Following this week’s Warsaw conference on Iran, White House Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Middle East Victoria Coates has penned an account of the administration’s approach:
The core objective of President Trump’s Iran Strategy is the systemic change in the Islamic Republic’s hostile and destabilizing actions, including blocking all paths to a nuclear weapon and exporting terrorism. Under the President’s direction, we have prioritized the maximum pressure campaign placing unprecedented stress on Iran’s economy, forcing Tehran to make increasingly difficult choices….
As Iran continues to target Europe as well as its regional neighbors with nefarious disinformation campaigns in addition to cyber and attempted terrorist attacks, their governments should decide to re-impose sanctions, adding materially to Iran’s economic pain. This combined pressure would accelerate Iran’s return to the negotiating table under circumstances highly-favorable to the United States and responsible nations around the world. As President Rouhani himself admitted, Iran will move into a period of unprecedented stress on its economy in the second quarter of 2019. We want this pressure to be decisive and we are supplementing sanctions with broader efforts to increase the cost of Iran’s destructive and destabilizing policies to an intolerable level as the President Trump’s strategy requires….
There is more we can do to roll back Iran’s activities within its borders and in the region. We can continue to encourage warmer ties between Iraq and the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We have already made substantial progress aligning Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in support of the President’s Iran Strategy. Increasingly overt Israeli cooperation with a range of Arab countries across the economic and security sectors benefits them all. We must seize every opportunity to make this collaboration the “new normal” to the benefit of all involved.
Not everyone agrees with the administration’s strategy. Dr. Dalia Dassa Kaye, Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, argues that this approach is unlikely to work because it does not directly engage Russia and Turkey.
There are two responses to that basic criticism that are of moment. The first is that, the last time we engaged Russia in our efforts to restrain Iran, their combined demands allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to evade accountability for his severe war crimes against his own people. European sentiment had been in favor of such accountability, but the combined voices of Russia and Iran were enough to convince both the Obama administration and our European partners to let it go. There will be significant and negative long-term consequences to the Assad regime’s surviving its use of chemical weapons against its own civilian population.
Nor was Assad the last bad thing that the Russians and the Iranians jointly desire. This brings us to the second reason to reject Dr. Kaye’s criticism, which is that the Warsaw conference and its aftermath offers us a chance to firm up the Western position. A firmly entrenched Western approach may solve the problem on its own, but if not, it would be helpful to have in case Russia does need to be engaged later. It is unlikely that engaging Vladimir Putin, or Turkey’s President Erdogan, will result in a better approach. It is more likely, however, if we go into any such future negotiations with an established Western position that has a track record of being carried out by both American and European powers.
This policy maximizes pressure on Iran, but it is not per se hostile. Iran has much to gain by reforming, and especially the Iranian people do. As Coates notes, several of the “imperialist powers who ignited World War II” — a reference, no doubt, to Germany and Japan — have become key American partners. This has led to their flourishing economically for decades. This transformation has also anchored a long period of peace in both Western Europe and East Asia, respectively.
Ultimately, there is reason to hope that a policy such as this might provide a brighter future for Iranians without the need of an intervening war. These negotiations may by themselves provide the necessary tools for adequate pressure on Iran. If they do not, they set the West up well for a second round of negotiation that involves powers like Russia or Turkey.
It also provides a potential lever to help unwind almost every crisis in the Middle East. There are alternative approaches to each of them, but Iran’s regime is entangled with nearly all of them. Should the administration succeed, a host of challenges across the region will become easier to tackle.