During the presidential campaign, the outlier in Donald Trump’s foreign-policy orations was his treatment of Iran. On Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia (remember President Barack Obama’s “off-mic” tête-à-tête with President Dmitry Medvedev?), and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Trump largely followed his predecessor. Differences existed, certainly in style and manner, but the overlap between the two men on most of the big foreign-policy questions was profound.
When it came to the clerical regime in Iran, however, the two men were polar opposites. Trump thought the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was “the worst deal ever.” He also let loose against Tehran’s Islamic radicalism, terrorism, quest for regional hegemony, and fondness for sowing mayhem in the Middle East. Trump’s serrated rhetoric stood in contrast to the comments of Obama, his secretary of state, and other senior officials, who had muted their criticisms of Tehran in their pursuit of the atomic accord and, as important, a new strategic realignment, wherein a less interventionist America might, so the theory went, find a modus vivendi with a richer, commercially engaged, and moderating Islamic Republic.
As president, Trump followed through. The nuclear deal went down, the sanctions came back, and despite moments of wobbliness concerning troop deployments in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Trump administration held fast in the Middle East. National-Security Advisers H. R. McMaster and John Bolton, United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and, perhaps most of all, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out a new approach to the Islamic Republic. The Trump administration wasn’t inclined to roll back the clerical regime, but it did seem ready to contest and contain Iran’s Shiite imperialism in Syria, Yemen, and even in Iraq, in which the president had never evinced much interest.
Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, concurrently with his intention to drastically reduce the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan and the likely soon-to-be-announced further drawdown of U.S. personnel in Iraq, has made mincemeat of the administration’s efforts to contain Iran. If you add up who wins locally by this decision (the clerical regime in Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite radicals, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) and who loses (Jordan, Israel, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs, everyone in Lebanon resisting Hezbollah, the vast majority of the Iraqi Shia, the Gulf States), it becomes clear that the interests of the United States have been routed.
Before Trump pulled the plug in Syria, the rhetorical center of the president’s Iran policy was the “New Iran Strategy” speech by Pompeo at the Heritage Foundation on May 21, 2018. The 12 demands that Pompeo issued to Tehran are not historically provocative—they were, until the coming of Obama, essentially what the United States had always sought: to deny the mullahs nuclear weapons and stop them from spreading their version of Islamic militancy. Washington hadn’t been brilliantly successful in countering Tehran and only occasionally efficient in bringing real pain to the mullahs and their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, who are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers since they first drew blood in Lebanon in 1983. But Pompeo, by redrawing the lines, clearly signaled that the United States wasn’t giving up, that a campaign of “maximum pressure” was still coming. It is clear now, however, that the secretary’s speech was a bridge too far for Trump, who may never have read it.
To be fair to the president: The administration’s developing approach was probably never his. A close read of Pompeo’s Heritage speech reveals the tactical quandary that has always been at the core of the Trump presidency’s approach. The secretary put forth a lot of “don’ts” for the regime: “Iran must end support to Middle Eastern terrorist groups, including Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad … respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government … end its military support for the Houthi militia [in Yemen] … must withdraw all forces under Iranian command throughout the entirety of Syria … end support for the Taliban and other terrorists in Afghanistan … cease harboring senior al-Qaeda leaders … and end its threatening behavior against its neighbors.” But he did not clearly indicate that the United States would do anything to punish the Islamic Republic for its malign actions other than use sanctions.
It is an excellent guess that Pompeo, Bolton, McMaster, and Haley were willing to apply more pressure than just sanctions, and would have given speeches to that effect if they’d been allowed to do so. Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who was more reticent about committing U.S. troops to an anti-Iran mission, would have likely been more forward-leaning if he had trusted Trump to stay the course in Syria and Iraq. All these officials certainly agreed that U.S. forces in Syria, which don’t cost much and have incurred few casualties, should stay. Those troops and civilians were the hinge of long-term Iranian containment—a low-cost use of American soldiers, backed up by allied European special-operations units, that had checked the advance of much larger and more costly Iranian, Russian, and Syrian-regime forces.
