Donald Trump has promised a foreign policy of muscular retrenchment, in which a better-resourced U.S. military intimidates our enemies without serving as a global cop. More than any president since Richard Nixon, our new commander in chief sees virtue in brutal authoritarians, especially if they are fighting radical Islam. He has passionately belittled the idea of nation-building, freedom agendas, and protracted conflicts in Muslim lands.
Trump’s foreign-policy coherence and mettle will soon be put to the test over Iran. What he does about Barack Obama's nuclear agreement and the Islamic Republic's expeditionary zeal, especially its enthusiasm for creating and deploying Shiite militias in sectarian wars, will surely guide what he does throughout the Middle East and likely define the way he deals with Russia. With the exception of how the president approaches the People's Republic of China, no foreign-policy question may have ramifications as momentous. It looks to be Trump's first big, gut-wrenching challenge.
Trump has described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and his predecessor's approach to the clerical regime as weak-kneed and calamitous. Republicans in Congress are similarly moved: They are preparing new sanctions to punish Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards for their savagery in Syria, their support for terrorism, and the long-range ballistic-missile program under their control. They will probably garner enough Democratic senators to ensure the legislation makes it to the president's desk. The Islamic Republic's supreme leader Ali Khamenei has repeatedly stated that new sanctions levied by the United States for nonnuclear reasons are violations of the atomic accord. The Europeans, who are eager to increase trade with Iran, are largely in agreement. Not wanting to endorse Tehran's complicity in mass murder in Syria, they could embrace minor sanctions that Khamenei could ignore.
In the run-up to the JCPOA, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly told Congress that the nuclear deal wouldn't restrict America's capacity to sanction the clerical regime for its nonnuclear nefarious behavior; in practice, they acted otherwise, giving the green light to European ventures in sectors of the Iranian economy dominated by the Revolutionary Guards. Although Obama could never publicly say so given the guards' bloody history, his entire approach was a combination of good will and bribery. The transformational hopes of the accord, which Obama and his subordinates said were secondary to the technical restrictions on Tehran's nuclear ambitions, really made no sense unless the guards were the primary targets of post-deal largesse. If Obama wanted to test the idea of Iranians “buying into” the international order, then he wanted the corps to grow richer through global commerce. Whether the guards would exploit, for example, the $17 billion Boeing deal, which Obama cleared at the end of his presidency, to increase their capacity to airlift their forces and allied militias throughout the region was irrelevant given the larger aspiration.
The historical evidence for ideological transformation through enlarged foreign investment is weak: In the 1990s, when Iran's president and clerical major-domo Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Khamenei backed opening the country to European and Asian investment, the corps grew richer, more powerful, but no more latitudinarian in its sentiments. Increasing trade didn't diminish the regime's appetite for terrorism at home or abroad. The explosion of dissent in 1997, which arose behind the candidacy of a little-known, unaccomplished cleric, Mohammad Khatami, surely developed in part from the failed expectations of Rafsanjani's presidency. The supreme leader, Rafsanjani, and his aide-de-camp Hassan Rouhani held firm against political reform.
President Obama seemed to believe that increasing Western trade would at least diminish the odds that the United States would go to war with the Islamic Republic, which was, after all, his primary imperative. Peace through commerce has its advocates on the American right, especially among businessmen. Obama understood Tehran's role in generating Sunni jihadism in Syria and Iraq; does President Trump similarly understand the connection and similarly hope that increasing Western commerce with the Islamic Republic can somehow marginalize, transform, or bribe Iranian “hardliners” into giving up their worst ambitions?
