When President Donald Trump sent off an all-caps tweet threatening Iran around midnight on Sunday, it set off a familiar cycle of aggressive remarks from Iranian officials, Republican lawmakers and others in the Trump administration. Behind the president’s bluster and GOP leaders’ eagerness to dust off old talking points about war with the Islamic republic, however, there is little indication that the Trump administration has a concrete strategy when it comes to Iran.
U.S. policy toward Iran is in fact an incoherent mess, foreign affairs analysts say.
In May, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal ― the multilateral agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief that is officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump described the JCPOA as “the worst deal ever” and repeatedly claimed he could broker a “better deal.”
But the administration has made little progress toward developing a new policy, according to expert observers. Trump officials appear to have spent more time rooting for regime change than laying out a coherent strategy, have displayed a lack of understanding about key aspects of the Iranian state, and have lost the support of many allies abroad.
“There is no clear objective, there is no clear timeline. There is only hope that massive pressure will push the Iranians to the brink of economic collapse and at that stage they would agree to capitulate,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the think thank International Crisis Group.
“That’s wishful thinking,” Vaez added, “because the Iranian economy is fragile but is nowhere near collapse.”
Iran’s leaders are also likely to resist this particular path forward. “The only thing the Iranian leadership feels is more dangerous than the sanctions themselves is surrendering to them,” Vaez said.
Trump’s strategy so far seems to resemble his initial steps with North Korea: adopting an extreme position threatening chaos and war before suggesting negotiations at a later date. But Iran is not North Korea, and the country’s domestic political divisions would make it very difficult to reach a deal that required greater concessions to the U.S. than those in the JCPOA.
“The options available for Iran are worse,” said Jarrett Blanc, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Obama administration official.
Indeed, Trump’s decision to walk away from the current Iran deal has aggravated a political shift in Iran that would complicate any efforts to strike a future deal ― especially one that would allow Trump to boast of bigger concessions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani invested much of his domestic political capital in pushing through the 2015 deal, and since the U.S. exit, he has been forced to placate hardliners who opposed the agreement in the first place.
“The [Trump] administration’s policy has already strengthened the Iranian regime’s internal cohesion,” said Vaez, but not necessarily in a direction that’s good for the U.S. “Rouhani has become more hardline, he’s moved to the right, and the hardliners have opened their arms to welcome him.”
In taking the U.S. out of the Iran deal, Trump has increased the threat that Iran will restart its nuclear program while simultaneously dismantling the framework for multilateral diplomacy. The president also drove a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, who have vowed to hold to the deal, leaving the U.S. isolated.
“We’re just not in a position to negotiate a grand bargain with Iran. We are not a trusted negotiating partner right now,” said Blanc.
In addition, Trump appears to be betting that Russia can convince Iran to pull back its militias in Syria, where they are helping to intensify tensions along the Israeli border and prop up Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. It’s a scenario that analysts and diplomats describe as a “fantasy” that ignores the immense resources Iran has spent embedding itself in Syria while overestimating Russia’s influence.
Foreign policy hawks, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and national security adviser John Bolton, are rallying around Trump now that the prospect of action against Iran is back in the spotlight. Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush and a prominent cheerleader for the Iraq War, appeared on Fox News to call for destabilizing Tehran in hopes of triggering regime change.
“There is a war party within the Republican Party,” said Blanc. “Trump has taken away North Korea, he has taken away Russia and what they’ve got at this point is Iran.”