Avoiding Disaster Doesn’t Make Trump’s Iran Policy a Success
Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The consequences of President Donald Trump’s decision last Friday to order the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani have not been as disastrous as many observers initially feared, leading some of Trump’s supporters (including his biggest fan, himself) to describe the events of this week as a victory for the president and his Iran policy. That Trump is able to win praise for failing to provoke a catastrophic war is a sign of just how low he has set the bar for success. Taking a broader view, however, his strategy for containing Iran remains a failure, even on its own terms.
Trump ran for president in 2016 pledging to undo all the work the Obama administration had done to get Iran to verifiably halt its nuclear-weapons program, calling the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “the worst deal ever negotiated” and proposing to pull out of the deal, reimpose crippling economic sanctions on Iran, and use that leverage to negotiate a better deal. A campaign of “maximum pressure,” he and the Iran hawks in his administration argued, would deter Iran from continuing its proxy wars and sponsorship of terrorism throughout the Middle East, force Iran back to the negotiating table to sign a more stringent nuclear deal, and perhaps even help foment a popular uprising against the Iranian government, leading to regime change from within.
Ever since Trump kicked off this new strategy by ditching the JCPOA in 2018, it has not only failed to achieve its goals, but in some respects had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of tamping down its regional proxy activities in response to Trump’s pressure campaign, Iran stepped them up (though, in fairness, they had not abated while the deal was in place, either). Rather than capitulate to Washington’s demands for a new nuclear deal and some sanctions relief, Iran has evaded sanctions and resumed some of its nuclear activity — including reopening its Fordow uranium-enrichment center on Wednesday as part of its reaction to Soleimani’s assassination.
In other words, while Trump’s sanctions have taken a severe economic toll on the Iranian people, their government is more active in regional conflicts and closer to resuming its nuclear-weapons activities today than it was before Trump scuttled the nuclear deal. Tensions between Washington and Tehran are at a historic high, and the risk of open war, which Trump has repeatedly stated he wishes to avoid, has increased substantially. When it comes to bringing Iran to heel and preventing violence, Trump’s strategy is plainly failing on both counts.
For the Iran hawks in the Trump administration, those failures were all to the good, as they would eventually frustrate the president until he felt he had no choice but to launch a full-scale war on Iran. For these officials, the escalatory measure of killing Soleimani was intended to backfire and snowball into direct conflict. Even that dangerous ambition does not appear to be in the offing, however, as Iran’s response, a barrage of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases hosting U.S. forces resulting in no casualties, appears to have successfully shown force against the enemy and avoided providing Trump with a casus belli.
Insofar as Trump’s strategy was bearing any fruit, it was in stirring political unrest in Iran. In recent months, the country has seen political unrest at its greatest scale since the revolution of 1979, sparked by rising gasoline prices that were in part a consequence of Trump’s sanctions. Soleimani’s death, however, has presented the regime with an opportunity to muffle opposition and rally the country around a martyred hero and against the American aggressor. While many Iranians despised Soleimani, and much of the mourning was ginned up by the regime, the reaction to his death on Farsi-speaking Twitter was much more negative than positive. Time and again, Iranians have proven that concern for the integrity of their country comes before their opinions about the government, and they will back even a regime they hate against a belligerent foreign empire whose president threatens to bomb their cultural heritage to smithereens.
Killing Soleimani has not been a strategic win for Trump, either, however his sycophants try to spin it. It was an unnecessarily provocative way to combat Iran’s regional influence, which Soleimani was already squandering on his own, and will make it that much harder for pro-détente Iranian politicians (if there are any left after this) to make the case for reopening talks with the U.S. It has harmed our alliances in the Middle East and Europe, which suits Russia just fine. It has perhaps irreparably damaged our relations with Iraq and could force American troops to withdraw from that country, leaving it in the hands of Iran and setting back the effort to clear out the remnants of the Islamic State.
In some sense, it is overly generous to say that Trump has an Iran strategy at all. The administration appears not to have thought through the potential downside risks of its plan of action and to have no contingency plans for when things go awry. In that respect, Soleimani’s assassination and its aftermath keenly illustrate a fundamental contradiction that causes Trump’s foreign-policy initiatives to fail: He believes that with great power comes great leverage. Because the U.S. is by far the most powerful country in the world, we should get whatever we want from everyone else, all the time.
The fact that this is not true keeps tripping Trump up. Here, he has run into a situation in which he has all the hard power in the world, but little ability to influence Iran’s behavior. Escalating tensions and threatening war have not succeeded at browbeating Tehran into compliance; they have only encouraged new forms of intransigence. This path does not lead to a peaceful resolution of the crisis he has created.
Trump alone will decide how this chapter of the American-Iranian conflict ends. He can make good on his threat to attack Iran on its own soil, launching a full-scale war; or he can offer the Iranians a framework for a new nuclear deal that they can actually accept, which would probably look similar to the deal he tore up in 2018. As long as both options are anathema to the president, we will remain locked in a frozen conflict, neither going to war nor making peace. For the time being, that may be the best we can hope for.