Given Trump's support for an “America First” economy, he may not spend much time considering the potential of politically ameliorative international commerce. Trump has, however, at least once expressed dismay that American sanctions prevent American companies from profiting in the Iranian marketplace. The nuclear deal was so awful in part, Trump suggested, because the Iranians got billions of dollars and others, especially the Europeans, got the business. The White House and National Security Council staff, among whom anti-Iranian sentiments run deep, have been quiet on the Boeing deal. Does the president see ideological forces—Iran's version of Islamism—as a sufficient threat to override his obvious desire to see American trade expand? It's possible we will soon see a big contradiction in Trump's approach to Iran: approval of the Boeing deal combined with new executive-branch and congressionally driven sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards. Whether the president can sustain that contradiction (the Boeing contract in theory opens the floodgates to big-ticket trade) and whether the clerical regime would allow that contradiction to stand remain unclear.
Is the president willing to risk Obama's agreement—and the possibility of another Middle Eastern war if he tries to improve it—in a face-off with the clerical regime? The odds are good that when Trump first dismissed the nuclear deal on the campaign trail he did so without thinking through the ramifications. Given Trump's campaign mantra against wasteful wars in the Middle East, does he see the mullahs' development of nuclear weapons as a fundamental threat to the United States? Does Trump object to the Islamic Republic's regional activities, especially in Syria, where Tehran's actions have been the most aggressive and brutal? Given his support of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus and Russian president Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria, does Trump really oppose Iranian aid to Assad? Although President Obama never said so publicly, his staff certainly suggested that the White House grew to fear a triumph of Sunni Arabs in Syria, among whom jihadists are numerous. United Nations ambassador Samantha Power could wax poetic about Assad's butchery, but Obama's Washington no longer viewed the Alawite dictator as a state-sponsor of terrorism against the West.
There is a notable strategic incongruity on much of the American right: anti-Iran but pro-Assad. This shows the enormous advantage that Assad, a thoroughly secularized despot from a heretical Shiite clan, gained when he strengthened the decades-old family alliance with Tehran and framed the rebellion against his tyranny as a battle between secularists and jihadists. Given Assad's savage tactics and the collapse of Sunni Syrian society, a bipolar world—secular Alawites, supported by militant Iranian, Arab, and Afghan Shiites, versus Sunni radicals—has emerged. Assad's stage-managed concern for the Syrian Christian community also hasn't hurt his appeal in the United States, especially among Republicans.
Syria and Iraq have different internal dynamics, but it's possible that President Trump could start to see a common denominator: The clerical regime in both countries works against Sunni jihadism. Iran's role in generating Sunni radicalism—its region-wide policy of encouraging sectarian conflict and creating militias modeled on the Lebanese Hezbollah—is often downplayed in certain quarters of the American right as much as it is on the noninterventionist, nuke-deal-loving American left. Among those on the right and left who view Putin less adversely, fears of stateless Sunnis running amok seem to be much greater than fears of Iranian Shiite imperialism.
For the noninterventionists, there is always one overarching theme: America should no longer be a Middle Eastern power, and Americans don't really care about the region's conflicting ideologies so long as Americans aren't being blown up. The obverse of Americans wanting to distance themselves from the Muslim world and reduce the flow of Muslims coming to the United States is a nonchalance about intra-Muslim politics—about who rules over whom. The post-9/11 understanding that America had paid dearly for its indifference to Muslim tyrannies has, because of the costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, regressed to an earlier disposition: Secular Muslim despots and kings are the best that can be hoped for given the dysfunction of Islamic cultures. With amped-up counterterrorism procedures in place, the United States need not trouble itself with the social and ideological repercussions of how our “moderate Muslim allies” rule their people. To do so may even be counterproductive. Witness the triumphs of the Palestinian fundamentalist movement Hamas in legislative elections in 2006 and Egyptian fundamentalists in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2011-2012. Today, it isn't just the “America First” crowd who are indifferent to Muslim-on-Muslim oppression.
