After months of speculation and counter-speculation, US President Donald Trump has unveiled his long promised “new strategy on Iran.” The 1370-word text released by the White House on Friday morning is likely to surprise many, at times for opposite reasons.
The first to be surprised are those, especially in Europe, who feared Trump to behave like a bull in a china shop, bent on nothing but wanton destruction for the sake of making some noise. That hasn’t happened. Carefully crafted, the text avoids using diplomatic jargon for obfuscation and, instead, opts for clarity.
Next to be surprised are those who goaded Trump to beat the drums of war and send the Marines to Tehran. However, Trump’s new strategy aims at a sophisticated and measured use of American economic, diplomatic and, yes, military power in pursuit of carefully defined objectives rather than mere saber-rattling of the kind former President Barack Obama, remember his “all options are on the table”, specialized in.
Finally, there will also be surprise on the part of those, especially the “New York Boys” in Tehran who hoped and prayed that his efforts by their American apologists, led by Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry, would prevent Trump from trying to tackle the totality of relations with the Tehran, an issue that has dogged seven US presidents since 1979.
The first feature of the Trump text is its avoidance of the syrupy jargon of diplomatic deception. Unlike Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush who spoke of “goodwill breeding goodwill” or President Bill Clinton who talked of “welcoming the aspirations of the Iranian people”, Trump states his objectives in stark terms: “The United States’ new Iran strategy focuses on neutralizing the Government of Iran’s de-stabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.”
This simple sentence throws out many shibboleths of US policy on Iran. It does not say it hopes to “moderate” Iran’s behavior, as Carter, George W Bush, Clinton and Obama did. It says the aim is to “neutralize” it. It also abandons the childish claim that Iran’s aggressive behavior is the work of “certain groups within the Iranian regime”, and not the totality of it, as President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif claim.
More importantly, it abandons the distinction that Obama and Kerry tried to portray between Tehran’s backing for outright terrorist groups and the so-called “militant” ones such as the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah and the Palestinian branch of Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas). Without openly saying so, Obama implied that some of the “militant” groups financed and armed by Iran may not be as bad as terrorist outfits that Tehran supported. Trump rejects that illusion.
Also surprised would be those who expected Trump to behave like the lone-ranger by acting alone. The text, however, makes it clear that in implementing the new strategy, Trump is seeking broad coalitions both inside the United States, Congress, and in the international arena. The text reads: “We will revitalize our traditional and regional partnerships as bulwark against Iranian subversion and restore a more stable balance of power in the region.”
By highlighting the topic of “subversion” and the need to restore “a more stable balance of power” the new strategy offers a broader vision of relations with Iran, beyond the narrow and heavily fudge disuse of the nuclear deal which, put in context, is presented as no more than a part of a larger jigsaw.
The jigsaw also includes “gross violations of human rights” and “the unjust detention of American citizens and other foreigners on spurious charges.” In other words, Tehran must understand that taking foreign hostages is no longer risk-free.
Beyond regional and European allies, the text envisages putting American diplomacy in higher gear to garner support from “the international community”.
The new strategy also does something that previous US Presidents tried to ignore: the fact that a regime’s foreign policy is the continuation of its domestic policies. If a regime violates its own laws and oppresses its own people it is also likely to ignore international law and try to harm other nations.
A section dealing with the nature of the Khomeinist regime establishes a direct link between “exporting violence and terrorism” to “undermine the international system” and “oppressing the Iranian people and abusing their rights.”
All along the target in this new strategy is the “revolutionary” persona of the regime and not Iran as a nation-state. This is why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is directly named and singled out for punitive measures while Iran’s national army, part of Iran as a nation-state, is not. Again, targeting Iran as “revolution” and not Iran as “state” the text names the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei as responsible for “exporting violence, and oppressing the Iranian people.” There is no mention of Rouhani and his Cabinet or even the Islamic Majlis , the parliament, which are supposed to represent Iran as a “state”.
All in all the Trump text cites nine major grievances against Iran that the US intends to address. These include Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus “against the Syrian people”, “unrelenting hostility towards Israel” and “threatening freedom of navigation” in the Strait of Hormuz.
This last point is of special importance because previous US administrations have tried to temporize with it as best as they could.
