President Donald Trump doesn’t have many policy accomplishments to claim, and in foreign affairs his successes are particularly sparse. If there were one region of the world where American interests have been advanced under his leadership, however, it would be the Middle East. When he came to power, the dynamics of the region were reshuffling. Thanks to Iran’s bid for regional hegemony and America’s gradual withdrawal, the Arab states and Israel were already aligning to contain Iran. The Trump administration deserves credit for accelerating that process and weakening Iran’s capabilities.
Yet, although the Trump administration put pressure on the Iranian regime for the time being, it achieved no durable successes. For all its targeted killings, threats, sanctions, and other tactics, the administration had no Iran policy.
The administration has failed to contain Iran militarily or push back against its regional proxies: It didn’t kick Iran’s military out of Iraq and Syria, and the U.S.-sponsored Saudi-UAE coalition has failed to win the Yemeni Civil War against the Iran-backed Houthis. There have been successful clandestine operations to sabotage Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities, almost certainly conducted by the Israeli intelligence with a nod from the United States, and a few cyberattacks against Iran’s military installments, albeit with little significant strategic cost for Iran. But for all of the Trump administration’s isolated blows and jabs, the Islamic Republic is now closer to making a nuclear weapon than when Trump entered office, and its foothold in the region has not weakened as the United States is gradually departing the Middle East.
Despite the administration’s stated desire to negotiate a new agreement with Iran after the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran never budged. America’s anti-Iran coalition includes Israel and the Arab autocracies, while no European or Asian country has joined the alliance. Despite Iran’s violationsof the JCPOA, the United States has failed to persuade other parties—the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China—to withdraw. It also failed to convince the U.N. to extend the conventional arms embargo that expired two months ago.
The one constant in the Trump administration’s approach to Iran was economic pressure. Regardless of other developments, opportunities, and crisis in the relationship, the administration continuously squeezed the Iranian economy.
After Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, both Iran-hawks, replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and H.R. McMaster as national security advisor respectively, the administration went on offense against Iran’s economy. Soon after Bolton’s ascent to power, the United States announced its intent to withdraw from the JCPOA and a series of unprecedented sanctions, most importantly against Iran’s oil exports.
The administration maintained that regime change was never a policy, though manyspeculated that it was. Bolton is an outspoken proponent of regime change. Rudy Giuliani, a member of the president’s kitchen cabinet, is also a regime change advocate. Faced with mixed signals, Iran’s regime assumed the worst and girded itself against an attempted overthrow.
In the first year of the Trump administration, the Iranian regime faced the most violent popular uprising against its authority to that point. The Trump administration was caught off guard and failed to capitalize on the opportunity. The protests were suppressed for the time being, having accomplished about as much as the Green Movement protests early in Obama’s first term—i.e., nothing.
In November 2019, protests erupted again, surpassing the intensity and size of the 2017 demonstrations. The regime disconnected the internet for a week and killed at least 1,500 protesters. If the administration’s plan was to spark protests to bring change, it failed catastrophically, as it had no plans to help the protests beyond presidential tweets. It had, purposefully or accidentally, sent signals that it intended to help topple the regime, but it had no plans to do so, nor, apparently, any idea of how to handle the mass protests that have become more common in the country since 2009.
Throughout its tenure, the administration resisted using the military against Iran. In May and June of 2019, Iran attacked five foreign-flagged tanker ships and shot down an expensive American drone in international airspace. There was no American response. In case the demonstration of diffidence was unclear, reports publicized that Trump called off a retaliatory strike on Iran as the planes were in the air, a demonstration of weakness that emboldened Iran. The next month, Iran detained a British tanker. In September, either directly or through proxies, it attacked the largest Saudi oil refinery and caused significant damage to Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity. For all its talk of strength and maximum pressure, the Trump administration’s passivity only succeeded in encouraging more aggression, piracy, and violence.
When, in the first days of 2020, the United States finally conducted an attack and killed Iran’s diplomat-general, Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s regime decided to engage in face-saving retaliation, warning Americans in Iraq about an incoming military strike to avoid American deaths. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted in English that “Iran took [and] concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.” “Concluded” was the keyword, a signal that it was time for de-escalation. The Trump administration complied and did not respond.
