To win on Iran, Trump should take a page from Reagan's diplomatic playbook
Trump administration's 'forced diplomacy' with Iran isn't working
If President Trump's announcement of recent targeted sanctions against Iran is an indication of White House Iran policy mayhem, we are in trouble. In his announcement, President Trump actually referred to the wrong ayatollah - Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, instead of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader.
Recent sanctions against individuals in Iranian leadership are more symbolic. Iran's Supreme Leader supposedly does not have financial assets in Western accounts. Sanctions will not affect him. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led Iran's delegation to negotiate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Targeting him with sanctions is yet another gesture of the Trump administration's contempt towards the nuclear deal.
To Iran, U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA signaled lack of good faith and gave Iran a reason not to trust the United States. At the same time, White House decisions are giving Iran's regime reason to chip away at the JCPOA as well. In fact, the regime seems to be taking gradual steps towards violating uranium enrichment parameters. Some might say that Iran has little choice, especially given U.S.-led regime change in Iraq (2003). The Trump administration's unsuccessful attempts to get North Korea to denuclearize are further lessons learned for Iran's leaders. They take notice.
The decisions that the Trump administration has taken regarding Iran might be ways and means to try to get Iran to the negotiating table. However, it is a bizarre and unconventional methodology of "forced diplomacy," and it is not working. Even Japanese President Shinzō Abe's attempts to intercede did not yield results, in terms of substantive U.S.-Iran diplomacy.
White House policy and strategy apparently is fraught with internal bickering among hawkish advisers, a number of whom appear to want to trigger a war with Iran, while President Trump seemingly opposes it. This became evident when the president withdrew military assets at the eleventh hour, in response to Iran's shooting down an unmanned U.S. drone.
Pulling back from attacking Iran could negatively affect U.S. credibility. No one is really buying the explanation that potential casualty calculations - 150 people - led to Trump's decision to pull back. After all, the Trump administration carried out air strikes against Syria's Assad regime in April 2018 when evidence of chemical weapons emerged. The Trump administration also is fully engaged in supporting the Saudi-led coalition fighting in the genocide in Yemen, despite Congress's efforts to cease U.S. involvement in this humanitarian catastrophe.
Here too, we see no clear objectives and strategies from the United States and her allies in the Persian Gulf. All we see and hear is that Iran is causing nearly all the problems in the Middle East. Clearly, the Iranian regime and its proxies are troublemakers - but they are not the only ones. Nor are they the only entities supporting terrorism, destabilizing countries, building up militaries, crushing pro-democracy activism, repressing journalists, detaining and torturing activists, and causing humanitarian and refugee crises. There are many actors pulling strings behind the curtain besides the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The recently imposed sanctions can be described as an effort to save face politically after the U.S. military pull-back. The Trump administration is compelled to show some muscle; if not military force, then at least something punitive. But this has made the Iranian regime angrier and less inclined to talk with the United States - the ultimate failure loop for both sides, particularly if the goal is to force the parties to the negotiating table, which still remains unclear.
Finally, we cannot overlook the fact that Russia's Vladimir Putin likely is acting behind the scenes on behalf of Iran and its ally, Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Putin has publicly stated that a U.S. war with Iran would be catastrophic, so it would be interesting to know whether Iran is among the topics he and Trump plan to discuss if the two leaders do meet this week at the G20.
One thing is certain: The last thing the Middle East needs is more weapons and wars. What it needs the most is good faith conflict resolution, for the near and long term. So far, no one has shown sincere efforts towards achieving that goal. The goalposts keep changing, and the public is left wondering what's going on - and why.
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She specializes in international relations, political economy, comparative politics with regional expertise in Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies. The views expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter @HayatAlvi.