On July 22, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed an audience that included many members of the Iranian diaspora. The speech focused on the Iranian regime as a danger to its own people and to US interests—kleptocratic, terroristic, and totalitarian. The accusations were specific and the language was strong which could indicate a harsh new anti-Iran policy, especially given the broader context of the US administration’s belligerence toward Iran. Secretary Pompeo’s speech was followed shortly by US President Donald Trump’s social media threats directed at the Iranian leadership.
Given this harsh rhetoric on Iran and the demands that it withdraw from Syria and end support for Hezbollah among other capitulations, it is unclear whether this language is meant to deter. It could also signal the start of a meaningful anti-Iranian pushback after eight years of de-escalation under the Obama Administration. However, this approach does not meet the criteria for effective deterrence, and there is no sign of a robust rollback strategy. Instead, it just looks confusing.
To be clear, Pompeo’s characterization of the Iranian regime is largely accurate. This author also does not see ‘regime change’—which, if we are to be honest, is what US demands amount to—as taboo. It is a policy goal that should be judged on the merits of the strategy employed and a cost-benefit analysis. Rather, there is a worrying tendency for the United States to define the Iran problem in a matter that highlights the urgency of confrontation, boast about its own capabilities, make demands amounting to regime change, and issue threats (including public ones)—all of which amount to the so-called ‘roll back’ strategy—without backing these up with effective policy.
Insofar as he alluded to specific US action, Secretary Pompeo announced:
- The re-imposition of sanctions on Iran’s banking and energy sectors
- The terrorist designation of the Bahraini Shia militia organization Saraya al-Ashtar
- The disruption of a currency exchange network transferring millions of dollars to the IRGC
- The launching of a new 24/7 Farsi-language TV channel
- Constantly raising concerns over the Islamic Republic’s dire record of human rights abuses each time we speak at the UN
Of course, these measures are merely the ones Secretary Pompeo chose to make public. But they indicate a broader strategy that relies heavily on economical, legal, and public diplomacy measures. These are simply not enough to meaningfully change Iranian behavior. These measures ignore key Iranian equities that must be targeted as part of any strategy that matches the aggression in administration rhetoric.
Nowhere is this more evident than Syria, a critical territory that, it would seem, would fall within any effective rollback strategy. Under President Trump, the United States ended a covert proxy war against Iranian allies and clients (even the far more accommodating Obama administration did not make this formal concession) and watched as Iranian proxies overran the opposition. The US administration’s response to two incidents of chemical weapons use by Iran’s partner was essentially symbolic. It has stalled on stabilization efforts in US-controlled territory that aim in part to weaken regime and Iranian influence in these areas. US strategy against Iran in Syria can be summed up as hoping Russia will restrain and perhaps diminish Iranian influence there, while sanctioning the Syrian and Iran regimes. Any serious Syria analyst knows that neither measure is likely to loosen Iran’s grip on or weaken its allies in Syria.
The Trump administration will not intervene against Iran in Syria, or revive the insurgency that fought it there. Iran surely knows this. Meanwhile, Iranian interests in Iraq are secure despite fifteen years of US investment there. Syria is solidly in the Iranian orbit, periodic Israeli air strikes notwithstanding. Iran has not won the Yemen war, but since that war’s purpose is to bog down Saudi Arabia that is not a loss for Iran. Iran may face heavier sanctions, but this has never compelled it to abandon fundamental interests such as power projection in the Levant, strategic depth in Iraq, or sustaining a massive regional proxy network that can threaten US interests.
The administration tends to depict a relatively small and weak power as a major security threat but Iran is asecond-rate power at best, grossly outmatched by US power. This means the United States has the choice of neglecting or downplaying this threat, yet it has chosen to escalate rhetoric while pursuing a risk-averse policy. If the purpose is deterrence, that only applies if Iran believes the US is serious about escalation, which it is not, at least not on a meaningful level. The longer the bluster and focus on sanctions continues, the surer Iran will be that its core regional interests are safe. If the administration hopes to match this rhetoric with Israeli military action, it is unclear whether Israel wants to shoulder that burden alone.
Former US President Barack Obama was quite rightly criticized for failing to enforce his ‘red line’ on chemical weapons use in Syria. It damaged US credibility and therefore deterrence. Do the current threats against Iran carry that credibility? Is it even clear to Iran what the price of continuing its behavior is? Unless both apply, deterrence does not. And if the strategy is not deterrence, but actual ‘roll-back’ then the administration does not seem willing to take on the costs and risks. So what is the United States’ Iran policy?
There are surely any number of committed, qualified people serving in the administration, civil service, and military who want to weaken Iran in the Middle East. But as far as an outside observer can tell the means at their disposal are inadequate. Perhaps the president wants to avoid a complicated confrontation in the Middle East at all costs and, despite the rhetoric, is content to base anti-Iran policy largely on sanctions and bluster.
Faysal Itani is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Rebuilding Syria is Rafik Hariri Center’s two-year project to present a development strategy for Syria focused on the interplay between economics, governance, and political legitimacy. The project convenes local and international experts and stakeholders to devise development policies that fit Syria’s complex context, engages with policymakers, and produces expert analysis that emphasizes long-term, locally-driven political and economic sustainability.