Scrapping the Iran Deal: Realist containment or Neocon resurgence?

Analytics | Philip Roehrs-Weist | 10-05-2018, 06:25

The scrapping of the Iran deal was criticized by an overwhelming majority of observers as a shortsighted decision. Yet, President Trump's action seems to reflect the view of several of his Security Council members and his main regional allies in the Middle East. Two possible paths are now open for the Trump administration.


Longtime opponents of the deal, like State Secretary Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, can see Tuesday`s announcement as a direct success. Even the more “moderate“ members of the cabinet who favored staying with the deal, like Defense Secretary Mattis and UN Ambassador Haley, generally pressed for a more confrontational course against Iran's regional aspirations and could now see new options opening up as a result. Therefore, labeling Trump's decision as the manifestation of a personal dislike for Obama legacies might overlook a deeper strategic rational of this administration. The prior attempts of the U.S. to forge a broad-but unusual anti-Iranian alliance consisting of Israel and the Sunni-Arab regional powers supports the view that canceling the Iran deal is one mayor component of a new comprehensive strategy. The stakes are incredibly high now. Therefore, the follow-up to Tuesday's decision should be put under objective scrutiny rather than be dismissed as a purely irrational form of isolationism. 


Iran's two headed government

The Obama administration's strategy was based on the assumption that by lifting sanctions and ending Iran's international isolation, the governing faction of moderates around President Rouhani and Minister of Foreign Affairs Zarif would be strengthened, leading to a long-term moderation of Iran's foreign policy and finally to a liberalization of the country itself. 

Yet, critics of this course have always pointed to the fact that the moderate government is not the sole driver of Iran's actions but only in charge of the official state diplomacy. The most staunch critics went so far to call Rouhani a “wolf in disguise” alleging him to be a puppet of the ideologically motivated Ayatollah, sent out to trick Iran's adversaries. Thus, denying factional competition within Iran's political system and portraying the country as a unified rogue state driven by Shiite jihadism. Although, these allegations have to be dismissed if one does not want to go as far as seeing every political development in Iran as a giant conspiratorial theater staged for outsiders.

On the other hand, reasonable critics have an obvious point in claiming that the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) follows a course of shadow diplomacy independent from the Rouhani government and seemingly supported by the conservative clergy. This is one of regional expansionism with the aim to create proxy groups, modeled after the IRGC itself and set out to follow orders on Tehran's behalf. Hezbollah is just the oldest and most prominent example but the IRGC's Quds Force under Suleimani's command efficiently used power vacuums created by the U.S .invasion of Iraq and the Arab Uprising to build its proxy network throughout the region. This left Tehran with the potential to escalate conflicts in several Middle Eastern countries with substantial Shiite communities.

While the Obama administration was aware of this, it seemed like the White House favored a softer approach in favor of the long-term goals of its strategy, ignoring its regional allies' urges to turn up the pressure against Iran's expansion. 

Here it is where the new administration flips the script. The Trump White House believes that Obama's attempts to strengthen Iran's moderate faction are doomed to fail in the long run and will only strengthen the hardliners expansionist potential in the region by freeing up new resources.

Assessing the political struggles between Iran's faction more pessimistically, leaving the JCPOA became an attractive option. Therefore, the U.S. main strategic goals in regards to Iran were reset and will now be focused on countering Tehran's regional expansionism with the potential cost of weakening Iran's moderates. Nevertheless, how the new goal is pursued will decide if the new approach is feasible or ripe for disaster.


Scenario I: Containment as a viable option

Being in the midst of a pivotal moment, the next weeks will decide if proponents of limited containment in the Trump administration like Mattis and Haley can prevail over those who favor a radical regime change strategy, like Bolton and Pompeo. If the containment proponents succeed, new U.S. sanctions could be designed in accordance with Washington's EU allies in a way that would enable EU businesses to continue building economic relations with Iran. Keeping in mind that the primary goal of Iran's moderates has always been to establish trading relations with Europe as a counterweight to Russian and Chinese economic influence, this would uphold the economic incentive for the Rouhani regime to comply with the deal, even after the U.S. retreat. As a consequence, damage dealt to the moderate faction would be limited and the guarantees of the JCPOA in regards to Iran's nuclear program would be retained. At the same time, the U.S. could prevent the flow of economic resources that would result from U.S.-Iranian trade and could try to put a cap on Iran's overall economic gains. 

