Donald Trump has a well-articulated strategy toward Iran. Like almost every other Republican candidate for president in 2016, he argued that President Barack Obama empowered Iran at the expense of America’s traditional allies and its own vital interests. Trump has implemented instead a policy of containment.
When critics claim that his strategy lacks an “endgame,” they are really expressing nostalgia for the clarity of Obama’s vision. The Iranian regime, Obama told us, was moderating, it was willing to dispense with its ambitions to become a nuclear weapons state and was eager to stabilize the Middle East in cooperation with the West. Taken together, these trends inevitably led to an attractive endgame: strategic accommodation between Washington and Tehran.
This vision, however, was a mirage. Events in Syria during Obama’s administration gave us a preview of the true consequences of his strategy. Out of a misguided belief that recognition of Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest would transform Tehran into an agent of stability, he made no attempt to counter the provocative new moves that Iran and Hezbollah made to save the Assad regime.
This miscalculation allowed Iran and Russia to form a military alliance that bears primary responsibility for the deaths of over half a million Syrians and the displacement of well over 10 million more.
Trump’s strategy does not permit him to define a clear endgame. A containment policy does not seek war but will not shrink from it if provoked. Nor does it seek regime change. Rather, it recognizes that a transformation of Iranian politics is an essential precondition for a strategic accommodation between Washington and Tehran.
In the meantime, if the Iranians remain determined to launch suicidal attacks on the United States and its allies and disrupt the oil supply, we can’t necessarily stop them — but we can make them pay an exorbitant price, while also ensuring that they never acquire nuclear weapons.
In short, Trump has replaced the clarity of a mirage with the messiness of reality.