Blog Post

The Pitfalls of Trump’s New Iran Strategy

  • Kaveh L. Afrasiabi
  • Nader Entessar
| Oct. 31, 2017

Donald Trump's fateful decision not to certify the Iran nuclear deal has been cast as part of a broader Iran policy or "new Iran strategy" after months of internal policy debate. The main outlines of this strategy unveiled by Trump on October 13, 2017, fall within the parameters of (the pre-existing) American containment strategy, which in essence has been in effect since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, albeit now with an added nuclear dimension. Concerned about Iran's post-JCPOA expansion of influence throughout the Middle East, Trump's Iran policy seeks to tie in the nuclear issue to non-nuclear security and regional issues, termed as the “totality approach” by Nikki Haley, the U.S.’s UN Envoy.

At the same time, the administration with the help of the U.S. Congress is trying to 'fix' the perceived flaws of the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has been faithfully implemented by Iran as attested by the various reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor Iran's compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. Chief among the White House's concerns are the so-called sunset clauses, whereby the present limits on Iran's uranium enrichment would be lifted in some 8 years from now, as well as Iran's missile program, which is not covered by the JCPOA in light of Iran's insistence that it is purely conventional in nature.

In a volatile Middle East rich in tensions and yet rather poor in successful conflict-management, the JCPOA is a landmark achievement of multilateral diplomacy that contributes to regional peace and security. So far, the U.S. has been unsuccessful in enlisting international support for its current bid to re-negotiate the JCPOA, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently hinted at the possibility of a "second agreement." Hypothetically speaking, a ‘JCPOA II’, while leaving the JCPOA intact, is in our expert opinion within the realm of possibilities; however, it requires a great deal of U.S. "smart diplomacy" to flesh out the details such as the relevant parameters and enroll the other (hitherto recalcitrant) powers that are parties to the JCPOA. Clearly, the carrot of incentives for Iran to consider this option must be identified, otherwise it is a safe bet that Tehran will continue to adamantly reject the U.S.'s attempt to re-open nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

A key problem with the present Trump administration's policy toward Iran is that it is wrapped in a thick layer of verbal assault, reflecting deep-seated animosity toward the Islamic Republic, portrayed by Trump in the incendiary language of "radical extremism" and the like. In turn, this prevents the emergence of a minimally healthy environment to engage Iran, with which US has a number of shared interests, ranging from common support for Baghdad and Kabul to ISIS terrorism and narco-traffic; this is not to mention the post-JCPOA trade potential, in light of the pending Boeing deal worth billions of dollars. Unfortunately, by virtue of a wholesale condemnation of Iran and its external behavior, these U.S.-Iran shared interests are in the danger of being eclipsed and ultimately sacrificed under a mounting pile of hostility and tension, reflecting a dangerous spiral given the proximity of U.S. and Iran forces in the Persian Gulf region. Cognizant of this risk, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has warned that the U.S. is "ignoring the reality on the ground" in the Middle East. We concur and, yet, do not subscribe to the zero-sum view that current U.S.-Iran relations is entirely consumed by the negative ramifications of the new U.S. policy and or the wealth of outstanding issues on their bilateral plate. Case in point, the United States has endorsed the Russia-Turkey-Iran peace talks in Astana (by sending observers) as well as the "de-escalation" zones, despite Washington's misgivings about Iran's long-term intentions in Syria. A prudent post-ISIS U.S. policy toward Syria, in conjunction with the UN and regional allies, is called for that takes into consideration the merits of Syria's slow return to stability and the peaceful mechanisms for a democratic transition.

Similarly, in Iraq, which is increasingly plagued by the Kurdish irredentism, Washington's best bet is to prevent Iraq's partition and to re-engage with Iran on Iraq's security, as it did twice a decade ago, in order to acquire a better and deeper understanding of Iran's intentions and the potential areas of long-term cooperation on regional security matters. After all, the U.S. and Iran-backed forces in Iraq worked in tandem for more than three years against the menace of ISIS terrorism.

All in all, a new reset in U.S.-Iran dialogue is called for, covering both nuclear and non-nuclear issues that might well contribute to regional stability and is in the mutual interests of both nations. Certain small steps at confidence-building, such as intelligence-sharing on narco-traffic stemming from Afghanistan, can be timely catalysts in this regard. Unfortunately, as stated above, the main pitfall of Trump's new Iran strategy is that it conveys a wholesale condemnation of Iran's external behavior, when in fact the United States and Iran today have both coinciding and conflicting interests, which require the steady hands of diplomats on both sides to distinguish and then seek to shrink the latter by enlarging the former. Only then can U.S.-Iran tensions have a decent chance of veering in a healthy direction again.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi (Ph.D) and Nader Entessar (Ph.D) are authors of: Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Accord and Detente Since the Geneva Agreement of 2013 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); and Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (Roman & Littlefield, forthcoming January, 2018)

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Afrasiabi, Kaveh L. and Nader Entessar.The Pitfalls of Trump’s New Iran Strategy.” Iran Matters, October 31, 2017,

The Authors