From Iron Curtain to the Iran Veil: The Trump Administration’s Misguided Iran Strategy

By Michael Memari

In a recent op-ed with Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clarified the Trump Administration’s multifaceted strategy for ‘confronting Iran,’ which includes applying economic pressure, bolstering deterrence, exercising moral clarity, and exposing the government’s political malfeasance. However, an interesting revelation can be found in the author’s repeated attempts to compare U.S.-Iran tensions to America’s Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. This flawed analogy, used throughout the article, intimates the administration’s mindset towards Iran, exposes the shortcomings of its strategy, and betrays its true intention: regime change.

Despite claiming that the Cold War’s culmination “forced new thinking…about the greatest challenges to US national security,” Secretary Pompeo consistently compares Iranian behavior to that of the former Soviet Union, from economic mismanagement to Iran remaining “bent on exporting its revolution abroad.” Instead, these perceptions of Iran suggest an enduring Cold War mindset within U.S. policymakers, which stems from the U.S. failing to properly transition away from the bipolar order of the Cold War and the absence of a true ideological rival. As John Esposito argued in Islamic Threat: “For a Western world long accustomed to a global vision and a foreign policy predicated upon superpower rivalry…it is all too tempting to identify another global ideological menace to fill the threat vacuum created by the demise of communism.” Dr. Esposito contends that Islam filled the void left by the fall of communism; however, every ideology needs a face, and for the U.S., Iran has long represented political Islam and its radical nature. This is evident in Secretary Pompeo’s rhetorical framing of the 1979 Iranian Revolution as the “Islamic Revolution,” a term that, while commonly employed, myopically reduces the movement’s competing actors and ideologies to its eventual outcome.

Compounding this mentality is the ‘War on Terror,’ which remains the U.S.’ primary foreign policy struggle since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Considered a primary state-sponsor of terrorism and referred to by the State Department’s Iran Action Group as “an outlaw regime,” a category reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s “Axis of Evil,” Iran has once again played the role of a global rival. Here as well, the Cold War mentality of a country having to be allied with the U.S. or the Soviet Union has negligently transitioned into contemporary U.S. geopolitical strategy, with President Bush having notably stated, “You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” The Trump administration has fully embraced this paradigm by offering allies the choice of joining the U.S.’ ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran or facing the consequences of violating economic sanctions.

However, Secretary Pompeo’s historical grounding of the Trump administration’s Iran strategy, neither accounts for the contextual differences between the United States’ confrontations with the Soviet Union and Iran nor addresses its failure to replicate conditions that led to “American victory in the Cold War.” Chief among these discrepancies is the fact that, unlike the Cold War, the U.S. has not established a unified front with its allies. While Secretary Pompeo stresses the success of the administration’s multi-pronged, maximum pressure campaign, including an aggressive “17 rounds of Iran-related sanctions,” he fails to address the efforts of European allies to counter and evade U.S. sanctions. After the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), European leaders, many of whom lobbied President Trump to stay in the JCPOA, have shielded European Union firms that engage in business with Iran from U.S. sanctions. The E.U.’s counter policies aim to guarantee Iranian banks access to the international banking system through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), and create legal entities, known as a special purpose vehicles (SPVs), to “facilitate legitimate financial transactions with Iran.” Other countries, most notably Turkey, Russia, and China, have signaledthe possibility of conducting bilateral trade using local currencies to bypass the dollar. Furthermore, while the United States’ most recent wave of sanctions targeting Iran’s banking, shipping and energy sectors, specifically oil exports, came into force on Nov. 5, the administration felt compelled enough to provide eight governments with exemptions to continue buying Iranian oil, thus undermining its goal to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. Admittedly, these counter-policies are not foolproof; the SPV will only become operationalseveral months after its establishment, SWIFT announced that it was, regrettably, “suspending some…Iranian banks’ access to its messaging system,” trading in local currencies is subject to high volatility, and oil exemptions will only last for 180 days. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Trump administration is isolated in its economic attempts to coerce Iran, and its maximum pressure campaign is anything but.