In the following months, Iran increased proxy attacks in Iraq, killing two Americans and one British servicemember. Iran’s policy was to compel the United States to withdraw from Iraq, and in September, CENTCOM Commander Ken McKenzie announced a reduction of U.S. forces.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran—and especially its threat of secondary sanctions on anyone doing business with sanctioned Iranian entities—slowly throttled the Iranian economy, forcing a decline in Iran’s military budget. Cut off from its more understanding European partners, Tehran turned to Beijing. Earlier this year, the news broke that Iran and China are nearing an agreement that will provide Iran with economic relief in return for military cooperation:
The document also describes deepening military cooperation, potentially giving China a foothold in a region that has been a strategic preoccupation of the United States for decades. It calls for joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development and intelligence sharing—all to fight “the lopsided battle with terrorism, drug and human trafficking and cross-border crimes.”
Preventing two sovereign states from an agreement between themselves is complicated. At the very least, it requires carrots that the Trump administration has been unwilling to give to Iran and the stick of credible military threat that the Trump administration has proven too weak, too disorganized, or both to use.
So the sanctions continued, slowly choking out Iran’s productive capacity but producing no other results.
Economic sanctions are neither a policy nor a strategy. For a policy to succeed, there first need to be clear objectives, which are thoroughly communicated with the adversary. Then, all levers of foreign policy must be coordinated to formulate and execute a strategy to obtain those objectives. The Trump administration never articulated a policy; or, if it did, the mixed signals failed to communicate it to the American people and America’s allies, let alone the regime in Iran. There was never a strategy beyond sanctions and one-off military operations.
The Trump administration built considerable economic leverage against Iran, but it never made any diplomatic effort to engage Iran and bring that leverage to fruition. This was partially because the administration hadn’t convinced Iran that it wanted to negotiate, rather than overthrow the regime—it is unclear whether the administration, while Bolton was there, had resolved that question internally. The other problem was that economic pressure on its own was not enough to compel Iran to negotiate, partly due to the administration’s failure to convince allies to join the sanctions regime—to say nothing of Russia and China.
The Trump administration crippled the Iranian economy. Yet, Iran is on the offensive in Iraq and Syria and has fought America’s allies to a draw in Yemen. In the free world, the United States failed to drive a wedge between its democratic allies and Iran, even though Iran is in violation of the JCPOA. Iran’s enrichment of uranium and accumulation of heavy water in the past two years have inched it closer to a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, Trump wasted two opportunities to overthrow the regime, doubling his predecessor’s record.
The Trump administration’s sanctions regime against Iran is yet another reminder that sanctions are an insufficient lever against autocracies, especially in the short run. Autocracies, unlike democracies, are not beholden to their peoples’ economic conditions to stay in power, and they can learn to live with sanctions. To the extent that Iran has changed its behavior, it has not been for the better.
Future administrations will be wise to remember that every policy should begin with a clear statement of the objectives to the American people, adversaries, and allies. Ambiguity is a weakness.
The Biden administration, however, should avoid reduccio ad Trumpum fallacy that everything Trump did is bad because Trump is bad. Returning to the JCPOA is alluring to the Biden team, but it is impractical. Iran is in violation, and the expiration of conventional arms embargo on Iran threatens the security of the United States and its allies.
The next administration should begin with a clear statement of its objectives with Iran, whatever they are. In advancing those objectives, it should use all levers of power—diplomatic, economic, and yes, even military. The Trump administration proved with the Soleimani strike that limited military action against Iran does not have to escalate to a full-fledged war.
The next administration should support future protests and dissents, continue to support sabotage spearheaded by Israel, and push Iran’s military out of foreign countries. Above all, the Biden administration would benefit from a credible threat of use of force against Iran’s key conventional and nuclear military establishments.
Most importantly, however, Biden should remember that every administration since Carter has tried and failed to change Iran’s behavior, and even when Iran was abiding by the terms of the JCPOA, its regional aggression accelerated. As Michael McFaul, who served at the National Security Council and as ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, recently observed, “We can and should negotiate with Iran on arms control. But no one should have illusions that bilateral relations will ever become normal as long as the theocrats remain in power.”