Even when Iran captured a number of US Marines in international waters in the Gulf, President Obama took no punitive action; instead he released $1.7 billion of Iran’s frozen assets as a sort of unacknowledged ransom.
The list of Tehran’s misdeeds also includes Iranian intervention in Yemen, the attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington and Iranian attempts at subversion against the United Arab Emirates.
The text asserts: “The previous Administration’s myopic focus on Iran’s nuclear program to the exclusion of the regime’s many other activities allowed Iran’s influence in the region to reach a high water mark.”
This “holistic” approach to the “problem of Iran” could be seen as a challenge to both sides. But it could also be seen as an opportunity for both sides to abandon the incremental method and seek an all-encompassing dialogue covering all their mutual grievances.
If an opportunity could be cited it is because the new strategy does not call for a change of regime in Tehran, something the Khomeinist establishment has always feared. The text says the aim of the new strategy is “to bring about a change in the behavior of the Iranian regime.”
Advocates of a tough line on Iran might see that as a repetition of the pious hope expressed by all US administrations since 1979. However, if we go beyond the surface of that statement we would see that the detail measures required for Iran to change its behavior would, in time, transform the present regime into something quite different. In other words, the concept of “regime change” is not cited directly. But what is presented as “change within the regime” could be a huge step in that direction.
Apologists of the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action (JCPOA), or the nuclear deal, may find it difficult to pursue their policy of trying to isolate Trump if only because the US leader is not setting himself directly against the controversial agreement as such. Instead, he points to Iran’s repeated violation of its pledges, as most recently testified by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Director Yukio Amano with regard to inspection of certain military sites in Iran. Nor could the Europeans ignore the fact that Iran’s testing and deploying of medium and long-range missiles violates the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which is often cited to give some legal aura to the JCPOA.
Because JCPOA is not a treaty and has not been signed by anyone and not ratified by any legislature, there is no mechanism for leaving it in any formal way. Thus Trump didn’t need to say that he has denounced JCPOA. Yet, he has indicated that JCPOA must be amended so as to fill its loopholes. Iran is also required to fulfill its pledges, including the ratification of the Additional protocols to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Trump does not “leave” the CJPOA in a formal manner because there is no mechanism for doing so in a bizarre text that has no legal validity. It leaves it suspended in a fog of uncertainty, where it was born in the first place.
Trump’s text makes it hard for the leadership in Tehran to devise a strategy to counter it. Had he renounced the CJPOA in a formal way, Tehran leaders could have cast themselves as victims of “Imperialist bullying”, and deployed the Europeans, led by EU’s foreign policy tsarina Federica Mogherini to fight their corner. Now they cannot do that because all that Trump is demanding is a more strict application of the measures that the EU and others say they mean to defend.
That leaves Tehran with the choice of either unilaterally denouncing the CJPOA, for example by claiming that it cannot allow unrestricted inspection “suspect sites” in its territory, or trying to open a dialogue with the US through the EU or even regional mediation. However, first indications are that Tehran will not formally denounce the CJPOA, preferring to keep the fig-leaf behind which it can hide its true nuclear intentions.
Tehran would also find it hard to vilify the US because of the new strategy the bulk of which is devoted to highlighting the sufferings of the Iranian people. The reference to IRGC’s business activities and alleged networks of corruption and extortion will also be popular among Iranians who, rightly or wrongly, believe that the military has used its position for personal enrichment, something President Rouhani has even publicly mentioned.
The new US strategy is certain to dampen foreign, especially European enthusiasm, for investing in Iran because Trump could refuse to suspend sanctions or even ask the Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran. Iran will find itself in a limbo, never a comfortable place to be in, with all the hype that Rouhani made about the nuclear deal proving to be hollow.
The October 15 deadline for Trump to recertify or de-certify the JCPOA will end soon after the publication of the new strategy. But what matters in the longer run is the new strategy itself.
The worst case scenario after the publication of the new strategy is that Iran and the US will be put on a direct collision course with the risk of at least limited military clashes.
The best case scenario is that both sides admit that they cannot resolve the problems that have dogged them for four decades through incremental and, ultimately, superficial measures and that the only way ahead is the quest for a grand bargain which would require a redefinition of Iran’s place in international politics.
Both options, best and worst, have powerful advocates in Tehran and Washington, advocates who could sabotage either or both.