Donald Trump does not have an Iran policy. This was clear on October 13, when his administration released its “Iran strategy fact sheet.” The most noteworthy thing about it was the complete absence of a strategy. Instead, Trump’s team spent nine months compiling what was little more than a list of grievances. Fast-forward two months, and they’ve done it again with the release of their first National Security Strategy (NSS). Iran is mentioned 12 times – with hostility a clear theme, and often clashing with other listed priorities, in addition to concrete details remaining scant. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Three stand out.
First, the NSS rhetoric on diplomacy does not match reality. “Diplomacy is indispensible,” says the Trump administration document. And yet, on a macro level, it has slashed the State Department budget, slow-rolled filling top jobs, and produced an alarming number of resignations. On a micro level, there has been a diplomacy deficit vis-à-vis Iran over the past year. Trump’s team has spent more time talking about Tehran with the Israelis, Saudis, and Emiratis than it has talking to Iran – despite inheriting multiple channels of communication from the Obama administration. Very few bilateral meetings have occurred, and disarray in Washington makes it unclear to the Iranians (and frankly, most of the world) who a credible interlocutor is besides Jared Kushner.
No less troubling is NSS language on the stale notion of “peace through strength.” Ignoring for a moment that its post-9/11 practical application has instead resulted in “peace through war,” the Trump administration says it will “ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power.” In the Middle East, this almost certainly refers to Iran. Refusing to accept some form of Iranian power is a tacit rejection of spheres of influence, and Trump is the first U.S. president to accept full-scale the Israeli-Saudi-Emirati vision for security in the region. This is a recipe for disaster, as evidenced in Yemen, Qatar, Lebanon, and Jerusalem. Blind faith in the efficacy of military power – despite all regional evidence to the contrary – has a clear track record of breeding further temptation to put that power to work.
These concerns are deepened by the NSS emphasis on “military overmatch.” Endless political and economic resources are being dumped into what is already the world’s largest military budget by a mile. This, combined with the destruction of America’s diplomatic corps, means U.S soldiers – not diplomats – will likely be tasked with sustaining “a favorable balance of power” in the Middle East (read: “rolling back” Iran). That does not jive with the proclamations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who says America will confront Iran diplomatically rather than militarily. Nor does it produce off-ramps to avoid the cycle of escalation that will likely ensue, which in turn can produce the military confrontation he ostensibly seeks to avoid.
The NSS typically fleshes out the logic behind measures that an administration is adopting. Not this time. On Iran, Trump’s NSS is little more than a continuation of his “do the opposite of Obama” obsession. No greater insight is provided into what that will actually mean over the duration of his presidency. Trump also blew yet another opportunity to absorb wisdom from international stakeholders – the vast majority of which urge him to revert back to Obama’s strategy. In the Middle East, almost every issue has deteriorated on Trump’s watch. If the NSS is any indication, we can expect U.S. efforts vis-à-vis Iran to get worse before they get better.