If today Shiites kill Americans far less often than Sunnis, then perhaps that's as deep as one needs to go. And although the Islamic Republic treats its Christian minorities as second-class citizens, and can torture and kill Muslim converts to Christianity, Iranian clerics have been more respectful of Christians than have their Sunni fundamentalist counterparts. “America First” Christian conservatives who think civilizationally—Christians versus Muslims—could become inclined toward seeing the Islamic Republic as an acceptable despotism given its less harsh treatment of their co-religionists. Trump and his close adviser Steve Bannon aren't among those hard-right, über-Christian conservatives, like Patrick Buchanan, who supported the nuclear deal and became nonbelligerent toward the clerical regime. The anti-Iranian sentiments of Lt. General Michael Flynn's men who still serve on the NSC seem unshakeable. That is also probably true of Secretary of Defense James Mattis's. American soldiers who have had to deal with lethal Revolutionary Guard activity against U.S. troops often have an imperishable loathing for Tehran. And Bannon appears to foresee unavoidable big clashes between the United States and Islamist forces, perhaps even a Judgment Day slugfest, where only the strongest is left standing. Although his commentary on Islamic militancy is more passionate than extensive, Bannon doesn't seem to see Shiite Islamists as less dangerous than Sunni Islamists. If so, Iran likely is at the center of his global struggle. And his depiction of corporate America and Europe—how modern Western business betrays “Judeo-Christian values”—does suggest overseas he's sympathetic to the Leninist line about capitalists and the hangman's rope, except today Western businessmen investing in anti-Western Muslim regimes would be the fools. Obviously, Trump's worldview is far less developed than Bannon's. The president's aversion to the Islamic Republic doesn't appear as personal or as strategically anchored.
The active-duty and ex-military men in the White House, Mattis, perhaps even Bannon may understand that the secular Arab-state Middle East is dying and that Shiite and Sunni Islamists are the only ones creatively and aggressively imagining the future. They may understand that if the United States continues its downsizing in the Muslim world, the clerical regime will turn its attention toward the Arabian peninsula, where the largest number of Arab Shiites are oppressed by the Sunni monarchs of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Only the Islamic Republic among Muslim states has successfully created transnational, religiously centered militias it can deploy throughout the region. Armed violence among Shiites in Bahrain is rising. All Shiites can find some passionate common ground in how much they loathe the Shiite-hating Wahhabis and the Gulf princes who indulge them. The downfall of the Saudi royal family would be the ultimate prize. Shiite dominion over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, not seen since a Fatimid caliph ruled from Cairo (973-1171), is a dream, but not an unthinkable one if the Saudi family cracks and the Shiites of Arabia combine with Iran's alliance. No one in the region believes the Saudi armed forces, though stocked with the most modern Western weapons, is a tiger. No Sunni state has an expeditionary capacity, let alone the will, to take on the battle-tested Iranians and their allies. Only the United States' military power—the perception in the Middle East that Washington will use its armed forces to check Iranian adventurism—keeps the southern Middle East from becoming unhinged.
This reading of the region may be too much for the White House since it demands the return of an American cop that candidate Trump derided. The Iranians already tested the administration with a ballistic-missile launch. In response Flynn put the mullahs “on notice” and hit them with new administrative sanctions. These minor actions won't be enough; Bannon and Mattis probably know far more will be required.
The clerical regime has always feared a rampant United States, but Washington has rarely punished the Islamic Republic, even when it has taken American life. Tehran will surely push Trump to see if he is fearful of losing the nuclear agreement and American soldiers. To be taken seriously in Tehran, which is ruled by hardball politics, the president will have to do what so many in the Washington foreign-policy establishment fear—escalate.
Iranian & Russian Repercussions
The mullahs are in a quandary about Trump. As the supreme leader recently highlighted, Trump's scathing assessment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is welcomed. So, too, his alignment with Assad and Putin. So, too, his promise to scale down radically America's post-WWII commitments in the Middle East and his distaste for championing democracy in Muslim lands.
