate its leaders. It will be a difficult task, for much of the American bureaucracy is instinctively averse to such measures. Only sustained presidential leadership can prod the U.S. government’s functionaries to focus on further undermining the Islamic Republic’s wobbly foundations.
America today has, finally, a serious Iran policy. It is an ambitious effort to subvert the theocracy, shrink its imperial footprint, and revise a defective arms-control accord. The conceptual foundation of this Iran policy is sound; now comes the more difficult task of actual execution. There will be pitfalls and distractions, tentative Europeans and argumentative Democrats, cagey Iranians and beleaguered Arab allies. Still, the most consequential legacy of Trump’s presidency might yet come in the form of an Iran emancipated from the clutches of tyranny.
– Mr. Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.