New Strategy on Iran Takes the Bull by the Horns
By Amir Taheri
October 13, 2017
London- 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
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
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
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
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.