While the Obama administration pursued accommodation with Iran in the belief that its government was rational and deterrable, the Trump administration has opted for a path of containment predicated on a darker view of the Iranian leadership. Of the two schools of thought underlying these differing policies, the former has been weakened.
THE DEBATE OVER IRANIAN INTENTIONS
Western proponents of an accommodation with Iran, while rarely crediting Iranian assurances that the Islamic Republic does not seek a nuclear weapon, have often argued that this aspiration could be contained by diplomatic negotiations. Iran, in this telling, was merely seeking to “extend its power” in rational ways. Furthermore, they argued, even should the country eventually acquire nuclear weapons, the same logic of deterrence which had prevented nuclear exchanges in the Cold War might still hold true. The Iranian regime remained “distinctly non-suicidal” and “guided by a cost-benefit approach,” as a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate stated.
Opponents of this view have argued that in key respects, the mutual deterrence model of the Cold War does not align with Middle Eastern realities. The Cold War featured two highly professional militaries with extensive non-nuclear capabilities, large nuclear arsenals with assured second strike capabilities, and excellent lines of communication both internally and to one another. Should Iran obtain nuclear conditions, none of these conditions would apply. Iranian nuclearization would likely spawn new nuclear programs in several Middle Eastern countries. In this polynuclear Middle East, most nuclear arsenals would be relatively small and without an assured second-strike capability, while most conventional capabilities would remain relatively weak. This could render nuclear weapons the first, rather than last, line of defense, and increase pressure on Middle Eastern militaries to “use or lose it.” Likewise, the Iranian system of decision-making is often opaque — even to Iranians — while leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Jerusalem have ample reason to harbor deep suspicions of Iranian intentions. In such a landscape, it is easy to imagine limited nuclear exchanges, potentially costing millions of lives, arising from sheer miscommunication.
The rhetoric of senior Iranian officials, moreover, has called some Cold War-era assumptions about nuclear deterrence into question. For example, the highest levels of Iran’s leadership have made statements which appear to reject the logic of “mutually assured destruction” as a deterrent. In 2001, Ayatollah Rafsanjani famously declared that a nuclear strike on Iran “will only harm the Islamic world,” whereas one directed at Israel “will destroy everything.”
THE ROLE OF IRANIAN EXPANSIONISM AND MILITARISM
Such rhetoric, viewed together with Iran’s voyeuristic policies in the Middle East and beyond, bespeaks an aggressive power not easily deterred.
Consider Iran’s regional posture since 2012, when it launched a military intervention in Syria that has been crescendoing ever since. The IRGC-led restructuring of the Syrian military, combined with the shift in power within Syria to a vast web of Iran-backed sectarian militias, enabled the Assad regime’s reconquest of wide swaths of the country, perpetrating several atrocities in the process. As recently as 2016, the head of the Iranian military, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, even announced Iran’s willingness to send hundreds of thousands of Basij to fight in Syria.
As the Syrian conflict enters its pacification phase, the behavior of Iranian-aligned forces has come to resemble something not far from colonization. In reconquered areas, Iran is offering Syrians cash, food, Iranian ID cards, public services, and free education, “The goal is to re-create the Persian empire,” said Muneer al-Khalaf, a member of the City Council of Raqqa. Iranian forces on the ground have reportedly gone so far as to encourage locals to convert to Shi’ism. “From every family you find one or two people who have become Shiite,” according to one local. “They say they do it so they can find jobs or they become Shiite so they can walk and no one bothers them.”
In Iraq, the IRGC has undertaken a similar process since 2014. After ISIS threatened to capture Najaf and Karbala, the Qods Force undertook an enormous effort to elevate Shi’ite militias willing to serve as proxies. These include Harakat al-Nujabah -- whose leader publicly stated his willingness to overthrow the Iraqi government if Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered it -- and Asa’ib Ahl al--Haqq, whose leader, Qays al-Khaz’ali, is now a prominent member of the Iraqi parliament.
Meanwhile, in the last nine months, the Iranian Defense ministry has tested at least five new types of short and medium-range tactical ballistic missiles as well as cruise missiles. It began in August 2018, when the Fakour and Fateh Mobin missiles were unveiled and has continued with the testing of the Dezful ballistic missile in February. Each of these missiles has a range of over 600 miles, placing most of the Gulf well within their reach. According to General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace program, the IRGC plans “to carry out more than 50 missile tests each year.”
The rationale for these tests may be inferred from Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency, which released a video threatening the capitals of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with missile attacks. A voiceover from the Supreme Leader proclaimed, "A heavy punishment is underway." Senior regime officials have also threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, an economic lifeline for the entire GCC.
THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S TURN TO CONTAINMENT
Temperamentally and ideologically, the Trump administration was inclined to take a dim view of both the Iranian leadership and of President Obama’s optimistic assessment of the JCPOA’s potential to block Iran’s path to nuclearization. Secretary of State Pompeo noted that the agreement “failed to end the country’s nuclear ambitions” and instead has “boosted the economic fortunes of a regime that remains bent on exporting its revolution abroad and imposing it at home.” President Trump himself famously, and repeatedly, condemned the agreement as “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”.
And so over the last several months the Trump administration has rolled out a series of initiatives designed to maximize pressure on the Islamic Republic. These began with the withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, continued with several rounds of sanctions on key regime figures, and crescendoed this week with the administration’s decision not to renew sanctions waivers to key US allies and to designate the IRGC a terrorist group. The goal of these measures has been to bring Iranian oil exports to zero and to bankrupt key elements of the regime. In addition, National Security adviser John Bolton has reportedly asked the Pentagon to develop military options for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
By all indications, neither Tehran nor Washington is yet prepared to blink. The Trump administration has redoubled its commitment to containing Iran through economic pressure, while the Ayatollahs look to the forthcoming 2020 presidential elections in the U.S. and hope they can ride out the storm.