After Iran’s turn from ally to enemy in 1978, the U.S. pursued a de facto Iran policy of containment, similar to the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union during Cold War. Starting with the Obama administration, however, U.S. policy has seesawed between appeasement and confrontation, leading to a dangerously volatile situation.
Though it was never formalized, the strategy that came together under the administration of George W. Bush (I served at the Pentagon and in the Senate during this time) had three pillars. First, impose prohibitive penalties on Iran’s nuclear advance. Second, bolster America’s allies on Iran’s periphery—and particularly America’s precious alliance with Iraq—to prevent any Iranian threat to their security and to our position in the Middle East. Third, encourage Iran’s pro-democracy movement to assert itself and claim its rightful place in the country’s government.
When Obama became president, this strategy of containment backed by deterrence was working about as well as could be hoped. The Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini, which was supposed to be a worldwide revolution, had succeeded in taking root nowhere outside Iran except in Lebanon, in the form of the deadly Hezbollah. At that time, there were elements among the Shiite militias in Iraq that were known to be in bed with the Iranians, and Iranian IEDs and other weapons had flooded Iraq’s civil war, but the major political groupings in Iraq, including the Shiite parties, were still openly opposed to Iranian interference in their country. In fact, on the eve of the 2008 election in the U.S., the Shiite-dominated government of Nouri Al-Maliki attacked the Iranian-backed militias that had infiltrated the southern city of Basra.
A few years in, the Obama administration took a major gamble. Seeing promise in less hostile relations with Iran, Obama decided to cut a deal with the mullahs. The nuclear deal of 2015 dismantled the regime of U.N. sanctions that had all but ruined the Iranian economy, in exchange for temporary limits on the key facilities of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and vague commitments never to develop nuclear weapons.
At the White House press conference where he unveiled the deal, Obama was asked whether it would allow the U.S. “to more forcefully counter Iran's destabilizing actions in the region, quite aside from the nuclear question.” In other words, would the deal buttress or undermine the containment of Iran? Among the points Obama made in response was this: “It'll be a lot easier for us to check Iran's nefarious activities, to push back against the other areas where they operate contrary to our interests or our allies’ interests if they don't have the bomb.”
There were some problems with this answer. Just a few years earlier, Obama had withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraq, in effect delivering America’s Iraqi allies to Iran on a silver platter. Iran would now have a land bridge all the way across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Israeli border, and could hardly be expected not to take advantage it. Moreover, while it was no doubt true that dealing with Iran would be less difficult if it didn’t have the bomb, the nuclear deal didn’t exactly solve that problem, because it left Iran with all the basic elements of both a plutonium- and uranium-pathway serial production capability for nuclear warheads, which it could activate in a matter of months. Third, the deal itself was seen by many in Tehran as a surrender on America’s part, not entirely without justice, considering the U.S. had caved on the key demands in U.N. Security Council resolutions going back nearly a decade. For all these reasons, Obama’s well-wishes notwithstanding, the baseline presumption had to be that Iran would feel emboldened, and it would be more, not less, difficult to deal with Iran’s other “nefarious activities.”
And so it proved. In Iraq, Iranian support for Shiite militias translated into influence over the Iraqi government itself. In Syria, Obama acquiesced to Russia’s and Iran’s entry into the civil war, making Assad’s eventual victory a foregone conclusion. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has all but completed its takeover of the state. The rise of ISIS brought the U.S. back to Iraq after a brief interregnum, but under a dispensation which left Iran free to continue its subjugation of Iraq. As such, the U.S. arguably served as Iran’s proxy air force in Iran’s fight against ISIS, further helping to cement Iran’s regional hegemony.
Though it was surely not his intention, Obama’s strategy in many ways boiled down to appeasement. When President Trump came to office, Republicans saw an opportunity to undo the hated deal. They put relentless pressure on the president to withdraw from it, which he eventually did. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a return to withering sanctions, tied to maximalist demands that exceeded even those of the Bush administration.
But if the Iran deal was a mistake, could the mistake be undone by withdrawing from the deal? The costs to the U.S. were sunk. The U.S. had given up the international sanctions regime in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that would expire in just a few years, so the dilemma of what do about it had only been postponed. Withdrawing from the deal would merely bring forward the day the U.S. would have to face the dilemma again, this time without the benefit of a united diplomatic front. In the meantime, Iran’s compliance with the deal’s limited verification regime (no military sites, no anytime-anywhere inspections, IAEA purview restricted to declared facilities) provided at least a minimal benefit.
Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, then, did not ipso facto mean that the U.S. was returning to a strategy of containment backed by deterrence. If anything, withdrawing from the deal implied a policy of confrontation, but was the administration really committed to winning it? Trump’s foreign policy approach, which the Washington Post columnist Max Boot calls “belligerent isolationism,” does not shy from projecting American power abroad, but resists foreign commitments, and sometimes seems ambivalent toward the very allies needed for almost any strategy of confrontation to succeed.
The administration’s approach to sanctions is a case in point. Sanctions have significantly diminished Iran’s oil revenue, with devastating effects. To soften the impact on world oil prices, America’s Gulf allies—principally Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—moved to replace the lost Iranian supply. Iran rightly saw all of this as a campaign of economic warfare, and responded by first attacking Saudi and Emirate oil shipments, then a major production facility in Saudi Arabi, and finally a U.S. drone. Yet the U.S. hardly responded to these provocations, no doubt leading many in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to wonder whether it mightn’t be safer to assume a more neutral posture toward Iran.
The U.S. only reacted with force when Iran openly orchestrated a series of attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other installations in Iraq that left an American dead. The killing of an American without plausible deniability is a redline the government of Iran is not likely to cross again anytime soon. But will the credible enforcement of that redline be enough to shore up the multinational sanctions regime, or establish the level of containment necessary for stability in the region?
Any chance of containing Iran depends on strengthening America’s system of regional alliances—and especially on reviving the U.S. alliance with Iraq. Americans may not understand that, but Iran does. That’s why in recent weeks it escalated from attacks on U.S. Gulf allies to direct attacks on U.S. installations in Iraq. That’s why its principal response to the killing of Iranian General Qaseem Soleimani was to attack installations with U.S. personnel in Iraq. If Iran can expel the Americans from Iraq and cow America’s other Gulf allies into assuming a more neutral posture, it can dominate much of the Middle East, no matter what the level of US. forces in the region. In that case, the loss of Soleimani will have been more than worth it.
Iran may now be more hesitant to kill Americans. But if it isn’t afraid to challenge U.S. interests in other ways, then the Middle East is likely to get more dangerous in the months ahead, as Iran finds new ways of forcing America to choose between appeasement and a war that no American wants. That’s why returning to a strategy of containment, backed by clear and credible deterrence, is more urgent than ever.