Donald Trump has the Islamic Republic of Iran in his sights. Three months into his presidency, Iran is emerging as a major priority for the new administration. Within the disarray of an unusually chaotic start, the contours of an approach that emphasizes confronting Tehran across a variety of arenas is beginning to take shape.
This has come as something of a surprise, including to some within Iran. Trump’s views on Iran did not feature prominently into his unorthodox campaign for president. Along with every other Republican candidate, he indulged vociferously in ritualistic condemnations of the Iran nuclear deal. However, in contrast to his rivals, he seemed to signal restraint by promising to renegotiate the agreement rather than simply tear it up. And the initial signs that Trump may in fact leave the deal intact have generated hopes of continuity in U.S. policy toward Tehran.
But neither restraint nor continuity on Iran is really in the offing. By design or default, Trump has elevated a national security team that shares an Iran-centric interpretation of the problems that plague the Middle East and threaten vital American interests there. Their preoccupation with Iran is driven by the conviction that the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach toward the Islamic Republic empowered its leadership and extended its reach across the Middle East.
The logic of the emerging Trump doctrine on Iran essentially inverts Obama’s: The former president gambled on greater engagement as a means of taming Tehran, and saw the hard-won nuclear agreement as proof of the concept. For the deal’s critics, including Team Trump, the prospect of Iranian moderation is an illusion; any incremental gains in setting back Iran’s nuclear program via the deal are offset by the concessions that purchased them and the intensification of Iran’s regional reach that followed. They are convinced that only the application of American power can deter Iran’s most dangerous impulses.
They are convinced that only the application of American power can deter Iran’s most dangerous impulses.
On this singular issue, the new administration is in lockstep with the Republican majority in Congress, as well as with many Democrats who share a conviction that the United States should do more to check the diffusion of Iran’s regional sway. And the apparent American readiness to take on Tehran has already received a warm welcome from Washington’s allies across the Middle East, where Obama’s outreach to Iran incited some sense of betrayal of the traditional U.S. partnerships with Israel and the Gulf states. Trump’s visit there later this month—his first foreign visit since taking office—is already taking on the air of a victory rally among the authoritarian Sunni states of the region.
Bolstered by bipartisan support and regional affirmation, the Trump administration has begun to replace accommodation with confrontation as the guiding principle of U.S. policy toward Tehran, seeking to counter Iran through a multi-front campaign of diplomatic, economic, and military pressure.
Here’s the catch—the Trump mindset on Iran finds its analogue within Tehran, whose leaders have long been convinced of the immutability of American belligerence and are prepared to respond in kind. With mutual hostility, suspicion, and a determination to demonstrate strength ascendant in both capitals, an escalation of U.S.-Iranian frictions will be difficult to avoid and potentially even more difficult to contain. The success or failure of the Trump strategy hinges greatly on Iran and its domestic politics; the outcome of the May 19 presidential election could make or break the administration’s efforts to turn the tables on Tehran.
TRUMP TAKES ON TEHRAN
Iran’s emergence as an object of Trump’s hyperkinetic focus owes something to domestic politics. For nearly four decades, the Islamic Republic has provided a reliable bogeyman. Few American politicians would shy away from the opportunity to thump their chests toward a government that hurls cartoonish invectives while sowing chaos across the region. For the Trump administration, Iran holds a special significance—the 2015 nuclear deal represented the seminal foreign policy breakthrough of President Barack Obama, whose approach to the world Trump has deemed “a total failure.”
But turning up the heat on Tehran is not purely, or even mostly, about politics. While the Islamic Republic has a long and complicated history of regional troublemaking, its engagement in conflicts across the broader Middle East has intensified in dangerous ways over the past five years. Tehran’s cultivation of Shiite militias drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, together with its burgeoning strategic partnership with Moscow, has stoked sectarian backlash and upended the precarious balance in the regional order.