President Donald Trump makes a statement on Iran policy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Oct. 13, 2017, in Washington.

President Donald Trump makes a statement on Iran policy in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on Oct. 13, 2017, in Washington. Associated Press / Evan Vucci

Trump’s Iran Strategy Is No Strategy At All

It's a laundry list of grievances, some get-tough rhetoric, and a quixotic retreat from diplomacy that ties one hand behind the president's back.

After an internal policy review that lasted nine months, President Donald Trump addressed the American people last Friday to unveil a new strategy on Washington’s principal adversary in the Middle East. Iran, Trump argued, continues to foment terrorism, sectarianism, instability, and death throughout the region, and the previous administration was far too enameled of the Iranian nuclear deal to do very much about it.

“Our policy is based on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world,” Trump said. Politically speaking, this rhetoric is juicy red meat for his base, but that’s all it really is.

What we have is tougher rhetoric and a commitment to fight Iranian influence wherever it reads its ugly head. Indeed, what President Trump delivered last week was not so much a well-thought-out policy reflective of nine months of work and debate, but a litany of grievances that the U.S. has expressed repeatedly over the last three decades of hostile U.S.-Iran relations. The Trump administration’s fact sheet outlining the new strategy is a summation of decades worth of American complaints about Tehran’s behavior in the region, from its sponsorship and funding of anti-Israel terrorist groups to its research, development, and testing of ballistic missiles. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) comes in for special scrutiny for opposing U.S. actions in the region since 2003: it has its tentacles stretched from Yemen and Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan.  Iranian arms, expertise, and money have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and to this day, Tehran is sending weapons and fuel shipments to the Taliban.

What the Trump administration plans to do to thwart this behavior, however, is far from clear. All we are offered is standard boilerplate of working “with our partners to constrain this dangerous organization,” and sanctioning the IRGC as a specially designated global terrorist organization under executive authority the president already has.

Trump’s policy regarding the JCPOA, in contrast, is not so much unclear as it is a high-stakes bet with terribly low odds.

While acknowledging that Tehran is in technical compliance of the agreement’s restrictions, Trump has nonetheless decided that a deal that took three years to negotiate is not good enough. What he means, of course, is that it’s not perfect; that in 13 years, the cap on Iran’s uranium enrichment capability will be lifted, and Iranian scientists will be free to enrich as much uranium with as many centrifuges as it wants.

This is a legitimate concern, given Tehran’s record with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the country’s past nuclear behavior, which included building enrichment facilities under the international community’s nose and making the IAEA investigation into its past nuclear activity far more difficult than it should have been. But a 13-year delay is better than no delay whatsoever.

Yet for Trump, the solution to this problem is not to cooperate with America’s European partners, establish a united position as a bloc, and engage in exploratory diplomacy with Iranian officials for a follow-on agreement outside of the JCPOA. Rather, it’s to kick the JCPOA can to Congress and threaten to walk away from a deal that (for the time being) is preventing Tehran from acquiring enough nuclear material to reach bomb status.

Trump apparently believes that the best way to send Iran a message is not through difficult, tough diplomacy, but through less effective means: coercion. In other words, press Tehran to sign up for more nuclear concessions beyond the JCPOA’s restrictions; press U.S. lawmakers to pass additional, non-nuclear sanctions bills on Iran’s ballistic missile development and support for terrorism; and press Washington’s negotiating partners to get with the program or risk the U.S. terminating the accord. One doesn’t need to have a high diplomatic IQ to see where this is going. Indeed, the leaders of France, the U.K., and Germany quickly released a joint statement after Trump’s policy rollout to remind him that their countries will continue to implement the JCPOA in full. The European Union’s top foreign policy official, Federica Mogherini, did the same on behalf of the entire European community.

Nowhere in Trump’s speech does he indicate that engagement with the Iranian government is an aspect of the new policy. While talking with Iranian officials directly is and always has been bad politics in Washington, it’s hard to picture the U.S. fulfilling America’s national security interests peacefully without a diplomatic option.

Not every problem is tackled effectively by passing additional economic sanctions, slapping travel bans on individuals, or deploying the military.

The JCPOA, for example, would not have been possible if the U.S. didn’t levy the carrot of negotiations along with the stick of multilateral sanctions. Only when Tehran saw that serious negotiations with the West was the one and only exit ramp to even more powerful sanctions did talks between the P5+1 and Iran begin to pick up momentum.

The American people get it. They are far ahead of the foreign-policy establishment on how valuable diplomacy is to getting things done in the foreign-policy realm. According to an October Pew Research Center survey, 61percent of Americans believe that “good diplomacy is the best path to ensure peace,” while 30 percent say the best way is through military strength. This is the highest gap since Pew first asked the question in 1994

Trump may honestly believe that opposing Iran anywhere and everywhere on any issue is the smart course to follow. The Iranians make it much harder on themselves by meddling in the Arab world, putting their fingers into regional conflicts, and deepening the sectarian fault line by bankrolling and in some cases commanding Shia militias in Iraq and Syria whose solution to the sectarian problem is killing more Sunnis.

But by not mentioning diplomatic engagement once in his speech or in his policy rollout, President Trump is hurting himself by limiting his options and tying one hand behind his back. Opportunities for dialogue may be slim today, but they could be ripe for the picking tomorrow.