In a heavily advertised Friday afternoon speech on Iran policy, President Donald Trump claimed to be unveiling “a new strategy to address the full range of Iran's destructive actions.”
Except what Trump actually described in the speech was neither new nor a strategy.
Most of the president’s address amounted to a bill of grievances with Iran: anger at its support for militant groups like Hezbollah, alarm over its testing of ballistic missiles, and fundamental mistrust of its repressive, theocratic leadership. Those are all fair hits: Iran really is destabilizing the Middle East in a whole host of ways.
But the Obama and Bush administrations complained about essentially the same things, repeatedly. Reiterating their complaints about Tehran in a harsher tone doesn’t amount to a new strategy. In fact, the speech had no explanation of what, specifically, America’s new strategy would be.
Only two specific new policies were announced in the entire speech. One was sanctioning Iran’s elite military unit, the Revolutionary Guard, which is already heavily sanctioned. The other was “decertifying” the Iran nuclear deal, a technical point of US law that doesn’t actually pull the US out of the agreement.
This is not, to say the least, a bold new plan for confronting Iran.
“It’s a middle finger to the US’s prudent leadership of the international order,” says Hussein Banai, a political scientist at the University of Indiana Bloomington who studies the US-Iran relationship.
America’s new Iran policy is more or less the reverse of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum. Trump is speaking loudly and carrying a tiny stick.
This speech was an Iran policy own goal
Some of Trump’s speech was a repetition of vague principles — “we will work with our allies to counter the regime's destabilizing activity,” for example. That sort of language was par for the course even in the Obama administration, and so wouldn’t set off alarm bells in Tehran or anywhere else.
The parts of the speech that were most damaging were his harsh and repeated condemnations of both the Iranian government and the Iran nuclear deal.
“This radical regime,” Trump said, “has raided the wealth of one of the world's oldest and most vibrant nations and spread death, destruction, and chaos around the globe.” He called the Iran deal “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and vowed that “the agreement will be terminated” at some unspecific point in the future if there aren’t changes to some of its terms.
But while much of the speech was more rhetoric than policy, the rhetoric itself may end up being quite significant.
“It may be more bark than bite, but the bark is loud,” Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, said of the Trump speech. “I think the optics of a president reading a statement like that, with such a laundry list of accusations and such a damning tone, almost outweighs the actual steps that he unveiled.”
The reason has to do with the history and specific nature of US-Iranian relations. Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when Iran’s current theocratic leadership seized power from the US-backed Shah, the two countries have treated each other as implacable enemies. Official Iranian rhetoric has always cast the US as the “Great Satan,” while the US has cast the Islamic Republic as the root cause of a lot of Middle East instability.
There’s a significant death toll associated with this conflict. Iran masterminded the bombing of a US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 soldiers, and equipped anti-American Iraqi insurgents during the Iraq War. The US backed Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran in the 1980s, even turning a blind eye to Saddam’s widespread use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers.
The heated rhetoric and long history of violence means that US and Iranian cooperation is extremely hard to maintain. The Iran nuclear deal was so difficult to achieve in part because the US and Iran have so little trust for each other. Many important issues, like Iran’s ballistic missile testing, were simply left out of the deal because negotiating them on top of the core nuclear issues would be too hard.
Maintaining the health of the deal relies in no small part on Iran getting past its longstanding mistrust of the United States and seeing the deal as something that’s in its interest to maintain. The more the US attacks Iran and calls its own commitment to the deal into question, the less likely Iran is to adhere to it.
It potentially even makes Iran more likely to escalate the same dangerous behaviors Trump lambasted, as hardliners inside Iran now have a compelling argument that the only language this American government understands is force.
“This relationship is primarily driven by narrative,” Banai says. “The narrative this [speech] introduces into the mix will be toxic.”
So while the practical provisions of the deal may be, in Banai’s words, “toothless grandstanding,” the grandstanding itself is quite dangerous.
“Iran will retaliate; it’s only a question of when/where/how,” Maloney says. “And this administration doesn’t have the greatest track record for thinking through and planning around the potential downside implications of its provocative gestures.”
The problems here go beyond US-Iran relations
Trump’s harsh rhetoric won’t just anger Iran. It will also anger the other partners involved in the deal who are equally important in ensuring that the Iran deal works.
The crippling sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table during the Obama administration were not, principally, American ones. The United States has done relatively little business with Iran since the 1979 revolution, which meant US economic sanctions didn’t have a ton of bite. But Europe was a different story: Sanctions that European countries slapped on Iran’s oil industry as punishment for its nuclear program really did damage the Iranian economy.
To wield a credibly big stick against Iran, Trump needs to be able to count on European partners to reimpose sanctions if he wants them to. But the Europeans simply don’t buy Trump’s analysis of the deal. This was made clear by a rare joint statement issued by the leaders of Germany, the UK, and France, released shortly after Trump’s address.
The leaders of Europe’s three largest economies directly rebuked Trump’s claim that Iran “committed multiple violations of the agreement,” noting in their statement that “the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly confirmed Iran’s compliance with the [agreement].” They further described themselves as being “concerned by the possible implications” of Trump’s speech, asking Trump “to consider the implications to the security of the US and its allies before taking any steps that might undermine the [Iran deal].”
This is all very diplomatically phrased, but the key takeaway is that America’s chief allies are still deeply committed to the Iran deal — which they describe as “the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy” — and angry with Trump for stoking unnecessary conflict with the Iranians. Trump’s heated rhetoric, somewhat ironically, is making it harder to put actual pressure on Iran, both on the nuclear agreement and its regional misbehavior.
Even more worryingly, the lack of commitment to an agreement the US painstakingly negotiated with its allies is calling into question those allies’ ability to trust the US altogether.
“If you put this in the context of deciding to withdraw from the Paris [climate] Agreement, repeatedly questioning US security commitments, and the ongoing signals that Trump intends to scrap existing trade agreements, it should become clear why this move is part of an overall pattern of undermining confidence in American leadership and Washington’s ability to keep its word,” Dan Nexon, a political scientist at Georgetown University, wrote in a comment on the speech.
The consequences of that, either on the Iranian issue or for global politics more broadly, are hard to predict in concrete terms. But experts think it’s nothing good.
“This is really rogue state territory for the United States,” Nexon concludes.