But Trump's ferocious criticism of the nuclear accord and his anti-Iranian appointments—Flynn, Mattis, and former congressman Michael Pompeo to the Central Intelligence Agency, which the Iranian regime still sees as always conspiring against it—signal trouble. So does the proximity of Jared Kushner, the president's Orthodox Jewish, Israel-fond son-in-law. It's impossible to overstate the eminence of anti-Iranian Jewish conspiracies among the Islamic Republic's ruling elite.
President Obama's predictability, his repeated willingness to ignore Iranian imperialism and make substantial compromises—far more than our European allies imagined when the nuclear negotiations began—is unquestionably over with Trump. Iranian fear of the U.S. Navy, which has been a constant since the revolution, has likely ticked up since the election despite Trump's anti-interventionist rhetoric. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, the former foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who has always enjoyed direct access to the supreme leader, recently gave a long interview about Trump and the JCPOA. The Islamic Republic should maintain the nuclear deal, Salehi advised, and not give Trump an easy victory. The American president will have a much harder time than Hillary Clinton would have had rallying a “global consensus” against Iran, the MIT-educated nuclear engineer surmised. Salehi wants Khamenei to answer Trump's actions with actions that “embarrass the other side, not those that embolden him.” He wants the regime to “asymmetrically” respond to Washington. Salehi, who has excellent English and regularly incorporates American terms and Anglicisms into his Persian, probably understands that the use of “asymmetrical” (namutaqarin) unavoidably suggests that Tehran should, among other things, make the United States bleed through the use of Arab Shiite proxies.
Although Salehi doesn't dwell on the now-suspended visa ban against Iranians, the action surely surprised, probably shocked, him and his superiors. Iranians hate to be lumped with Arabs. Many in the regime loathe Iranians who flee to the West, especially the United States; but many of the most senior officials, even within the top echelons of the clerical elite, have family members in the United States. Children of VIPs frequently study in the West—the most prestigious locales are in America. The Islamic Republic has always had considerable cognitive dissonance about the United States, which is most personally played out with children of the elite, both dissident and regime-loyal, making pilgrimage to the mullahs' bête noire.
Since the Iranian regime knows it has not used U.S. tourist, student, or immigrant visas or refugees for terrorist operations inside the United States, and it knows how Iranian immigrants and their children have seamlessly integrated into America, it probably assumes that something else unpleasant is afoot with Iran's inclusion in the “Muslim-banning” executive order. Not knowing what that is, but fearing the worst, the clerical regime will wait to see if Trump falls in line where Obama left off (supporting the nuclear and Boeing deals).
As it's now pretty clear that the president will keep the nuclear agreement, Tehran will closely watch the aircraft sale and whether the White House designates the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. The mullahs will keep a keen eye on the Persian Gulf. They may well stop the guards' speedboats from challenging U.S. naval vessels. Whether Trump and his advisers have any intention of exploiting this growing Iranian anxiety is unclear. Could Trump, who has so openly mocked the idea of regime change as a legitimate foreign-policy objective in the Middle East, actually support the approach, however renamed, for the Islamic Republic? Could he even panic Tehran by faking it?
And Trump's oft-stated admiration for Putin could complicate, conceivably paralyze, the White House's Iran policy. Under Putin, Moscow and Tehran have developed ever-closer military ties; freed from Western sanctions, Tehran is set to become the largest single client for Russian military hardware. Moscow finally delivered to Tehran S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which have probably neutralized any Israeli threat to the clerical regime's nuclear sites. The Russia-Iran axis has become militarily dominant in the northern Middle East. Putin likely views it as critical to his overall plan to reassert Russian power. At minimal cost to his treasury, he has made his country the go-to foreign power north of the Persian Gulf. Putin's partnership with Tehran has already gained him unexpected attention (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli generals have become frequent visitors to Moscow) and leverage (Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once determined to see Assad fall, is now saying that he can stay). Syria has paid big, perhaps decisive, dividends to Putin in Europe, which is reeling from the refugee waves that Putin's bombing campaign in Syria has in part driven. The Russian military investment in Syria after the decisive victory in Aleppo appears to be growing substantially.
