The suspense is over. Two weeks after President Trump ruptured the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran to a chorus of questions about the administration’s “Plan B,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday outlined a new U.S. strategy for contending with the persistent challenges posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There’s only one problem with the strategy: It’s not a strategy at all, but rather a grab bag of wishful thinking wrapped in a thinly veiled exhortation for regime change in Iran.
Actually, there are about a dozen other problems with the strategy that Pompeo articulated—that being the number of benchmarks that the speech laid out as the prerequisites for any “new deal” that he insisted the administration is “ready, willing, and able to negotiate” with Iran. Despite this nod to the possibility of new negotiations, the substance of Pompeo’s remarks forecloses any realistic avenue for diplomacy with or around Iran’s current leadership. And it will exacerbate existing frictions around a variety of diplomatic and trade issues with all of America’s traditional partners.
Instead, the speech heralds an unabashed embrace of go-it-alone maximalism that is not only likely to come up short on Iran, but will also backfire across an array of U.S. interests and allies in an unpredictable fashion. Trump’s alternative to the Iran nuclear deal is a dead end, one that will alienate our allies, disregard vital partners such as Russia and China, and divorce U.S. policy on Iran from even the slightest pretense at multilateral support or realistic objectives. What a terrible waste of U.S. leverage and leadership.
Trump’s alternative to the Iran nuclear deal is a dead end.
More is not always better
For a president with brash ambition and only the crudest understanding of international politics, maximalism has understandable appeal, not the least of which is that it seems to present a compelling alternative to the approach pursued by Trump’s predecessors. President Obama sought an explicitly limited bargain with Tehran under a framework for issue-specific diplomatic engagement that was first advanced during the latter days of the Bush administration. This was a purely pragmatic calculation that reflected the urgency of Iran’s burgeoning nuclear infrastructure and the absence of any meaningful consensus with U.S. allies and other key stakeholders around the full suite of challenges posed by Tehran.
But in practice, the narrow transactionalism of the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), contributed to its eventual unravelling by Trump. An unavoidably imperfect solution to only one aspect of the Iran problem ensured that the continuation—and in many cases, the exacerbation—of Tehran’s regional malfeasance loomed all that much larger. In the aftermath of the deal, the real and present dangers of Iran’s support for violent proxies, its military entrenchment in Syria, and its relentless domestic repression seemed even more resistant to external pressure or inducements. And with the clock ticking on the expiration of some of the JCPOA’s restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, skepticism around the nuclear deal’s value eroded the durability of the deal in Washington. It’s worth noting that Iranians felt a corresponding buyer’s remorse, having overestimated the ripple effects of reopening their economy, their compliance assured by the lack of obviously better alternatives.
Trump felt no such constraint. Having made his name as a wheeler-dealer, he disdains half-measures and is convinced he can find holistic fixes to protracted problems. Which is why his new secretary of state articulated an ambitious laundry list of demands for a new deal in his speech today—including a full accounting of Tehran’s past nuclear work, an end to Iran’s support for terrorist organizations, the release of unjustly detained dual-nationals.
Who can rightly argue against these as the aspiration objectives of U.S. policy? The difficulty, of course, is that the speech offered no realistic pathway to achieving them. Insisting on an unequivocal end to the full inventory of Iranian misdeeds is not a starting point for a serious negotiation. It’s magical thinking to suggest that after 40 years and at the apex of its regional reach, the Islamic Republic will proffer a blanket capitulation in exchange for the promise of a future treaty with a government that has just jettisoned an existing agreement.
Diplomacy out the door
In this sense, Pompeo’s speech made clear that the administration has no interest in negotiating with Tehran. For that matter, the framework outlined in his speech underscores the administration’s contempt toward key U.S. allies and diplomatic partners, whose cooperation proved critical to securing the nuclear deal in the first place and whose diplomats have been working for months in good faith with the State Department to devise some path to salvage and strengthen the nuclear accord.
