Trump needs an Iran policy

In the second of two panels organized by the Atlantic Council on Thursday, September 14, Mara Karlin of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute, and Ambassador Susan Ziadeh were joined by moderator David Sanger of the New York Times to discuss the report “US Strategy Options for Iran’s Regional Challenge.” The panelists summarized points from the publication, offered analysis on Iran’s role in the Middle East and the US administration’s current strategy to counter its perceived threat, and provided Pollack, who co-authored the report with the Middle East Institute’s Bilal Saab, with feedback.

According to Karlin, Iran is currently seeing success on a number of fronts. It has been involved in the fight against ISIS primarily through its militias in Iraq, putting Iran at the forefront of the victory there. Bashar Al-Assad and Hezbollah’s successes in Syria, both of whom Iran has supported in the fight against opposition forces, also further Iran’s influence and power in the region. The forces with the most means to challenge Iran, the countries of the GCC, have had their power undermined by the current Qatar crisis, which has suggested that the GCC countries are unable to effectively cooperate to combat Iran’s threat in the region.

Iran’s power comes from a number of sources, which makes it important to view the Middle East holistically. The Trump administration considers Iran itself as the only problem in the region, consequently overlooking other actors and challenges. Pollack explained that the administration, for example, has for the most part ignored the Syria conflict. President Trump has sought to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA) and has been meeting with European leaders, the majority of whom are supportive of the JCPOA as it stands, in an effort to convince them of the need to renegotiate the deal, as their support would be needed.

By failing to establish a presence in different countries and conflicts, the US has allowed Iran to fill the space and establish itself as a major player in the region. Pollack went on to remind that, while a problem from an American perspective, Iran’s power is not the biggest problem in the region, and that if the US does not address other, more pressing issues, it may find itself in a situation where it will regret not establishing such influence. Karlin agreed, emphasizing that Iran is not in actuality an “existential threat” to the US, as the administration believes.

In beginning to provide practical policy recommendations, the panelists emphasized the importance of giving the GCC countries a role, with Karlin describing them as an “anchor,” and Ziadeh pointing out their willingness to cooperate with the US. In fact, she explained, even when GCC countries opposed the Obama administration’s policies in the region, they still expected the US to engage with them and sought to further ties, particularly with regards to the military. As a result of the US focus on Iran and the nuclear deal, elaborated Karlin, GCC countries have been under the impression that the US is not willing to pay attention to their concerns, which may cost the US advantageous partnerships in the region.

Many of the recommendations given by the panelists and the report included adopting a more holistic perspective on the Middle East. Pollack outlined the importance of working with regional allies, as well as ensuring that US actions preserve the JCPOA. Ziadeh agreed, reiterating that the US should adopt a strong approach while ensuring that it does not jeopardize the JCPOA.

Karlin restated some recommendations made by the report. One of these strategies is “minimalist containment,” defined in the report as continuing current policies, such as maintaining “bare minimum” US military presence in the region and preserving the JCPOA. Another, “sandbagging,” is defined as the prevention of Iranian victories in the region, which would include supporting the Syrian opposition. Finally, Karlin also mentioned “pushback,” a strategy that seeks to weaken and remove Iran from states where it currently holds influence.

The panel ended with additional suggestions and thoughts from panelists and the audience on the recommendations included in the report. US relations and approaches to Iran are complex, and finding the proper strategy will need careful deliberation and assessment, a process that the Trump administration would be wise to begin soon.

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