If Trump is serious about countering Iran regionally or somehow plugging the holes in the nuclear accord (eliminating the development of advanced centrifuges, the sunset clauses that allow for an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program in 14 years, and Tehran's intercontinental ballistic-missile program), he could quickly find himself at a breaking point with Putin. The White House may have hopes that it can somehow separate Putin from Iran, but the odds of that happening appear poor given the strategic advantages Moscow gains from its alliance and the clerical regime's equanimity about post-Soviet Russia.
Since the Islamic revolution, Iran has never posed a strategic threat to Russia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Rafsanjani attempted to increase Iranian influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus through trade and missionary activity. Iranian trade grew and Tehran briefly had a serious presence in Tajikistan, the only Persian-speaking country in the former Soviet Union, but Iran's penetration remained limited. Its religious ambitions failed, thwarted by the Sunni-Shiite divide (the vast majority of Central Asian Muslims are Sunni), Iranian cultural arrogance, and the superior efforts of Turkish Gülenists, Saudis, and other Sunni missionaries (Saudi-subsidized Jordanian and Egyptian preachers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood weren't hard to find in Central Asia in the 1990s). I have had discussions with Russian military and intelligence officers about the Islamic Republic's religious appeal and covert-action potential in the former Soviet Union. With the possible exception of Azerbaijan, they thought it was pshik—zilch.
Putin has obviously made the calculation that his own brutal actions toward Sunni Muslims in the Caucasus and his support of ferociously anti-Islamist rulers within the former Soviet Union don't have a prohibitive downside. Putin does not now seem to fear Sunni Islamic radicalism within Russia; whatever anti-Russian designs the Islamic State may have, they have so far failed to launch major terrorist operations inside the Russian police state. Putin's alliance with Shiite Iran is a logical extension of this domestic self-confidence; it's also a smart strategic move since Persian power has no effective Arab counterweight. All the Sunni Arabs combined—even imagining such a coalition seems surreal—are weaker than the Islamic Republic. The closer Iran is to Russia, the more Arab states, particularly the oil-rich Gulf states, must treat Russia with greater respect and deference.
And the Iranians may loathe the Treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828), in which Russia sheared off the top of the Persian realm, but the Islamic Republic's revolutionaries have always had a far easier time with Russians than with Americans. There is no love lost: The Iranians know Moscow has often poorly and condescendingly delivered in its commercial, nuclear, and military dealings with Tehran. Yet there is no ideological point of friction between the two. Soviet communism, once seductive among the Iranian and Azeri-Iranian elites, is no more. The clerical regime—especially the Revolutionary Guard Corps—sees Putin's Russia as anti-American. Salehi, ever the clever boy, highlights the growing tension between Trump's pro-Putin sentiments and his maintenance of sanctions against Russia. The forced resignation of Lt. General Flynn, whom the Iranians saw as the most adamant clerical-regime-hater, reinforces this view of American-Russian antagonism. So, too, the flood of press reports about the enmity for the president within the CIA and the FBI because of the closeness of Trump and his people to the Kremlin. Russian propaganda against America's insidious efforts to spread its values in the Russian realm, undermining traditional culture and the mores of the Russian Orthodox church, is remarkably similar to Khamenei's gravamen against the morally corrupting soft-power machinations of the United States. The Iranians have an acute ear for hearing their themes in other people's national narratives and a disposition to forgive others their faults if they can at least get right the anti-American harmony. Putin's decision to bomb to shards the Sunni Syrian opposition in Aleppo has also gained real, if at times grudging, respect from the mullahs and their praetorians.
As President Trump will soon discover, the Islamic Republic, too, is unlikely to roll over. It's a near certainty that if Trump pushes back against Iran and reimposes crippling financial sanctions, the mullahs will again target through their Shiite militias U.S. soldiers in Iraq, who currently number around 6,000. For the Iranians, America's job in Mesopotamia is almost done since the fall of Mosul isn't far off. American airpower and trainers, who if they were to linger could unhelpfully fortify Iraqi Kurdish, Sunni, and anti-Iran Shiite forces, are no longer needed. Washington could well see an indirect shooting war, which is exactly where George W. Bush found himself. Needless to say, the $17 billion Boeing deal would collapse.