Pompeo hailed multilateral support for the goals of U.S. policy toward Tehran. However, he acknowledged that Europe may choose to preserve the 2015 accord, which built on more than a dozen years of British, French, and German diplomacy. “That is their decision to make,” Pompeo said airily, adding: “They know where we stand.” Presumably the same applies for other vital stakeholders, including Russia and China whose extensive political and economic ties to Tehran proved crucial in prior diplomatic wrangling.
Pompeo’s implication was clear: To achieve its voluminous (and in places, redundant) objectives on Iran, the Trump administration is prepared to break with its core allies. And more pointedly, thanks to American dominance of the international financial system, Washington sees little cost to either the threat or its implementation. Financial sanctions leverage the indispensable role of the U.S. dollar and the U.S. market, and their dissuasive influence is not lessened by the formalities of national sovereignty. The implied risks have already sent firms around the world rushing to wind down business in Iran, and in the short term there may be little that European indignation can do to blunt or reverse this.
The costs to American prestige and influence will surely be higher. Four decades of U.S. policy toward Tehran underscore how difficult it is to make real progress against the perennial threats posed by this regime. The nuclear deal itself is testament to the vital role of a broad coalition that was constructed through dogged diplomacy, led by both Republican and Democratic administrations, around a shared consensus around achievable goals. Resentment of American imperiousness will seep far beyond the usual suspects. After all, if the Trump administration is prepared and capable of bending Iran, a major player in regional politics and energy markets, to its will in order to enforce its mandates, where else might Washington choose to apply this awesome power?
The regime-change drumbeat
Pompeo did offer one alternative to diplomacy—regime change in Iran. The speech was littered with flamboyant expressions of official American appeals to the Iranian people and the declaration that “unlike the previous [Obama] administration, we are looking for outcomes that that benefit the Iranian people, not just the regime.” Asked how quickly the new “strategy” might be implemented, Pompeo showed his regime-change hand, emphasizing:
“At the end of the day, the Iranian people will decide the timeline. At the end of the day, the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership. If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful. If they choose not to do so, we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes that I set forward today.”
This advocacy comes at a genuinely precarious moment for Iran’s internal politics: fissures within the establishment, generational change and the diffusion of information technology, the deep alienation among at least some proportion of the population, and anticipation around succession that had begun to prompt consideration of what comes next, not simply who comes next. A simple, peaceful transition was always a long shot as a short-term hope. But the Islamic Republic’s slow-motion metastasis, combined with the opportunities for political entrepreneurship around succession, offered the first real sprigs of optimism that the end was somehow in sight.
But Iranians are wildly nationalistic and have been steeped in an especially conspiratorial interpretation of the role of the United States and other great powers in their own history. The 1953 coup, in which America and Britain expedited the downfall of a populist prime minister, has been assimilated as an article of faith about U.S. meddling and its counterproductive consequences.
Given this context, Pompeo’s copious sympathy for the plight of the Iranian people will fall flat on a population whose economic prospects are directly targeted by this administration and who the president has banned from even stepping foot in the United States. And his subtle appeal for regime change will elicit a nationalist backlash that will almost certainly subsume the embryonic openings for anti-regime activism.
Iran won’t bend, and it probably won’t break either.
The problem with anti-solutionism
The realistic outcome is that Trump will not get his bigger, better deal or his advisors’ hoped-for regime change; Iran won’t bend, and it probably won’t break either. That appears to be an acceptable alternative outcome for the Trump White House. Iran will remain in the penalty box, an international pariah state subject to severe economic pressure and, at least in theory, robust regional deterrence. As former senior Obama administration official Jake Sullivan noted last week: “The punishment is the strategy.”
This is an approach that vaguely parallels what my colleague Natan Sachs has described as “anti-solutionism” as applied by the Israelis to their own enduring security dilemma—the conviction that “there are currently no solutions to the challenges the country faces and that seeking quick fixes to intractable problems is dangerously naïve.” Instead of reaching for a grand bargain, the game plan is open-ended confrontation, with the goal of limiting the immediate risks and damages.
There’s only one problem with this approach as a long-term mechanism for managing Iran: In terms of advancing American interests in peace and stability in the Middle East, it’s manifestly inferior to the arrangement Trump just discarded, the nuclear deal.
Iranian security forces are beginning to close the space for both activism and analytical inquiry.