US Foreign Policy

The Iran Dilemma Facing President-elect Trump

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Editor’s note: This analysis is part of 2017 Presidential Inbox — an ongoing Stimson Center series examining the major global challenges and opportunities the Trump administration faces during its first 100 days in office. Click here to read the full series.

By Barry Blechman and Ellen Laipson

THE CHALLENGE: The next president will face the challenge of Iran that is different from what every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has faced. From the Iranian revolution of 1979 until the July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany, the U.S. had had virtually no official contact with the country. In 2017, the challenge is more textured: how to sustain the international achievement of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state, while addressing Iran’s other activities in the Middle East that threaten key U.S. interests and partners, particularly in Syria and Iraq. After Russia, China, and North Korea, Iran is likely to present the new administration with some of the hardest national security choices: ratcheting up tensions with Iran over its conventional and asymmetric activities will run the risk of further destabilization of the critical Gulf region, and maintaining the nuclear agreement alone — a worthy goal on its own merits — will not suffice to reduce Iran’s efforts to change the status quo in the region.  

THE CONTEXT: The U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran have essentially been in conflict, punctuated by a few violent incidents short of war, since the Republic’s founding and seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Iran’s revolutionary leaders seek to change the regional power structure, and resent the dominant security role played by the United States. They have also challenged, rhetorically at least, the regional system led by major Sunni Arab states by asserting that their Islamic Republic represents an alternative, pan-Islamic model. Yet over the nearly four decades since the revolution, Iran has also suffered from political isolation, profound insecurity, and economic mismanagement. Iran is geopolitically a country of great consequence and potential, but has been a relatively weak actor — often focused on its complicated domestic politics, rather than its ambition to be an effective agent of change in the region. Its greatest national security success has been the creation of Hizballah, the quasi-independent political and military force of Lebanese Shia now operating in Syria and training militia in other Arab countries. 

American security partners in the region, particularly Israel and the Gulf Arab States, perceive Iran as a grave threat. While the Obama administration worked to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear capable state in part to respond to the deep anxieties in the region, the agreement was a source of great controversy. For many, the successful negotiation of the agreement (JCPOA) brought Iran’s progress toward developing nuclear weapons to a screeching halt, imposed conditions on Iran that make it extremely unlikely that progress could be resumed without significant warning over the 10+ years the agreement is intended to be in force, and in return, lifted many of the trade and financial sanctions the U.S. and most other nations had imposed on Iran and which were crippling its economic development.

But others, including President-elect Trump during the campaign last year, argued that the agreement was flawed because it did not permanently remove the nuclear option from Iran and did not address other aspects of Iran’s conduct.

So far, the deal seems to holding.  It is, nevertheless, a narrow agreement stopping only nuclear weapons related activities. The agreement does not deal either with Iran’s aggressive pursuit of broader political/military objectives in the region nor its development of other kinds of weapons, including ballistic missiles.

Even if the new team takes some time to develop an alternative and tougher strategy for Iran, there are immediate practical issues related to the U.S. commitment to the agreement that will need to be addressed. Most important is U.S. support for economic transactions with Iran that have emerged from the partial lifting of sanctions. If President Trump ends U.S. participation in the agreement, such a move would deny initial trade deals made by American companies, especially a pending large order for Boeing aircraft. Such a decision would work at cross purposes with other Trump priorities related to jobs and the U.S. domestic economy. An early decision to suspend U.S. implementation would also create a crisis in relations with the other countries that are parties to the agreement, and those countries could well take advantage of the new business opportunities, to the benefit of European and Russian energy and airline industries.

After forty years of an adversarial relationship between the U.S. and Iran, it is also not clear that Iran can or would be persuaded to reconsider its ties to its various Middle East partners, from friendly governments in Damascus and Baghdad to non-state actors in several states, of which Hizballah is most significant. A U.S. strategy to change Iran’s calculus may require positive as well as negative incentives; some believe that finding a few distinct areas for cooperation with Iran might be more effective in establishing a more productive give and take in this long-fraught relationship than a confrontational approach. In the end, a true normalization of U.S.-Iran relations may not be achievable as long as the revolutionary leadership still dominates the country’s politics. But, reducing prospects for regional conflict and deterring Iran from aggression against the U.S. and its key partners in the region may be a more realistic set of objectives for the U.S.

PRAGMATIC STEPS: President-elect Trump would do well to take the following steps on Iran during his first 100 days in office:

  1. Conduct a thoughtful review of Iran policy, drawing on a range of views from government and non-government experts. Consider Iran’s likely response to any new American strategy and determine what course of action might best convince Iran to comply with its international obligations and to reduce tensions with its neighbors.
  2. Take no action in the first 100 days to suspend or cancel U.S. commitments to the July 2015 nuclear agreement. Work to ensure that Iran is adhering strictly to the terms of the agreement by working closely with the other signatories and the IAEA (and providing additional resources to the latter).
  3. As part of a comprehensive review, develop new policies to address Iran’s roles in Syria and Iraq.  Determine whether the new Russian-led diplomatic process in Syria will address core American interests, and how to proceed with the Syrian opposition forces. On Iraq, sustain American engagement with the government in Baghdad; that is the best way to balance and limit Iranian influence there. 
  4. Sustain security cooperation with key regional partners, Israel, Jordan, and the Gulf states, to deter Iran and to demonstrate our commitment to their security — and to the campaign against the Islamic State.
  5. On Iran’s ballistic missile program, work with other countries to limit Iran’s access to critical components, and to bolster the missile defenses of neighboring countries, but try to manage the issue so that it does not exacerbate regional tensions and lead to a dangerous new arms race.
  6. Allow existing channels for civil society engagement between Americans and Iranians; show support for cultural and educational exchanges that improve the image of the U.S. in Iran, and create communities of shared interest for the long run. 

Barry Blechman is Co-founder of the Stimson Center. Ellen Laipson is Distinguished Fellow and President Emeritus at Stimson. 

Photo credit: Christiaan Triebert via Flickr
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