How Trump Can Take on Iran (Without Sparking War)

Donald Trump at the ceremony to swear in Defense Secretary James Mattis. Wikimedia Commons/Secretary of Defense

What’s the endgame when you’re facing an immovable regime?

These dynamics can always change, of course, if Iran provokes the administration—for example, by challenging U.S. naval vessels with its fast boats. Getting tough with Tehran without thinking through the consequences of such a policy, and whether it can achieve its objectives without compromising other important U.S. interests and priorities, would be extremely rash and dangerous. And picking fights that cannot be won will undermine American leadership and credibility, not to mention the Trump administration’s reputation for competence, all of which have already taken a beating. Israel may have grandiose ambitions of forming an anti-Iranian axis with moderate Arab states, but Iran is a major power in the region and its influence will be difficult to contain, let alone roll back, at a price that Washington and the American public are prepared to pay.

Instead of uncritically endorsing Israeli interests, a wise and realistic policy would avoid anti-Iranian adventures and focus on containing Iran when its ambitions for regional hegemony threaten vital U.S. interests—defeating ISIL, maintaining access to oil and preventing WMD proliferation—and cooperating with Tehran when it advances those interests, such as countering Sunni jihadi terror, stabilizing Iraq and maintaining the Iranian nuclear accord so long as Tehran stays in compliance. A judicious policy would also avoid getting sucked further into messy regional conflicts, as well as steer clear of actively supporting the agendas of its allies (such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen) when they damage U.S. interests.

Thus, an effective U.S. approach toward Iran will mean defending allies and partners against Iranian attacks, using force to protect freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, preventing and responding to Iranian or Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks against U.S. facilities and personnel, and using force to prevent Tehran from breaking out of the nuclear agreement in violation of its commitments.

Perhaps more importantly, the Trump administration needs to think hard about what it wants to achieve in the region and the point of toughening U.S. policy toward Iran. What’s the endgame in the face of a regime that isn’t going to change its repressive policies at home or roll back its efforts to maintain its regional influence? Is it to provoke Iran into a wider conflict so that the administration can take off the gloves? Or to moderate Iranian behavior in the region outside the four corners of the nuclear agreement? Perhaps it’s to improve America’s leverage so that it can renegotiate better terms on the nuclear agreement.

Unless the administration has a clear end state in its sights and a viable road map for getting there, it will find itself on the short end of the stick in confronting Iran when vital American interests are not at stake and taking on Tehran will only make the situation worse.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Richard Sokolsky is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former member of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff.

Image: Donald Trump at the ceremony to swear in Defense Secretary James Mattis. Wikimedia Commons/Secretary of Defense