To their credit, Pompeo, Bolton, McMaster, Haley, and Mattis removed the rhetorical legerdemain surrounding the reasons for American troops being in Syria: They were there to squash the Islamic State and prevent its rebirth, and they were there to check Russia and Iran, which controls Syrian-regime ground forces as well as the indispensable foreign Shiite militias. This American engagement was easily the best bang for the buck that Washington had gotten in the region since 2001.
Nor were Bolton, McMaster, Pompeo, Haley, and Mattis operating outside congressional authorization: At any time, Congress could have cut off funding for U.S. forces if it thought they were straying too far from their original mandate. Congress didn’t do so. Syria may be the one locale where congressional Democrats and Republicans largely agreed about the use of American military power. And if the president were ever serious about rebuilding a transatlantic alliance against the Islamic Republic, Syria was the place to do it.
But Trump just couldn’t buy in. It’s ironic that the president snapped when discussing Syria with Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who is modern Turkey’s first real Islamist ruler and certainly not a friend of the United States. The president’s tweets are a muddle: At one moment, he thinks the Islamic State is destroyed, and therefore our soldiers can come home; at another, he suggests that ending the Islamic State isn’t even America’s business because the group is aligned against the Syrian regime, Iran, and Russia. (“Why are we fighting for our enemy, Syria, by staying & killing isis for them, Russia, Iran & other locals?”) All one can conclude is that the president just wants out of Syria, regardless of the consequences. Even more than Obama, Trump is post-post-9/11.
Which leaves the administration’s Iran policy centered on sanctions. Sanctions have many things going for them as a foreign-policy tool. Against Iran, they eliminated the surreality under Obama of the United States returning money that could be used to support the clerics’ imperialism for, at best, a short-term surcease to our nuclear anxieties. Tehran now has tens of billions less in hard currency to further its ambitions than it did when Trump took office. And Trump was right: Iranian aggression abroad got much worse after the nuclear deal was concluded.
But sanctions aren’t strategy. If they encourage Americans to stop thinking about the other factors required to counter the Islamic Republic, they become a delusion, an appealing, inexpensive choice for those not quite ready to admit they no longer have the intestinal fortitude to play hardball in the Middle East. Without the complementary use of other instruments of national power, they serve the same purpose that nuclear diplomacy and the JCPOA did for Obama: They are cover for our continuing retreat.
When Trump won the presidential election, Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, speculated on the potential upside of his victory: Trump might actually follow through on what he’d preached—an American withdrawal from the Middle East. Surrounded by Bolton, Pompeo, and Mattis, Trump’s promise seemed to dim. But Khamenei, who is the most accomplished dictator in modern Middle Eastern history, in part because he can see and exploit the weaknesses and strengths in both his enemies and friends, appears again to have seen his adversary correctly: Trump’s desire to be done with the Muslim Middle East (and so much else) is deep.
And unlike the Iranian cleric, who imbibed radical European literature and melded it to the revolutionary Islamist ethos of his heroes, Sayyid Qutb and Ruhollah Khomeini, Trump has no grand vision. He has the sense of a populist politician who knows America will, without leaders arguing otherwise, always go with less, not more, in foreign affairs. Trump has gutted and left powerless his senior officials, who have tried hard to give some coherence and mundane effect to his waves of emotion and disconnected data points. It’s hard to think of a time when an American president has so publicly stripped his most senior advisers of their credibility.
Although Khamenei didn’t say so, it’s a good guess that if given the choice between dealing with American sanctions or America staying in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, he’d take the former. Trump’s withdrawal has severely weakened his own Iran policy, signaling boredom, fickleness, fatigue, and fear. He’s weakened American allies in the region and probably obliged the Kurds who fought with us in Syria to seek protection from Iran and Russia. The great Iranian-American tug-of-war, which has defined so much of Khamenei’s life, may well be over. It is odd and wry that many Americans, on the right and left, may believe that what is good for Khamenei could possibly be good for the United States, too.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served as a Iranian-targets officer in the CIA, and is the author of Know Thine Enemy: A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran. Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive officer for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he heads its Center for Sanctions and Illicit Finance. Follow Mark on Twitter @mdubowitz, and follow @FDD, @FDD_CSIF, and @FDD_Iran. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.