The United States Needs a Clear Strategy to Roll Back Iran
National Security Advisor John Bolton stated recently about Iran, “it’s our intention to squeeze them very hard.” But to what end? The Trump administration has been admirably tough on Iran but vague about its objectives and has insufficiently acted upon its rhetoric. It needs a clear, concise, consistent and consequential Iran policy: “prevention and rollback.”
The Iran threat has always had two main elements: nuclear and conventional. President Trump’s policy on the former is clear: “prevention.”
He declared in October 2017, “we are determined [Iran] will never obtain nuclear weapons.” He correctly left the Iran nuclear deal in May because “we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed on Oct. 10 to the Jewish Institute of National Security of America (JINSA) the administration seeks a “permanent solution to ensure that Iran never has the capacity to have a nuclear weapon for all time, in any form.”
The administration has been less clear on Iran’s conventional threats.
In May, Pompeo made twelve demands of Iran that boil down to three noes – no nuclear program, no regional aggression, no domestic oppression – but stated no U.S. objectives. Pompeo offered in August that U.S. policy is “to change the Iranian regime’s behavior,” and in October, speaking to JINSA, for Iran to “behave like a normal nation.”
Equally vague has been how the U.S. would achieve this goal. In May, Trump planned to “block” Iran’s “menacing activity across the Middle East,” and Pompeo aimed “to deter Iranian aggression.” At the United Nations, in September, Trump asked world leaders to “isolate Iran’s regime.”
All these words – “block,” “deter,” “isolate” – accept the status quo of Iranian influence, but resist its further expansion. Obama administration officials used similar language to signal a policy of containment.
As conceived by George Kennan, containment sought to block Soviet expansion and contribute to the Soviet Union’s ultimate demise through the active use, over many years, of U.S. military, economic, diplomatic, psychological and other pressures.
The Trump administration’s apparent containment policy against Iran appears far more limited in conception and scope. It mostly involves economic sanctions – though not yet to the maximum—which, though vital, are insufficient.
Containment requires a credible deterrent, which is missing right now. The Trump administration has repeatedly—most recently Saturday—condemned Iranian test-firing of ballistic missiles but has done nothing beyond ineffective sanctions to stop them. It has twice retaliated against Iran-backed Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, for example, but with little impact on Assad’s position. There are roughly 2,300 U.S. Special Forces in Syria, but they are focused on ISIS, not Iran. There is currently no U.S. aircraft carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf, and the Pentagon has withdrawn Patriot missile batteries from the region. Tehran doubts the sincerity of U.S. threats.
A better policy than containment would be, to borrow another Cold War term, “rollback.” Rather than accepting Iran’s destabilizing gains, the United States should actively reverse them. This would weaken Iran’s regional position, boost U.S. credibility and leverage, give the administration a stronger hand to negotiate a new, better nuclear deal, and it might just intensify pressures the Tehran regime is already feeling from its own citizens.
This approach need not involve additional American boots on the ground. One of Iran’s vulnerabilities is its over-extension and dependence upon regimes that rule failed artificial states from Lebanon to Yemen. The U.S. should provide political and military support to forces opposing these regimes, just as Ronald Reagan, whom Pompeo and other senior administration officials revere, did in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. And Iran isn’t as formidable as the Soviet Union was.
For example, the U.S. should not just, as Pompeo said on Oct. 10, ensure the Syrian Kurds, our most reliable anti-ISIS ally, “have a seat at the table,” but also expand assistance for their forces, offer them protection, and make clear America supports at least their autonomy. This would block Assad’s and Iran’s expansion in Syria, interfere with Iran’s land-bridge for supplying weapons and forces, and stymie the increasingly unfriendly Turks.
The staunchly pro-Israel Trump administration should also assist Jerusalem’s active campaign against Iranian entrenchment in Syria and its preparation for a significant defensive war against Iran and Hezbollah. It would advance America’s interests to: bolster Israel’s military capabilities, including frontloading the 10-year military aid package agreed under President Obama; raise the level of our supply of weapons, military technology and intelligence to Israel; and make clear we will stand by Israel in any major confrontation with Iran.
Secretary Pompeo recently wrote about the need for “new diplomatic paradigms,” a “new framework,” and “disruptive boldness.” Administration policy should back such rhetoric, beginning with not seeking, as Obama did, to contain Iran or accept its regional dominance. To prevent a nuclear Iran, an aggressive Iran, an oppressive Iran, we need a comprehensive approach to roll Iranian forces and its proxies back to their borders.
Originally appeared in The Hill on December 3, 2018.