Trump’s Muddled Iran Policy Is Headed For Failure

Not surprisingly, Trump’s National Security Strategy is full of hostile bluster and rhetoric with shockingly little substance – just like the President himself. On Iran, one of the primary international targets of Trump’s hostility, the document only reveals that the administration has yet to develop a coherent policy nearly a year into Trump’s presidency. While policy coherence in pursuit of disastrous goals can be more damaging than policy incoherence, the Trump administration is setting itself up for failure on Iran policy – regardless of where the administration eventually winds up.

The new strategy’s first mention of Iran castigates the prior administration’s focus on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, declaring that the Trump administration is now “confronting the danger posed by the dictatorship in Iran, which those determined to pursue a flawed nuclear deal had neglected.” It goes on to outline many of the concerning activities that Iran is engaged in, including its testing of ballistic missiles and ties to designated terrorist groups, frequently mentioning Iran in the same breath as the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom in North Korea. But when it comes to addressing Iran’s destabilizing activities, team Trump offers sloganeering, not a strategy. For example, the document states “We will work with partners to deny the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon and neutralize Iranian malign influence” and “We will work with partners to neutralize Iran’s malign activities in the region.” How so, and what policy levers will be used? The National Security Strategy offers no clues.

Trump’s own hostile bluster on Iran greatly predates this “strategy” document, and it has dramatically undermined U.S. credibility with the Iranian people as well as the international partners that enforced nuclear-related sanctions and later helped secure the nuclear accord.

To the extent that Trump has had an Iran strategy, it has been how to lose friends and alienate the Iranian people.

One of his first actions was to ban Iranians and other nationals from entering the country for no purpose other than to fulfill a bigoted campaign pledge, sparking protests across the country and shocking the globe. When ISIS terrorists attacked Tehran in June, killing a dozen Iranians including in Iran’s parliament building, the administration issued a callous statement blaming Iran for “falling victim to the evil they promote.” Trump lambasted Iran as a murderous regime at his first speech at the United Nations while at the same time abruptly demanding a meeting with Iran’s President Rouhani, who had little option other than to refuse. Despite Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord and all other parties mobilizing to protect it, Trump withheld certification of the accord in October and vowed to terminate it if Congress didn’t unilaterally expand the agreement’s terms. Since that time, the Senate has wisely abstained from deal-killing legislation, and Trump has barely lifted a finger to follow through.

To the extent that Trump has had an Iran strategy, it has been how to lose friends and alienate the Iranian people.

Contrast Trump’s policy mess with the Obama administration, which actually set itself up for success by laying out a coherent strategy and offering a choice to Iran. In its 2010 National Security Strategy, the Obama administration promised that if “Iran meets its international obligations on its nuclear program, they will be able to proceed on a path to greater political and economic integration with the international community. If they ignore their international obligations, we will pursue multiple means to increase their isolation and bring them into compliance with international nonproliferation norms.”

There was a clear goal – Iran meeting its obligations on its nuclear program – and clear incentives and disincentives if Iran plays along. The Obama administration largely stuck to that strategy throughout its presidency – engagement backed by pressure, and it was eventually rewarded with a deal that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, subjected it to intrusive inspections and enabled the U.S. to build on successful diplomatic engagement to address other areas of concern if it so chose.

Unfortunately, that unprecedented diplomatic progress breaking three and a half decades of animosity risks being unraveled by an impetuous President who barely has a Plan A, let alone a Plan B. It is not too late for the Trump administration to go back to the drawing board and learn from history – namely, the successful effort throughout the course of the Obama administration to engage Iran diplomatically and build trust necessary to resolve its primary national security priority with Iran. But the administration has thus far demonstrated zero willingness to do so and, as a result, is setting itself up for failure if not disaster.

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