Lebanese security forces and Hezbollah agents next to the remains of a missile that landed in the Lebanese town of Rayak, near the country’s border with Syria, on Feb. 10. (Hassan Jarrah/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

President Trump, although delighted to make a meaningless show of disapproval by “decertifying” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, hasn’t made substantial changes in the U.S. policy toward Iran. Middle East veteran Dennis Ross observed: “The great irony is that Trump has not yet established practical policies that match his words.”

The administration put out some tough-sounding reports and uttered some robust language, but has largely done very little because Trump is fixated on the JCPOA — commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal — to the exclusion of other issues. Anti-Obama venom and base-pleasing politics are most of what he cares about, and doing other things is hard and requires both a deft touch and understanding of the region — neither of which Trump possesses. Ross noted:

While symbolism clearly counts for something, it needs to be backed by substance lest it lose its meaning. Arms sales to the Saudis were announced with great fanfare but have not yet materialized—and may not anytime soon. The president has said that his administration aims to counter or contain Iran, especially in the region, where the Saudis perceive an Iranian attempt to encircle them and dominate Arab regimes — but where has the United States actually done this? Not in Syria, where Iranian expansionism is most clearly taking place. Not in Yemen, where Saudi officials described how Iranian-provided missiles are increasingly being fired by the Houthis against Saudi cities. While the administration is shining a spotlight on Iranian arms transfers to the Houthis, it is not actively interdicting those shipments, even though two United Nations Security Council resolutions — 2216 and 2231 — prohibit such transfers.

So what can be done?

Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute made a plea for a comprehensive policy toward Iran aimed at limiting its reach within the region. He suggested the United States “should wage an Afghan [mujahideen-style] covert war against Iran in Syria, strengthen Iraq so that it can stand independent of Iran, broker a power-sharing agreement in Yemen to extract our [Gulf Cooperation Council] allies and help evict the Iranians, develop covert and cyber tools against Iran itself but hold them in reserve, all while looking to preserve but supplement the JCPOA.”

As for the JCPOA, Pollack comes out where I do — we should have gotten a better deal, but leaving it now would be foolish:

I was deeply disappointed by the JCPOA, believing that the Obama administration could have and should have gotten a much more stringent deal.  I also think that the Trump administration is right about its most important weaknesses: the sunset clauses that allow Iran to revive its nuclear program in 7-12 years, and a complex inspections process that creates lots of room for uncertainty.  . . . Nevertheless, I remain convinced that it would be a mistake for the United States to unilaterally abrogate or violate the agreement.  Its flaws notwithstanding, we cannot lose sight of the fact that (a) the JCPOA has significantly constrained Iran’s nuclear activities, and (b) the rest of the world strongly favors it and could well break with the United States if we gut it.

I would add two components to that.

First, we should do more to expose Iran’s atrocious human rights record and apply sanctions to pinch the regime where it hurts. Mark Dubowitz and his colleague Saeed Ghasseminejad explained that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, “runs a multibillion-dollar corporate conglomerate to fund his political patronage networks. His three most valuable possessions are the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order, or EIKO; the Mostazafan Foundation; and the Astan Quds Razavi. These businesses have an interest in nearly every Iranian industry and are worth approximately $200 billion, according to our estimates.”

Dubowitz and Ghasseminejad therefore recommended:

While these entities are far from transparent, the U.S. knows enough to target them with sanctions. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies has identified 146 Khamenei-owned companies and 144 executives and board members associated with these companies. The Trump administration can use the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act of 2016 to isolate the Khamenei business empire, freeze its assets, and penalize international companies that enrich the Iranian regime.

That seems like a no-brainer.

Second, the president needs to address the real possibility of a war on Israel’s northern border, stemming from emboldened Hezbollah forces operating in the region with cover provided by Russia. It is remarkable that the president seems not to have noticed a dramatic escalation. Ross recounted:

Early Saturday morning, Iran crossed a threshold in trying to carry out a direct attack against Israel from Syria. Using its T-4 airbase in Homs province — a base used by the Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its head Qassem Soleimani — the Iranians launched a stealth, armed drone into Israel.

Perhaps hoping to surprise the Israelis, the Qods Force was itself surprised when the Israelis not only intercepted the drone but also attacked the base and destroyed its command center and mobile launch vehicle. Advanced surface-to-air missile batteries supplied by the Russians to the Syrians then opened fire against the Israeli aircraft, and an Israeli F-16 was shot down in Israeli airspace. In response, Israel destroyed SA-5 and SA-17 missile batteries in Syria, with Israeli planes hitting 15 targets in all.

This can quickly spin out of control. Unlikely as it may be, Trump (or someone) needs to brush back Russia. “Now is the time for him to say that there will be no more Russian air cover for any Shia militia expansion from existing positions; without the Russian air support, the Qods Force advisors with the Shia militias, including Hezbollah, would be very vulnerable,” Ross noted. “The U.S. can make it more likely that Putin will decide it is in Russia’s interest to step up by conveying a long overdue message: If Russia will not act to contain the Iranian presence, the U.S. will no longer sit on the sidelines as the Iranians continue their expansion.”

This is where the president could rally the Europeans to impose more sanctions on Iran. (Leaving the Iran deal alone for now would improve the chances of gaining European Union support.)

Unfortunately, what we got from the State Department was a mealy-mouthed statement that could have been drafted by the previous administration:

The United States is deeply concerned about today’s escalation of violence over Israel’s border and strongly supports Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself. Iran’s calculated escalation of threat, and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk.

To his credit, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) condemned Iran’s actions. Unfortunately, he did not urge any particular action to pressure either Iran or Russia. Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who is already in the region — to make a stop in Israel to confer on this. (In a rare rebuke of the Trump administration, the Jerusalem Post chided the lack of U.S. concern: “Tillerson has been remarkably silent in the wake of Israel’s recent escalation with Syria and Iran. He has not so far confirmed that he will reroute his current visit to the Middle East to include a stop in Israel. His not planning to visit Israel in the first place is a testament to his disengaged style.” It’s also a testament to Trump’s apparent lack of interest in formulating a coherent Iran policy.

If President Barack Obama were letting Iran metastasize in the region and conduct operations aimed at Israel, Republicans would certainly demand strong action. Unfortunately, as with so much, most of them are inclined to disregard Trump’s failures of leadership, even when they echo Obama’s.