Commentators might become alarmed that Trump’s rhetoric will set off a rhetorical escalation that leads to increasing conflict on the ground in the Middle East tinderbox. Instead, we should be more concerned that we have no Iran policy to speak of and, in fact, are encouraging Iranian aggression by our passivity in Syria and indulgence of Iran’s ally Russia.
Aaron David Miller, a veteran of Middle East negotiations, tells me: “One of my former bosses, George Shultz, used to say that when you don’t have a policy, the temptation grows to give a speech, or in Trump’s case to tweet. We have no coherent Iran policy.” He explains: “We can’t change the regime; won’t talk to them; won’t challenge them in Syria, let alone confront them unilaterally. And so we’ll re-impose sanctions waiting and hoping that by some miraculous process, the regime will collapse and all our Iran problems will be resolved. And if you believe that, I have an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to sell you.”
The North Korea negotiations, if you believed Team Trump, were supposed to demonstrate to Iran how tough we were on nuclear proliferation. Trump, in fact, got nothing, gave Kim Jong Un a PR win and undermined the U.S. pressure campaign against North Korea. Tehran has been watching Trump’s belly-flop in Singapore and his obsequiousness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who continues to support Iran’s operations in Syria. As Steven A. Cook put it: “The uprising that began in [the town of Daraa] on March 6, 2011, has finally been crushed, and the civil war that has engulfed the country and destabilized parts of the Middle East as well as Europe will be over sooner rather than later. Bashar al-Assad, the man who was supposed to fall in ‘a matter of time,’ has prevailed with the help of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah over his own people.” Cook continued: “Lest anyone believe that this was a policy particular to U.S. President Barack Obama and his aim to get out of, not into Middle Eastern conflicts, his successor’s policy is not substantially different, with the exception that President Donald Trump is explicit about leaving Syria to Moscow after destroying the Islamic State. While the bodies continued to pile up, all Washington could muster was expressions of concern over another problem from hell.”
Furthermore, Trump’s erratic conduct has only strengthened the hand of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. A Washington Institute for Near East Policy report observes:
With some justification, the IRGC claims it saved Assad. More important, the force is widely seen to its friends — nimble at intervening quickly, able to mobilize many fighters, and potent on the battlefield. Many accept the IRGC’s claim to have defeated the United States in Syria: Washington insisted Assad had to go, and Iran insisted he had to stay. The resultant state of affairs is dangerous — at a time when Iran is torn by debates about how to resolve the many crises it faces, the IRGC can argue that its path works best. The IRGC can, and does, correctly point out that Iran’s self-styled reformers/technocrats have proven unable to end the country’s isolation. Their strategy of a “nukes only” deal (and a weak, time-limited deal at that) did not work. By contrast, the IRGC can argue that its strategy of resistance has worked at achieving its objectives, especially in Syria. To be sure, Iranians resent the cost, but in the end, success sells — at least to the Supreme Leader and the key decision-makers, whose prime concern is defending the revolution. More generally, success in war gives legitimacy and rallies people around the government.
And so long as the “IRGC is riding high, the U.S. government cannot achieve the twelve objectives Secretary Pompeo outlined on May 21,” a long wish list of unattainable objectives that many experts believed amounted to regime change, at best a long-term prospect.
Middle East expert Dennis Ross explains that “it will be hard for the administration to re-create the pressures that existed when we had the whole world joining in our pressure campaign. Then Iran could not do business in the international financial system and could not sell a significant part of its oil. Today, the Chinese will not stop buying Iranian oil — though they may insist on discounted prices. The Europeans will probably cut back purchases even as they try to preserve the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” He adds: “Bottom line, the administration has no real counter-strategy in the region; instead their policy is basically sanctions-driven. It is up to the Israelis to counter them in Syria, counting on Russia to give them a free hand.”
The lesson learned in Tehran from 18 months of Trump foreign policy chaos is clear: Trump is a blowhard, a paper tiger. The lesson the IRGC learned is that there is no reason to curtail its hegemonic activities in the region. No matter how many tweets Trump sends, Iran’s aggression in the regime continues; its economy is weak, but it’s better than it was when the West was united in support of a sanctions regimen. Iran has successfully split the P5+1 (thanks to Trump) and sees no real downside to its regional adventurism. Former ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman tells me that it isn’t wise “to elevate that by responding with a presidential tweet. Particularly since it will certainly be compared to the ‘fire and fury’ statement and the result of that which was the Singapore Summit and the North Korean stonewalling that has followed.” He concludes, ” It is never good for the president to issue a bellicose threat if he really isn’t prepared to follow it up with action.” This is not the portrait of a coherent, let alone successful, policy for Iran.