Anti-Iran sentiments in Congress may even be stronger than in the White House. Legislation is winding its way through that would void the Boeing contract—and by legal extension probably stop the Airbus agreement, too, given the American-made parts that go into every Airbus plane. If the Boeing and Airbus contracts evaporate, it's likely Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's plans to use European investment and technology to revitalize his country's economy will die. If Rouhani's success would produce the worst of all possible worlds, since a better economy would allow the clerical elite to further heal its wounds and divisions after the near-cataclysm of the 2009 Green Movement, Rouhani's political decline ought to be a preeminent objective of U.S. Iran policy. Whether Trump so understands Iranian politics is open to question. Given the central role of commerce in the president's worldview and the strong tendency of businessmen to see other businessmen nonideologically, it's possible Trump could incline towards the conventional view: better to support Rouhani the Moderate against the “hardliners.” If so, Trump might prefer congressional Republicans to be less comprehensive in the sanctions they put forth.
A betting man now wouldn't place much money on the president going that way, but a certain momentum will develop if Trump decides to keep the nuclear deal and allow the plane contracts. Even in a Trump White House, where Bannon is building a staff to keep the bureaucracies off balance and the establishment on the defensive, the laws of inertia still hold. If Trump becomes committed to this accord, it will take on a life of its own. Punting problems down the road, especially one that could lead to a major conflict, surely still has its appeal, especially for a man who seems to believe that American wars in the Middle East are stupid.
A Trump-Congress Partnership?
The decisive issue will likely be the new congressional sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards and whether the White House is willing to let Treasury, through a presidential terrorist designation of the entire Guard Corps, aggressively go after the guards and VIP Iranians with new administrative sanctions. Under Obama and Bush, the corps wasn't hit often. When Trump took office, the total executive-branch designation count was only 52. The designations made after the last ballistic-missile launch added another 25 minor targets. Treasury and Congress could zap the regime's praetorians quickly with hundreds more, effectively preventing most A-list European or Asian companies from dealing directly with the corps or its proxies. The guards' access to hard currency outside of Iran would become difficult, as well as their sanctions-evading shell-game with false-flag and limited partnerships with foreign firms.
If the president and the Republican Congress reimposed financial sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Trump would have to be prepared to deal with an angry Europe, since such punitive actions would effectively freeze European banks' ability to finance European commerce inside Iran. It's possible to imagine Trump moving against Europeans over Iran more aggressively than either Bush or Obama were prepared to do: The president's heart obviously doesn't go pitter-patter over transatlantic relations. He may relish a collision with the World Trade Organization.
If Trump does care about minimizing the bad blood with Europe, he might hit hard quickly since Western fraternity will certainly suffer less if new legislation and designations strike before tens of billions of dollars of European investment have flowed back to the Islamic Republic. So far, little money has actually exchanged hands precisely because the Europeans were uncertain about postelection Washington. The recent announcement that France's Total will delay its investment in a $2 billion gas project in South Pars 11, which is part of the largest gas field in the world, until Trump agrees to waive U.S. sanctions, was a reluctant admission by Europe's most aggressive energy company inside Iran. “So, either the waivers are renewed, and as such, respect the Iran nuclear deal,” Total's chief executive Patrick Pouyanné explained, or “we'll not be able to work in Iran.”