Considering the composition of Trump's cabinet, it will be easy to simultaneously establish a credible military deterrent against any attempt to restart the program. Without being bound by the promises of the JCPOA, which is to exert restraint and offer cooperation in the hope of goodwill to a now legitimized member of the international community, a more assertive stance against the IRGC's activities outside of Iran could now be adopted.  Some sort of a military rollback campaign in concert with America's regional allies against Iranian proxies could indeed be in the cards, but would be the most risky option in this containment strategy.


Scenario II: Regime change and a new imperial hubris

If the proponents for a regime change approach prevail, Washington would promptly try to pressure its Western allies into re-imposing the sanctions regime on Iran, using the momentum of ongoing protest in the Islamic Republic over the bad economic situation to destabilize the political system. If the Europeans would adopt the U.S. policy, the Rouhani regime would be forced to confess that its foreign policy approach failed and as a consequence suffer great political costs (see Heilbrun's argument-National Interest, 8 May 2018). The only reason left not to kick start its program would be the threat of a military intervention. The risk of an all-out war between Iran and a U.S.-led alliance would immediately rise and impact energy markets (already visible to a degree). 

If the plan of destabilization does not work out and the Iranian hardliners and conservatives gain ground, the likelihood of a restart of the program and direct military strikes against targets on Iranian territory would again increase. The best case scenario here would be ensuing military operations limited to air-and missile strikes against nuclear facilities and strategic assets that could be followed by Iranian retaliation throughout the Middle East by the means of Tehran's proxies. Nevertheless, fulfilling the goal of regime change through this course of action is costly and difficult to achieve. A confrontation might even turn out to be counterproductive and enable Iran's hardliners to unite Iranian's under the specter of an international plot against the country.

Even though it seems unlikely now, through the lens of the likes of Bolton and Pompeo a military invasion to forcefully change the Iranian regime might become the last resort if the nuclear program progresses. This would have catastrophic consequences that could dwarf the negative impact of the invasion of Iraq, considering Iran's leverage in the region. A strategy of regime change therefore bears great risk of escalation and the attainability of its goal has to be doubted.


Implications for the broader goal of non-proliferation

If scenario I would play out, this could have positive global implications in regards to the U.S. goal of non-proliferation. With the historic meeting between Kim and Trump this month, many observers seemed worried about the type of signal that was sent by stepping away from the JCPOA. Granted, this could be interpreted by U.S. adversaries as a proof that Washington is not committed to following through on its diplomatic agreements (See Preble's argument-National Interest, 8 May 2018). Alternatively, it could also be understood as a strong message that the Trump administration, is not willing to compromise on the issue of nuclear proliferation and exiting the deal was merely keeping to a promise made early on in the election campaign. That would put pressure on the Kim regime to follow up upon its comments on de-nuclearization instead of pursuing a deal that would merely freeze or delay its program.

Furthermore, critics sometimes compared the current situation to the invasion of Iraq, which many experts argue has been the reason for the North Korean regime to double down on its nuclear program in the early 2000s believing that this would be the only reliable deterrent against American ambitions to create “a new world order” by changing the regimes of declared “rogue states.” A fear for survival that is well understandable if one takes the Bush Doctrine and the comments on the so-called “Axis of Evil” of these days literally. 

Yet, containing Iran is not equal to the regime change in Iraq. Containment and in itself is a Realist concept with limited goals contrary to the more far reaching implications of a liberal crusade, often associated with the neoconservatives. A more fitting analogy could therefore be the cost-benefit calculation of the Gaddafi-regime that led to the decision to completely give up on its WMD programs in exchange for security guarantees by the U.S. This is also a better comparison if one takes into account Trump's tendency to disregard human rights issues if economical gains and national security benefits can be achieved. President Trump made this clear specifically on the terms of the North Korean nuclear issue in his “Fire and Fury” comments, which are in stark contrast to the demands of liberalization made by prior U.S. Presidents.

If Scenario II unfolds, the implications for the Korean nuclear issue seem far more simple. Critics of Trump's decision to scrap the deal would be right and it will be hard to imagine a situation in which the North Korean regime is not strongly incentivized to push forward until a reliable nuclear deterrent is achieved. Decision makers in Washington should be aware of this when calculating the overall risks of a regime change strategy towards Iran.


About the author:

Philip Roehrs-Weist

Published news by Author