Moreover, disunity among regional Arab allies undermines Secretary Pompeo’s claim of deterrence. The Trump administration has indicated its desire to establish a regional political and security alliance, the Middle East Security Alliance, consisting of Egypt, Jordan, and the six member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to “serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism.” Given the administration’s Cold War mindset, it is appropriate that officials in Washington and abroad refer to the new alliance as the “Arab NATO.” However, depending on regional allies to maintain a united front in deterring Iran is naive. The GCC remains deeply fractured ever since the Saudi-led regional boycott and blockade of Qatar, which actually strengthened trilateral relations among Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. Oman, on the other hand, has consistently maintained cordial relationswith Iran, and Kuwait’s allegiance to the GCC has been the subject of concern after recently signing a military cooperation agreement with Turkey, which retains warm relations with Iran. These issues are compounded by regional disagreements concerning issues, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the wars in Syria and Yemen. Even on its own, the U.S. has undercut its image as an effective deterrent against Iran. Indeed, Secretary Pompeo’s assertion that President Trump will “punch back hard if US security is threatened” is undermined by the administration’s failure to enhance multilateral missile defense cooperation among Gulf partners and the removal of Patriot missile systems out of Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan.

Finally, Secretary Pompeo’s affirmation of moral clarity is suspect. In adhering to a Cold War mentality, the U.S. is committing the same mistake of prioritizing containment and deterrence to the detriment of human rights and democracy. In bolstering regional buffers to Iran, the Trump administration justifies arms sales to Saudi Arabia and military aid to Egypt, despite human rights concerns. This is especially concerning given recent reports of war crimes committed by coalition forces in Yemen and the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Furthermore, despite the administration’s claimof designating humanitarian exemptions to sanctions, analyses show that “the median value of humanitarian exports to Iran,” including pharmaceuticals and medical devices, has been reduced by 40 percent under the Trump administration when compared to Obama’s tenure. Additionally, while Secretary Pompeo’s claim that “sanctions do not apply to the sale of food, agriculture, medicine, and medical devices,” he fails to consider that sanctioning Iranian banks still negatively impacts humanitarian trade. Not only will Iran struggle to muster the foreign currency needed to buy humanitarian goods, but more importantly European banks are, already, “so terrified by the sanctions that they don’t want to do anything with Iran.” Of course, inflation, corruption, and mismanagement in Iran contribute to a shortage of certain goods; however, Secretary Pompeo fails to address the contradictions in the administration’s ‘humanitarian exemptions.’ Given the Department of Treasury’s recent imposition of secondary sanctions on “Parisian Bank, one of Iran’s leading private sector banks and a vital conduit for trade with Europe, especially humanitarian trade,” it appears the Trump administration is prioritizing its pressure campaign over humanitarian concerns.

Secretary Pompeo’s account of the U.S.’ Iran strategy proves more an indictment of the administration’s mindset than a thorough justification. Through repeated allusions to an “American victory” over the Soviet Union, he has indicated the administration’s adoption of a Cold War prism when dealing with Iran. However, this mentality, which ultimately informs the U.S.’ Iran strategy, is misguided. More importantly, it exposes the administration’s true intent, that of regime change, which is apparent throughout Secretary Pompeo’s analogy between the Reagan and Trump administrations. This is compounded by the fact that both Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, and personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, are ardent supporters of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a cultish Iranian dissident group that calls for regime change and is considered by Iran, as well as the U.S. until 2012, a terrorist organization. Both individuals not only speak regularly at MEK rallies, but have also stated that US policy “should be the overthrow of the…regime in Tehran.” Undoubtedly, just as Reagan “laid the groundwork for…the downfall of Soviet communism,” the Trump administration seeks the collapse of the Iranian government.

Michael Memari is a foreign policy analyst who specializes in Iran, the Middle East and Central Asia, and who recently interned at the United Nations Office of the Special Advisors on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Photo courtesy of State Department.