Tuesday 28 February 2017

Trump quietly laying foundation of a sensible Iran policy

In the midst of the usual Washington cacophony, most are missing the point that the Trump administration is beginning to lay the foundations of a sensible Iran policy. The Islamist regime that has been busy over the past few years brandishing a narrative of success with its triumphs in the region seems unsettled by the tough-talking new Trump team. An uneasy Iran is likely to be a hesitant one, hunkering down until the storm passes. It is the Trump administration's task to ensure the storm lingers over Tehran.

This is not the first time the theocratic regime has faced a hard-hitting American adversary. The well-honed Iranian strategy of dealing with such challenges is to behave with caution until the United States gets distracted by another crisis and then to resume their nefarious activities in full force. It is a formula that has historically served the regime well, as Iran and its machinations have not remained an important priority for even hawkish administrations with too many other entanglements.

In the aftermath of their revolution, the clerical oligarchs were relishing their moment of vengeance as they emasculated the U.S. by holding its diplomats hostage. A confused Carter administration seemed incapable of either negotiating the release of the hostages or freeing them through a military raid.

However, underneath their triumphalist rhetoric, the mullahs did take notice of President Ronald Reagan, a hawkish Republican promising to restore U.S. power. Reagan's scathing critique of Carter's handling of the hostage crisis may not have emboldened the hapless president but did leave an impression on Iran. Shortly after his election, the hostages were released. The stormed passed. The Reagan White House became preoccupied with a truculent Soviet Union and rebuilding U.S. defenses, leaving Iran aside. Washington failed to take advantage of its own success of scaring the mullahs straight.

The next president that cast a menacing shadow over Iran was President George W. Bush. The three-week U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 shocked Tehran. The Bush indictment of states that engaged in terrorism and pursued weapons of mass destruction petrified Iran. The theocratic state was then, as it is today, the leading sponsor of terrorism and was surreptitiously building a nuclear weapons infrastructure that was soon unveiled by a dissident group. The Iranian response was to engage in negotiations with Europeans and suspend their nuclear program.

Once more, the storm passed. The U.S. became bogged down in the sectarian civil war in Iraq, and Iran soon resumed not just its nuclear activities, but also savaged the U.S. military through the lethal Shia militias that it trained and the munitions that it exported to Iraq.

Trump is the latest president to have unsettled the guardians of the revolution. One of Iran's most cagey and clever politicians, Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, offered an intriguing assessment of the Trump presidency and once more insisted on circumspection. Salehi cautioned that the Trump administration is composed of an array of factions and Iran should not transform itself into a unifying point among these groups, for "this could be very dangerous."

In the face of American determination, Iran is likely to lower its horizons and may even prove compliant on issues such as adhering to its nuclear obligations. Soon, the mullahs hope, budget fights, tensions in the South China Sea, the Islamic State, and other issues will eclipse Iran and they can once more intensify their malign activities. It is such judiciousness that has made Iran one of the longest-standing regimes in a turbulent Middle East.

The task at hand for the Trump administration is to build on its initial success and to develop a systematic and disciplined approach to Iran that will not be distracted by other competing mandates. Despite its grandiose pretensions, the Iranian regime is disdained by its neighbors. A state whose primary instruments of power are terrorism and subversion and whose closest allies are Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not have too many adherents in the region. Still, the clerical regime's principal vulnerability remains at home as it rules over a restive population tired of its cruelty and corruption.

The U.S.'s objective in the Middle East should be to shrink Iran's imperial frontier while pressing it at home. This means the tough task of reconstituting the battered sanctions regime while developing an understanding with Europeans regarding restrictions on trade and technology outside normal sanctions channels. It means refurbishing the alliance with Sunni Arab states and Israel. It means pressuring Russia to distance itself from its alliance of convenience with Iran.

Most importantly, it means recognizing that Iran remains the primary cause of disorder and instability in the Middle East and can never be a responsible stakeholder.

These will be difficult challenges for a Trump administration that is subject to relentless and often unfair criticisms from the press and the loyal opposition. The fact that Trump has put in place one of the most capable national security teams in recent memory is lost on his critics as is their initial successful foray into Iran policy. Still, it is a challenge that the administration may well be up to.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.



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