Trump's more strategically inclined staff may also look down the road and understand that if the Republican Congress and president implement new sanctions and Tehran responds by reconnecting centrifuges or throwing out International Atomic Energy Agency monitors, the French, British, and even the Germans are unlikely to cheer the Iranians on. As much as they may hate and blame Trump for destroying the short-term tranquility of the JCPOA, if the mullahs start enriching again to dangerous levels or excluding the IAEA, reality will return. Fear of American and Israeli military action will snap back. The Europeans, who are paralyzed with fear of America abandoning the defense of the Old World, will, however reluctantly, support the reimposition of sanctions against Tehran. They have no other choice. This is in part why Salehi has counseled that Iran not be the first to abandon the JCPOA.
Ultimately, there is one overriding question: Does President Trump believe that preventive military strikes against the clerical regime's atomic sites would be better than living with Mr. Obama's agreement, with all its flaws and constraints on American action? “Rigorously” enforcing a bad agreement leaves the Middle East with a ticking time bomb and the Islamic Republic with ever more money—unless the White House concurrently hits the mullahs with biting sanctions for their regional behavior. Escalating nonnuclear sanctions by themselves are unlikely, however, to oblige the clerical regime to renegotiate the nuclear accord, stop the development of ballistic missiles, or abandon its new militia-centered imperialism. Khamenei and the guards, who loathe having had to limit temporarily their nuclear aspirations, know that they would lose their religious-revolutionary credibility if they now buckled further to the United States.
To imagine scenarios in which Tehran surrenders to the West, which is what an improved deal and Iranian roll-back entails, is to imagine the guards, Khamenei, and the rest of the clerical elite dividing and the we-must-surrender side triumphing over the revolutionary faithful. This scenario is possible if Tehran thought Washington was prepared militarily to obliterate the nuclear program and the Guard Corps, but it isn't likely given American politics (the United States isn't in a bellicose mood) and the psychology of the Iranian ruling elite (they may well prefer to go down fighting than go down without a fight). Needless to say, the clerical regime's detection of American hesitancy reinforces the Iranian elite's willingness to resist.
Even if President Trump believes the United States has no business being a Middle Eastern hegemon, does he nonetheless find the Islamic Republic, if completely unchecked by Washington, too potentially dangerous and disruptive to the Persian Gulf and Israel? Trump and Bannon appear sincerely sympathetic to the Jewish state. Is Trump's view of Israel's defense as transactionally defined as his view of America's historic defense of Europe, Japan, and South Korea? His pro-proliferation attitude toward nuclear weapons among our Asian allies might also apply to Israel against the Islamic Republic. Did Trump really mean it when he suggested that South Korea and Japan going nuclear might enhance deterrence against North Korea and China? Does a nuclear-armed Israel for Trump abrogate the need for the United States to intercede to stop the mullahs from developing an atomic-bomb infrastructure, which will happen if President Obama's accord stands? Israel may possess between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons.
With Obama, Republicans were in the enviable position of criticizing the White House's nuclear diplomacy and passivity towards Iranian imperialism without bearing the responsibility of demanding more. By not submitting the nuclear deal as a treaty to the Senate for ratification, Obama missed the opportunity to make Republicans show their hand. Lots of folks on the Hill don't think long-term given the overwhelming immediacy of their politics. Consequences are often dealt with after legislation is passed. Trump and the Republican Congress will be, however, hardpressed to avoid the war-and-peace debate since it's impossible to imagine a plausible policy of renewed sanctions against the clerical regime in which the United States doesn't, as a backup, threaten preventive military strikes. And as the president has often stressed in his business dealings, if one threatens, one must be prepared to follow through.
If Trump decides to accept the nuclear deal and basically ignore the clerical regime's search for dominion in the Middle East, he will take the United States to where Obama was headed—just more quickly. American resistance to Iran's revolution, which has become essentially a Republican project, will probably be over. If Trump chooses to reject his predecessor's policy, however, he will reintroduce American hard power into foreign leaders' calculations. Authoritarians everywhere will take notice. So will our European and Asian allies. The United States will be back in the Middle East in a way Trump surely didn't envision when he was castigating Washington's foreign-policy establishment for its costly wars in Islamic lands. ¨
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.