President Trump has successfully hardened U.S. policy toward Iran since pulling out of the Obama-era nuclear deal 17 months ago, engineering a dramatic shift in policy that has rankled America’s allies in Europe but won deep praise from Israel and several key Arab powers.
But that policy is likely to be strongly tested this year, national security insiders say, with the world watching warily to see whether the administration’s “maximum pressure” approach manages to contain Tehran or triggers a dangerous escalation as Mr. Trump heads into his fourth year in office and a likely tumultuous reelection campaign.
Even before a deadly year-end clash between U.S. forces and Iran-allied militia groups in Iraq, plus the killing Friday of the head of Iran’s Quds Force, some longtime Middle East watchers were expressing concern that ramped-up U.S. sanctions and military pressure against the Iranian regime are on the verge of unleashing a new wave of chaos and violence in the region.
U.S. airstrikes against a militia base, followed this week by a two-day siege of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, have top administration officials warning Iran against crossing the line while expressing pessimism that Tehran has received the message.
“There are some indications out there that [Iran and its proxies] may be planning additional attacks,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Thursday. “If we get word of attacks, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives. The game has changed.”
Iran seems wary but defiant. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told reporters in Tehran this week, “If anyone threatens our nation’s interests, we will fight back without any hesitation.”
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The Trump administration showed no sign of being intimidated by such threats as Iraqi state TV broadcast Friday that Gen. Qassem Soleimani had been killed in an airstrike at Baghdad International Airport. Three Iraqi officials told reporters in Baghdad that the strikes also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces.
Mr. Trump apparently celebrated the strike on Twitter, posting an image of a U.S. flag shortly after the deaths were reported Thursday evening U.S. time.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called Mr. Soleimani “an enemy of the United States” but cautioned on Twitter that “did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
Many conservative analysts applaud the Trump administration’s determination over the past two years to coerce Iran into behaving — as Mr. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have put it — like “a normal nation.”
“It’s indisputable at this point that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is working toward the goal of potentially bringing the Iranian regime back to the negotiating table in a way the administration wants,” said Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute in Washington.
The pressure campaign, he said, has been so successful “that it is also having the secondary effect — maybe even a stumbling-into-success effect — of actually weakening the regime through protests across the region to a point that it could actually collapse.”
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Mr. Pompeo and other top Trump advisers say the administration is not seeking “regime change” in Tehran, but rather negotiations with Iranian leaders for a more far-reaching accord than the 2015 nuclear deal.
The agreement, which was also signed by Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, eased international sanctions on Tehran in exchange for new limits on its nuclear activities.
But the U.S. wants to address what it calls the full range of “malign” activities, including Tehran’s backing of militant proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — and ballistic missile tests that Washington contends violate U.N. Security Council resolutions both before and after the 2015 nuclear deal.
Year of escalation
The pursuit of fresh talks over the past two years has proved elusive, with sporadic waves of U.S.-Iranian brinkmanship. The situation escalated early last summer in the wake of the Trump administration’s imposition of a global embargo on Iranian crude oil and designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — an elite Iranian military unit — as a terrorist organization.
In the past year, Iran launched a campaign against shipping in the Persian Gulf and downed an American surveillance drone, Mr. Trump canceled a planned retaliatory airstrike in August at the last minute and imposed more U.S. sanctions targeting top Iranian officials and institutions, and Saudi Arabian oil facilities were hit with a stunning missile attack that the U.S. and its European allies blamed on Iran.
European efforts to keep the 2015 nuclear deal alive were undercut by secondary U.S. sanctions that made many international businesses reluctant to deal with Iran, and Tehran methodically breached its commitment to the 2015 deal to pressure the Europeans into more concessions.
Washington leveled fresh sanctions on an inner circle of Ayatollah Khamenei officials while gradually beefing up U.S. military assets in the region. Most notably, the White House deployed 3,000 U.S. personnel and advanced missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia and announced a further deployment in the wake of the embassy attack in Baghdad this week.
