In Search of an Iran Strategy

The United States needs an Iran strategy. The Islamic Republic has been so troubling to so many U.S. policymakers across such a wide array of issues for so long that it would be irresponsible not to have one. Similarly, Iran needs a U.S. strategy. U.S. antagonism not only presents the pre-eminent threat to Iranian forces, but it has shaped the way the entire world understands Iran.

Now, it feels like neither country has such a strategy. The United States has a set of policies to punish Iran and a set of ambitious goals for changes in Iranian behavior, but the path between the two is anything but clear. Iran, for its part, seems befuddled by the Trump administration. The regime that has long been used to being a disruptive factor in world affairs is now confronting a president who not only has a love of unpredictability, but who also seems especially enamored of the awesomely powerful arsenal at his disposal.

The danger is that in the process of jostling each other, the two governments fall into a set of actions that neither seeks and which harms both. Even if neither side can see a clear path to solving the problems between them, each should recognize that a path of mitigating hostility is likely to provide a better outcome than the available alternatives.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump campaigned on the idea that the Obama administration allowed Iran to have a normal economy without being a normal state. In his view, Iran could continue its regional proxy wars and support for terrorism and only needed to put its nuclear weapons program on a brief hiatus, and the world would pour billions of dollars into the Iranian economy. President Trump’s announcement in May 2018 that the United States would no longer abide by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) started the clock to re-impose direct and secondary U.S. sanctions on Iran. The first set went into effect on August 7, with the second set to come into force on November 4.

Other than punishing Iran and weakening its government, it is unclear that the Trump administration has a strategy in mind. There seems no set of criteria to determine the sanctions’ success. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined a list of 12 demands that any new deal with Iran must contain that is as breathtaking in its ambition as it is unachievable. The overt ambition seems to be an Iranian surrender to the United States, which is politically and ideologically unthinkable to the Islamic Republic. If it has a covert intent of collapsing the government, there is little reason to think that the public would support a pivot toward the United States, or that a successor government would seek to do so.

Outside of Iran, U.S. sanctions seek to take millions of barrels per day of Iranian oil off the market when there is no immediate substitute available, spiking prices for consumers and encouraging defiance of the United States. While most European allies’ companies are winding down Iran operations, China, Russia, Turkey, and India have many more options and seem likely to pursue them. The United States has myriad issues with all of these countries. It seems unlikely that Iran sanctions will lead the agenda when there is so much competition for primacy.

Iran is also in an unenviable position. The rial has plummeted in value, sparking widespread dissatisfaction. Pragmatists who sought a less confrontational relationship with the outside world have been humbled, and hard-liners who argue that the world is irredeemably hostile to Iran have ascended. Yet, there are a few signs that the government is at risk or that the security services have lost their grip. There is no revolutionary fervor, and there is no visible alternative for the population to favor.

The Iranian government seems inclined to wait out the Trump administration, but doing so means years of financial pain—not only until the president leaves office, but also until a successor is in place and has concluded a new set of negotiations with Iran. That probably means at least four years, and not just two. Within that time, Iran will have to undergo its own political transition, as President Rouhani’s term will end and the search for a successor to the ailing Ayatollah Khamenei may be concluded.

Under pressure, Iran seems most likely to do what it has often done—pursue low-cost, high-yield regional adventures that defy clear attribution but remind adversaries of Iran’s ability to disrupt, and which invite incentives to discontinue. Iraq, in which the United States has invested more than a trillion dollars and into which a rising amount of Saudi and Emirati money has been flowing, seems a likely arena for increased conflict. Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and arguably the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, are all countries where Iran has assets on the ground and the West has interests at stake.

Part of the Iranian calculus will surely be how to antagonize outside powers without inviting all-out war. There is little question that should it decide to fight Iran, the United States could decimate much of Iran’s conventional capability in short order. But another disturbing scenario is possible. That is that Iran creates conflict in the Middle East that stops short of outright provocation. The United States, looking to reduce its presence in the region, provides a measured response that raises pressure on Iran, which the regime uses in turn to rally the population around the flag. The outcome is a more secure government in Iran, a more unstable Middle East, and a United States that both bears the blame for Iranian recalcitrance and has surrendered the ability to rally the world. The loser in that scenario is the United States, and not Iran.

The United States would be better served by a more modest policy of incentives and consequences with a bold destination and a clearer idea of how to get there than the current policy offers. The Iranian government considers the U.S. government as unalterably hostile. Hoping that it might fold might make some Americans feel good. At the same time, though, it plays into the hands of Iran’s most malign actors.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program