There was a lot of news lost at the end of last week when Sean Spicer, the hapless White House press secretary, finally resigned. In any other news cycle, the revelation that Jared Kushner forgot about $10 million in assets on his ethics forms (we’ve all been there) or a U.S. senate candidate siding with members of the alt-right over the Anti-Defamation League would have garnered more attention.
One story that should not slip underneath the radar, however, is a report that the Trump administration has apparently entrusted a small group at the White House to undermine the Iran nuclear accords over the objections of the Departments of State and Defense.
The news says a lot about two very narrow ways in which the administration sees not only Iran but the greater world. First, some members of the administration have failed to see the admittedly very real challenges presented by Iran outside the binary U.S.-Iranian contest for influence in the Middle East. Second, and most importantly, some members of the administration still do not understand that much of what the United States has been able to accomplish over the past two decades has been achieved through coalitions that could actively resist U.S. efforts to roll back those accomplishments.
Many incoming members of the Trump administration felt strongly that the Obama administration—and perhaps even the Bush administration before it—dropped the ball on meeting the challenges posed by Iran. They have half a point. Iran has posed three undeniable challenges to the United States and its partners since the September 11th attacks, and those challenges include its nuclear program, its conventional arms build-up, and its asymmetric activities supporting proxy groups and partners from Yemen to Lebanon.
From the perspective of many regional partners, including many Israelis and some key Gulf partners, the only solution to the threats posed by Iran is a change in the Iranian regime. The Obama administration, looking back on the regime change wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan as less than glittering successes, tried to break the problem down, though, and focus first on the nuclear program. Through painstaking diplomacy, the Obama administration and its international partners negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to halt the Iranian nuclear program.
It was a monumental achievement—albeit one greeted with fury by those same regional partners who played no role in its negotiation. I accompanied the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, to some decidedly frosty meetings with Israeli and Saudi leaders once we finalized the deal, and I then watched the Saudis and Israelis unsuccessfully lobby the Congress over the summer to reject the deal.
If those regional partners had no success on Capitol Hill, though, they have had success in the Trump White House. And they were helped by the fact that many of the men who are working on the Middle East within the White House have as their frame of reference for Iran the war in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. U.S. Army veterans like Derek Harvey and Joel Rayburn—both mentioned in the report as staffers working on the Iran deal—are not specialists on Iran but sure remember Iran and its proxies lobbing mortars into the Green Zone in Baghdad during the darkest days of 2007. It’s not hard to understand why they might not have warm feelings toward the Iranians.
And it’s also understandable why they might criticize our efforts in the Obama administration. We addressed the Iranian nuclear program, sure, but we never curbed Iran’s asymmetric activities, which only got worse in Yemen and Syria in particular. Worse, some members of the Obama administration held out some hope that the nuclear deal might bring Iran in from the cold or moderate its behavior in other arenas. Needless to say, that did not happen.
Those of us who work on Middle East policy, though, often fail to remember there’s a world beyond our particular region of focus. And I’m struck by the words of one of our most senior military commanders in the waning days of the Obama administration: “The more I look at North Korea, the more thankful I am for the Iran deal.”
Few who work on North Korea think the Iran deal was a bad deal. Asia specialists would kill for the kind of deal we Middle East specialists spend so much time griping about.
In the same way, I understand why neither the Israelis nor the Gulf partners would ever want the United States to reduce the roughly 35,000 U.S. servicemen we have stationed in the Gulf region alone. But the United States has global obligations, and there is real opportunity cost to tying up so many U.S. resources in a region energy markets are making less important while the Pacific region grows in strategic significance. In that context, even the Obama era’s most quixotic efforts to disentangle the United States from the Middle East look more excusable.
The second way in which the Trump administration is constricted by a very narrow focus, though, is the lack of appreciation for the way in which the United States has achieved most of its gains in the Middle East—either against the Islamic State or Iran—operating as part of coalitions. Those same coalitions both enable and constrain U.S. actions.
Against the Islamic State, the United States assembled a broad coalition of nations to claw back Iraqi and Syrian territory. Thirty nations contribute to the military coalition—with many more contributing diplomatic, intelligence, and humanitarian support. It is fair to say that few of these nations support an effort to carry the fight to Iran once Daesh is defeated—though I know that some members of the Trump administration’s national security staff are eager to challenge Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq.
The same goes for the other members of the United Nations Security Council, Germany, and the European Union—all of whom helped negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. We Americans often describe Iran as a “rogue state,” but if the Trump administration is seen to be undermining the nuclear deal, it will not be Iran that our international partners consider rogue. The secretaries of State and Defense both understand this, and the president should as well. If the deal collapses, and the United States is seen as being the one to blame, multilateral diplomacy is no longer a viable option to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Only a military strike—or series of military strikes—would suffice. This might be what some within the Trump administration want, and it’s certainly what many regional partners want, but it’s neither what America’s allies or Trump’s voters want.
Ironically, six months into the Trump administration, there has been a lot more continuity in U.S. Middle East policy than change. But some members of the Trump administration remain obsessed with the former administration. In recent months, the top Gulf, Syria, and Iraq experts at the National Security Council—all career civil servants, but all suspected of having too many close ties to the Obama administration—have been unceremoniously returned to their home agencies. Members of the administration go on Fox News and proclaim former Obama administration officials—who they had previously and incongruously denounced as naïve and incompetent—are running a vast conspiracy within the U.S. civil service to undermine the president’s agenda.
All of that creates a toxic environment whereby members of the Trump administration might be tempted to do things not because they are wise but simply because they reverse things the Obama administration did. When it comes to the Iran deal, that would be a mistake of epic proportions.