Ross Harrison, Alex Vatanka
Security, Middle East
The risk is high that Iran will be successful in working against U.S. interests if Trump unilaterally renounces the nuclear deal and continues brandishing threats.
As the Islamic Republic enters its fortieth year in power, the Trump administration needs to pay heed to the perils of hubris in its policy towards Iran. There is no silver bullet for gaining the upper hand with Iran, and American presidents have a poor track record in trying. While the reasons for failure are unique to each president, there has been a pattern of overestimating the utility of using threats of force to influence Iranian behavior, and underestimating Iran’s will and capacity to resist.
Jimmy Carter tried to end the Iran hostage crisis shortly after the Iranian revolution in 1979 with a daring and misguided rescue attempt, leading to a failed mission and a presidential electoral defeat in 1980. Under Ronald Reagan’s watch the Iran-Contra affair cast a pall over what at the time was perceived to be his administration’s overall effective foreign-policy record. Bill Clinton imposed the most severe sanctions on Iran in the hope to extract concessions, only to be left disappointed.
George W. Bush unwittingly handed Iran a strategic gift by invading Iraq and dismantling the Saddam regime in Baghdad, giving Iran an opportunity to project power into Iraq and the broader Arab world. While Barack Obama landed a landmark nuclear deal in 2015 that successfully avoided a military showdown with Iran, it is unclear whether even he, who had a more nuanced view of the Islamic Republic, fundamentally broke the stalemate between the two countries.
For Trump, Less Is More
For Trump, two key factors about present-day Iran should not be overlooked: that the country’s population is exhausted by Tehran’s costly power play in the Middle East, and that Iranian hardliners (in partnership with Russia) can still do much to undermine American interests in the region.
To avoid falling into the same trap as many of his predecessors, Trump needs to compartmentalize his Iran policy much better. He needs to maintain the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration, and dial back the bombastic—and often self-defeating—rhetoric. Failure to change course will only play into the hands of the hardliners in Iran, and move Tehran and Moscow closer together, producing an unfavorable scenario for U.S. interests in the Middle East.