The Trump administration has finally broken with the conventional wisdom of managing the Iran problem—a view its predecessors held for years—and decided to take a more aggressive approach. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. But has it, really? While this shift of attitude is admirable, on the policy level, America’s strategy is virtually nonexistent.
So far, there are four important pieces of documents that directly deal with Iran: National Security Strategy (NSS), National Defense Strategy (NDS), the White House Iran “strategy,” and the Iran “strategy” outlined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And these latter two are not much more than lists of demands and outlines of Iran’s aggressive behavior. So while they may be helpful as diagnostic tools, they don’t contribute much to the strategic thinking about how to attack the problem.
While the Middle East seems to attract most of Secretary Pompeo’s attention, and while National Security Advisor John Bolton spent most of his time after leaving the Bush administration talking about Iran and the Middle East, the NSS and the NDS both actually downplay Iran relative to the other threats America is facing. Among the five prominent national security threats—China, Russia, North Korea, terrorism, and Iran—Iran is mentioned the least at the NSS. The NDS, similarly, takes an approach known as 2+3, which recognizes China and Russia as the two first-tier threats and the three others as comprising a second tier
White House and Pentagon official documents stand in contrast to Secretary Pompeo’s rhetoric about Iran. Secretary Pompeo talks about the Iranian threat quite a bit. But the official documents signal to Iran that they are low on the list of the administration’s concerns. The optimistic interpretation of this mixed-message is that it might create strategic ambiguity which paralyzes the mullahs. The pessimistic view is that it may give the Islamic Republic the impression that it has a wider latitude than it initially appears. If you are looking for reasons to be pessimistic, note that following the inauguration of President Trump, Iran’s navy ceased its harassment of the American Navy. It has recently resumed its harassments. So far, there have been no repercussions for this aggressive probing.
Without a strategy plan, the administration has instead focused on tactical questions by imposing extra sanctions on Iran. But to what end? On the one hand, a weak economy translates into more domestic dissatisfaction with the regime. But the administration has said that regime change is not its policy. Of course, regime change is only one option, but the administration has not provided clue as to what its broader strategic goals are. What is the role of the U.S. military in containing, deterring, and coercing Iran? To what extent do we want to involve our allies? How supportive are we willing to be to the Iranian opposition domestically and abroad?
And understand that the situation in Iran is fluid. The Iranian economy is tanking; there are ongoing protests and strikes; the supreme leader has stage-4 cancer and his coming death is likely to set off a succession crisis. In both cases, there are plenty of potentials for the United States to exploit during the regime’s most vulnerable moments.
The Trump administration deserves credit for being willing to publicly break with the Iran policies of the Bush and Obama administrations, both of which amounted to kicking the can down the road.
But that rhetoric needs to be hung around a framework of strategic means and policy objectives. After decades of theocratic rule, the Iranian regime is entering a dangerous period and may well be vulnerable. But America won’t be able to take advantage of this opening without a clear understanding of what we want to achieve and how we will pursue those objectives.