The Dangers of Challenging Iran to a Foreign Policy Fight

An Iranian soldier stands guard in front of a picture of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the anniversary ceremony of Iran's Islamic Revolution in Behesht Zahra cemetery

Donald Trump’s recently laid out Iran policy presages full-spectrum confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

Complementing Iran’s military deterrents is the strategic depth it has created for itself in the region. Iran has allied itself with various states or constituencies that are also marginalized in local and global power structures, such as Lebanese and Iraqi Shia, occupied Palestinians, anti-Taliban (Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek) Afghans, Iraqi Kurds, Zaydis in Yemen, and increasingly Christian and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria. These regional relationships allow Iran to raise the cost of any aggression towards it and position itself as an indispensable to resolving regional crises.

The defensive character of Iran’s regional strategy was highlighted in a January 2014 Pentagon report, which stated that “Iran’s military doctrine is defensive. It is designed to deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor, and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities while avoiding any concessions that challenge its core interests.”

Given Iran’s defensive posture and its status as a major energy producing and transit state with a young and dynamic market, it has a stake in regional stability and ensuring the secure flow of energy, goods and people in and out of the Persian Gulf and the broader region. Indeed, Iran must be viewed as a key player whose involvement is necessary to foster regional stability, just as other major regional and global powers.

In December 2016, echoing similar statements made on the campaign trail, then-president-elect Donald Trump declared: “We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments . . . Our goal is stability, not chaos.” However, Trump’s new Iran strategy signals an objective of regime change in Tehran and reinforces Iranian threat perceptions, serving only to maintain U.S.-Iran hostilities and by extension regional instability for years to come.

Trump has another option before him. With the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the battle against ISIS has largely been won—which Trump called his “highest” foreign-policy priority. President Trump now stands at a fork in the road: he can either followed traditional tried-and-failed U.S. policies of seeking to isolate Iran, or he can succeed where Barack Obama failed in creating a regional “equilibrium” and incentivizing regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia to “share” the region.

A stable balance of power in the region, which would allow America to extricate itself from the Middle East, foremost requires Trump to set aside alarmist and hyperbolic narratives about Iran’s regional role, open lines of communication with Tehran, and recalibrate America’s relations with its regional partners. To this end, Henry Kissinger has stated that the United States can only play a balancer role in the Middle East if it is “closer to each of the contending forces than they are to each other” and “does not let itself be lured into underwriting either side’s strategy.”

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s recent purge of his political rivals, including some of the Kingdom’s most influential security officials and businessmen, along with the resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri while in Saudi Arabia, reinforce the need for the United States to play a regional balancer role. Salman’s actions, which threaten regional as well as Saudi stability, are reflective of a toxic moral hazard problem, with Salman clearly of the belief that he has Washington’s full support in his quest for power and that the United States will pay the costs of his mistakes—whether that be his quagmire in Yemen, failed blockade on Qatar, and now taking Lebanon and the Saudi Kingdom to the precipice.

While Trump has thus far in his presidency moved the United States in the complete opposite direction of playing the role of “balancer” in the region, he has demonstrated the political courage and pragmatic streak necessary to implement such a drastic but imperative U.S. foreign-policy shift. It is not too late for him to change course and embark on a new regional approach that would save countless lives and push the region towards prosperity and away from radicalization-fueling conflicts.