Iran: Case study in defective policy

The United States, like other major countries, maintains extensive diplomatic, defense and intelligence capabilities to support the nations’s policy initiatives. In turn, those policies should meet certain basic tests or criteria if they are to warrant such support.

These tests include: 1) Does the proposed policy/strategy serve important national interests? 2) Does it embody goals that are achievable (realistic), i.e. does the nation have the requisite capabilities, power and influence to achieve those goals? 3) Are the anticipated costs and burdens proportionate to the expected benefits? 4) Do policymakers have the necessary information and understanding of the situation to answer the above questions reliably?

These are deceptively simple criteria — one might even call them common sense. Yet, it is striking how often landmark policies have been adopted that did not meet these criteria — with disastrous results. The ill-considered U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was an egregious recent example. Such costly experiences place a heavy burden on current decision-makers to do their analytical homework before they commit American blood, treasure and credibility to another major foreign initiative.

There is no region of the world where the demands on policy to be smart and informed is greater than in the Middle East, including Iran. One of the signature foreign policy outcomes of the Obama administration was an agreement the U.S. signed with China, France, the EU, Germany, Russia, Britain and Iran designed to halt Iran’s development of nuclear weapons capability for at least 15 years. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was hugely difficult to negotiate and fiendishly complex. But what is most interesting is the broader policy framework as seen by the Obama administration at the time. Here is Tom Friedman’s apt characterization: “By the end of his eight years, Obama was skeptical of all the leaders in the Middle East — Iranian, Arab and Israeli — and of their intentions. It made Obama a policy minimalist on the Middle East: keep it simple and focus on the biggest threat. That meant joining [with others] to keep the most dangerous weapons — nuclear weapons — away from the most dangerous bad actor there: Iran. By lifting sanctions on Iran as part of the deal, Obama hoped Iran would become integrated into the world and moderate the regime.”

For the Trump White House, urged on by the Netanyahu leadership in Israel, the JCPOA was not enough (and besides, it had Obama’s fingerprints on it). So President Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement and reimpose sanctions with the intent of blowing the whole thing up. Again Friedman: “Trump’s team is made up of maximalists. They want to limit Iran’s ballistic missile program, reverse its imperialistic reach into the Sunni Arab world, require Iran to accept terms that would ensure it could never ever enrich enough uranium for a nuclear bomb, and, if possible, induce regime change in Tehran.”

The Europeans were deeply invested in the JCPOA as the best agreement possible. [Europe is a lot closer to Iran than is the U.S.]. Leaders from Britain, France and Germany all personally came to the White House to plead with President Trump to stay with the agreement. They were summarily rebuffed. Secretary of State Pompeo in a recent speech at the Reagan Library characterized the Iranian government as a criminal enterprise determined to destabilize the Middle East by force. Pompeo cited recent anti-regime protests in Iran and declared, “The United States hears you; the United States supports you; the United States is with you.”

The White House already had announced draconian economic sanctions on Iran and made it clear that they would include “secondary sanctions” — penalties on foreign companies that continued to deal with Iran even if their own governments permitted such dealings.

The result has been a sort of slow motion diplomatic train wreck. The other signatories to the JCPOA have all said they will continue to support it and have urged Iran to do the same. Tehran has agreed to do so for the time being. The anger in Europe toward the Trump administration is intense. EU officials have gone so far as to put in place legal penalties on any European company that bows to U.S. sanctions on Iran. China has announced it will continue to buy Iranian oil. It doesn’t take much imagination to see China and Russia moving into market opportunities in Iran vacated by U.S. firms. Boeing had inked a $20 billion agreement to sell aircraft to Iran. Now Russia will probably get that deal.

So how does the Trump rewrite of policy toward Iran measure up by the criteria we just outlined? 1) To listen to some around the White House you would think Iran is the pre-eminent threat to American interests worldwide. In fact, Iran is a mid-level power in a region most Americans would like to leave behind. Truth be told, absent nuclear weapons Iran is not a serious threat to any vital U.S. interest and the JCPOA dealt with the nuclear problem. The Tehran regime faces major domestic challenges, economic, political and environmental. The country has a huge youthful population that yearns to join the West. U.S. sanctions will undercut those ambitions and strengthen the hand of religious hardliners. 2) The goal set by Obama’s policy (nuclear freeze) was achievable. The goals stated by the current White House would require Iran’s complete capitulation and probably the removal of the regime. Such ultra-ambitious goals will require equally impressive capabilities and leverage. But this administration has only one lever, and that is economic sanctions. And those sanctions are fiercely opposed by every major economic power outside the U.S. It is a truism that sanctions only work when they have broad and deep international support. 3) That leads to the final criteria: costs. The White House has adopted a policy that will require coercing angry allies at the cost of the very fabric of the Western alliance system. When the policy is seen to fail, American credibility will be another casualty and cost.

In sum, the administration has adopted a policy that bears little relevance to vital U.S. national interests, that posits goals that are not achievable and guarantees extremely high costs in terms of relations with the rest of the world. The bureaucratic term for such a policy is counterproductive. You and I might call it stupid.

Marvin Ott

Marvin Ott

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.
Marvin Ott

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