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Trump, Iran and American Power

Walter Russell Mead

America’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and relocation of its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem send an unmistakable signal about the emerging Trump foreign policy: The administration wants to enlarge American power rather than adjust to decline. For now at least, the Middle East is the centerpiece of this new assertiveness.

For President Obama, Iran’s rise was an unavoidable fact. Confronting Iran meant risking a war even bigger and uglier than the one in Iraq. Mr. Obama wasn’t only personally opposed to such a war, he believed that neither Congress nor public opinion would sustain it. The era in which the U.S. could dominate the Middle East was over; the wisest course was to negotiate an arrangement that would protect core U.S. interests and cover for an American withdrawal.

The Iran deal, President Obama and his supporters believe, accomplished all that and more. By taking the nuclear issue off the table, at least for the time being, the agreement averted the danger of a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation. Moreover, it weakened hard-liners inside Iran by undermining their core argument that Iran faced an external threat requiring permanent social mobilization even as it strengthened moderates by tying the country ever more closely to the world economy. If supported by the West, the Obama administration believed, moderates would gradually consign the Islamists to the political fringes.

From this perspective, the deal was a masterstroke of diplomacy. Its supporters now fear that Iranian and American hard-liners, energized by the failure of their more accommodating rivals, will steer the countries toward a policy of confrontation ending in war—and that the result of this war will be to accelerate rather than retard American decline in the Middle East and beyond.

President Trump’s approach is different. His instincts tell him that most Americans are anything but eager for a “post-American” world. Mr. Trump’s supporters don’t want long wars, but neither are they amenable to a stoic acceptance of national decline. As to the wisdom of accommodating Iran, Team Trump believes that empowering Iran is more likely to strengthen the hard-liners than the moderates. As Franklin Roosevelt once put it in a fireside chat, “No man can tame a tiger into a kitten by stroking it.”

The Trump administration believes that far from forcing a U.S. retreat, Iranian arrogance and overreach in the Middle East have created a golden opportunity for the assertion of American power. It hopes the emerging alliance of Arabs and Israelis will give America local partners who are ready to bear many of the risks and costs of an anti-Iran policy in exchange for American backing. Israeli air power and Arab forces, combined with the intelligence networks and local relationships the new allies bring to the table, can put Iran on the defensive in Syria and elsewhere. This military pressure, along with economic pressure from a new round of sanctions, will weaken Iran’s hold on its proxies abroad and create political problems for the mullahs at home. If they respond by restarting their nuclear program, Israeli-American airstrikes could both stop the process and inflict a humiliating blow to the regime’s prestige.

At that point, Team Trump believes, Iran will be faced with a different kind of negotiation, one in which the U.S. and its allies are in a position of strength. In addition to accepting limits on its nuclear activities, optimists hope, Iran would also scale back its regional ambitions. Syria’s future would be determined by the Arabs, Iran would accept Iraq as a neutral buffer state between it and the Sunni Arab world, and an uneasy peace would prevail.

This approach might be unpopular with America’s European partners, but it resonates with the Middle Eastern allies on whose support the strategy depends. The Trump administration recognizes that, and its strong backing of Arab and Israeli priorities—President Sisi’s government in Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, the Jerusalem embassy—reflects the demands of coalition diplomacy. Expect more of this. Rewarding useful allies is a cornerstone of the Trumpian approach to foreign policy. The more active America’s Middle East allies, the smaller the risk of heavy American engagement in a Middle East ground war.

The administration has now made its intentions clear. It seeks a neo-American era in world politics rather than a post-American one, and it has chosen the Middle East as the testing ground for its new approach. The biggest questions the new national security team must now ask itself are: How deeply, and for how long, is the president committed to this approach—and will he continue to support it if, as often happens in the Middle East, something goes wrong?
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