The outbreak of large demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq, where protesters lamented Iranian influence, has added another twist in recent months. Hawkish U.S. analysts are calling on Washington to seize the opportunity presented by rising anti-Tehran sentiment in the region.
Such calls grew when protests suddenly hit dozens of cities inside Iran in November after Tehran announced a 300% increase in heavily subsidized fuel prices. By early December, the situation had snowballed into the most violent anti-regime uprising in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The regime has cracked down fiercely. U.S. officials say Iran’s internal security services may have “murdered” more than 1,000 protesters. The crackdown may have been a sign of the regime’s sustained power, but some saw the widespread protests as an indication that it could be toppled from within.
“Trump administration officials know this, and so they are making public statements to stand with Iranian protesters,” Mr. Pregent said. “In that sense, the language coming from the administration is that of embracing the opportunity at hand, which is regime change — even though the actual policy continues to be to try and find a way to negotiate with the existing Iranian regime.”
Playing with fire?
Some analysts say the administration is playing with fire.
“If Iran were to break out into massive demonstrations that become violent — and I suppose that’s the administration’s hope that they will become violent and the government in Tehran won’t be able to successfully scare people away — then you end up with a sort of Arab Spring situation,” said Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“Obviously, everyone would like a sort of Tunisian outcome to such a situation,” said Mr. Landis, referring to the emergence of a democratic government in that North African nation after popular uprisings nearly a decade ago.
“But we’ve seen throughout the Middle East that most outcomes are not Tunisia; they’re more like Syria or something much messier,” Mr. Landis said. “Iran, hopefully, is more of a stable state [but] when you do maximum pressure, you don’t know what’s going to come out the other side.”
Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, he predicted, “is going to force Iran to escalate. The chances of Iran ever withdrawing from its malignant foreign policy in any way that would be noticed by the U.S., I think, is zero.”
Others go further. Philip H. Gordon and Robert Malley, both of whom worked on Middle East policy in the Obama administration, said the emergence of a more benign government in Tehran is possible, but it is “also one of the current protests’ least likely outcomes.”
“As cases such as Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq have demonstrated all too well, economic strangulation — even when harsh and maintained for years or decades — does not have a great record in leading to regime collapse,” the two wrote in a recent analysis published by Foreign Policy.
“Iran’s history and its actions during the current crisis leave little doubt that the regime will stop at virtually nothing to remain in power,” they wrote. “Beyond risks of an internal crackdown, there is every reason to fear that further steps to asphyxiate Iran’s economy will backfire even in terms of the White House’s stated goals: to moderate Iran’s regional behavior and compel it to agree to more stringent nuclear restraints.”
Mr. Pregent said election-year politics will influence impending strategy choices by the Trump administration and Iranian leaders.
“The Trump administration needs to be careful during the coming months not to cave to any internal desire to embrace a negotiation [with Iran] just so the president has that to run on for reelection next November. Now is not the time to legitimize the Iranian regime,” Mr. Pregent said in an interview.
If Iran believes Mr. Trump will win a second term, “they may become desperate and seek to negotiate with Trump because they know that if he wins the reelection, his maximum pressure policy will only become harder and more effective going forward,” Mr. Pregent said. “At the same time, the Iranians may seek to wait Trump out on the hope he loses and that a Democrat administration in 2021 seeks to walk back the maximum pressure campaign and return to the Obama-era nuclear deal.
“This is a delicate situation for the regime. If it engages in violence or provocations [like the Saudi oil attacks], that could trigger a feeling among Democrats that Iran needs to be contained,” he said. “This could bolster Democratic support for Trump’s maximum pressure posture in the short term. In the longer term, it could undermine any Iranian strategy of waiting Trump out in the hope a Democrat in the White House might embrace a softer Iran policy in 2021.”
Mr. Landis predicts little change to the tense status quo.
“In six months, I think we’re still where we are now,” he said. “I think the Iranian regime is not going to crack. This U.S.-Iran standoff is going to go on for a long time, [and] maximum pressure is not going to solve it.”