And there are many sanctions. Some are designed to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero; some to render “radioactive” its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is both an arm of its military and a major economic player; and some to hit its petrochemical and metals sectors, two other major sources of export revenue. Even if the Trump administration can’t get the better deal it says it’s seeking, it appears perfectly happy to deprive the Islamic Republic of the money to fund nefarious regional activities. Officials often cite the financial troubles of groups like Hezbollah, a major Iranian client, as evidence of the sanctions’ success.
From the administration’s perspective, if the pressure drives the Iranians back to the table, great. If the sanctions somehow make the Iranian populace so fed up that they demand and actually get new leadership, even better. But most analysts agree these outcomes are very unlikely in the remaining years of Trump’s current term.
In the meantime, the Iranian regime is much poorer. Trump officials see that as a win.
— Kathy Gilsinan
Yes, Trump has overseen the territorial defeat of ISIS in the so-called caliphate the group declared across Syria and Iraq. But that victory was under way by the close of Barack Obama’s administration—when Trump took office, U.S.-backed forces controlled half of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the crown jewel of ISIS, and much of its former territory. All Trump had to do was follow the battle plan set in motion by veteran officials such as the since-departed diplomat Brett McGurk.
Trump’s signature change to that plan was a loosening of restrictions that had helped reduce civilian harm in U.S. air strikes. That, plus the difficulty of fighting in crowded neighborhoods and the shortcomings of local forces played a role in turning western Mosul, as well as the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, into hellscapes. Aside from the moral implications, many analysts say that allowing the destruction to reach this scale was a strategic blunder. The suffering in those cities will help ISIS to stay alive underground and perhaps one day mount a comeback. Worryingly, insurgent-style ISIS attacks have been occurring across its former strongholds in Iraq. Covert ISIS networks remain an even greater problem in Syria, making efforts by U.S. special operations forces and their local allies crucial to a lasting victory.
Trump threw these missions into uncertainty with his December decision to pull all U.S. troops from Syria. (He has since hedged, leaving the remaining troops in limbo.) The move has damaged U.S. hopes of finding a political solution with the Syrian regime to protect its local Kurdish allies—and without such stability, or large-scale rebuilding and security programs, ISIS will remain a threat.
Like Obama before him in Iraq, Trump risks ending the war before its gains can be solidified, endangering progress won at great cost to local U.S. partners and civilians. For a president who raised fears over ISIS and Islamist terrorism throughout his 2016 campaign, this outcome would be especially galling.