Trump’s Iran strategy: a bluster or long-term plan?

While former US officials said the Trump administration’s Iran strategy needed clarification, those within the administration insisted on a long-term action plan to roll back Tehran’s influence

President Donald Trump walks from the podium after speaking about Iran from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. Trump says Iran is not living up to the "spirit" of the nuclear deal that it signed in 2015, and announced a new strategy in the speech. He says the administration will impose additional sanctions on the regime to block its financing of terrorism. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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US president Donald Trump’s speech announcing a new US policy to counter the “fanatical regime” of Iran and its “sinister vision for the future” was not only short on detail but also undermined a few days later when Iranian proxies advanced in Iraq under America’s nose and vast air presence.

In the speech on Friday, Mr Trump called for new international sanctions on Iran and threw the landmark nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers into doubt. The same day, the US treasury department announced new, wide-ranging American sanctions targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

While former US officials said this new Iran strategy needed clarification, those within the Trump administration insisted there was a long-term action plan to roll back Tehran’s influence.

It comes amid increased reports of a split within the administration between a weakened secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and Mr Trump’s “Iran whisperer”, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley.

Rhetoric or policy?

Elliot Abrams, who served in foreign policy positions for former presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, said Mr Trump’s “rhetoric is tough, but I don’t see yet a coherent policy in dealing with Iran in Syria and Iraq”.

Just two days after Mr Trump's speech and the announcement of new US sanctions against the IRGC, Iran's General Qassem Suleimani - who heads the Quds Force, the IRGC unit responsible for operations abroad - was in Iraqi Kurdistan for talks with Kurdish officials amid an escalating crisis between the Kurds and Baghdad. Just a day later, Iraqi security forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias retook the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces.

Mr Trump said on Monday that the US will not take sides in the conflict between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. But it was images of Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the deputy head of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashed Al Shaabi) umbrella militia group, marching in Kirkuk that exposed deep cracks in the US strategy on Iran.


Read more: Arab countries welcome Trump’s ‘firm’ speech on Iran


Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis was in 2009 designated by the US as a terrorist for his involvement in attacks against the American and French embassies in Kuwait in the 1980s.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the US administration must make “hard decisions”.

"The US has to decide on what kind of Iranian presence in Syria is acceptable long-term and what the US is willing to do about it," he told The National.

Calling Iran a threat is neither news nor strategy, he added.

A former US official himself, Mr Alterman spoke of a conflict between the reality of the IRGC's activity in the Middle East and policy designations in Washington.

“The IRGC doesn’t fit neatly in categories that the US has; it is involved in terror, business, investment, military activities … It does all of that,” he said.

Mr Abrams, currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the IRGC’s wide network means the US needs a strategy “with a military component” to tackle it.

He advocated a two-pronged strategy in Syria that would “support Sunni and Kurdish forces that are neither jihadist nor under Iranian and Russian control”.

The strategy would also highlight US support for Israel by “drawing and enforcing a red line against the Assad regime and Hizbollah”, he added.

Play the long game

However, according to one US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, there is already a strategy to counter Iran in place.

He said officials from the departments of defence, state, intelligence and the treasury, along with the White House, have put together a comprehensive strategy to tackle Iran’s destabilising activities in Iraq, Syria, GCC and Yemen.

Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the Trump administration is “playing the long game in Iraq and, likely, Syria” rather than giving a free pass to the IRGC and Gen Suleimani.

In Iraq, the US wants “to be in a position to be able to keep military forces in the country to balance Iran’s influence”, he said. “In order to play that game, Washington is seeking to empower Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi, to facilitate his support for a residual US military presence.”


Read more: US ‘very concerned’ over Kirkuk, McCain warns of ‘severe consequences’


Mr Heras said the US reaction to the Kirkuk situation can be explained as the Trump team “taking a calculated risk that allows Mr Abadi to reassert Baghdad's authority in Kirkuk, and then [Mr Al Abadi] emerges from the situation more empowered and able to credibly stare down resistance to a continuing US role in Iraq”.

In Syria, the Trump strategy is built on “holding onto territory conquered from ISIL, and to use it as a base to prevent the re-emergence of the group”, he said.

Mr Heras added: “[The] US military can set up shop in Syria, at a low troop presence, for years to come until a final framework has been established to end that country's war.”

A split administration

Complicating the US strategy on Iran is the split in rhetoric and views within the Trump administration.

In the same week that Mr Trump announced his strategy, a US senator suggested that the president’s tweets and foreign policy comments “castrate” Mr Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts.

Meanwhile, a Politico report said Ms Haley was the president's "Iran whisperer", as his speech was closer in language and tone to her statements at the American Enterprise Institute in September. Mr Trump's speech also contradicted Mr Tillerson's comments that the US was not looking to terminate the international nuclear agreement with Tehran.

“It is clear that the president’s speech resisted the state department and defence department policy,” said Mr Abrams, adding that the Trump-Tillerson differences “probably mean that he (Mr Trump) is not going to rely on Mr Tillerson’s advice but will give him instructions instead”.

Another factor weakening Mr Tillerson’s position is the lack of staffing in the state department. Critical positions that deal with Iran, such as undersecretary for political affairs and assistant secretary for near east affairs, have not been filled by permanent appointments.

“Who will negotiate?” said Mr Abrams, adding that there should be a US special envoy to handle the Iran file.

Mr Alterman said the US secretary of state was struggling to “find comfort” in the administration.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Mr Tillerson rolls his eyes in meetings with the US president, while other reports have suggested that Mr Tillerson will be replaced by either Ms Haley or CIA director Mike Pompeo.

“Ms Haley is a politician who doesn’t care deeply about substance and is looking for a deal inside the administration,” said Mr Alterman. “She knows how to talk to the president and, arguably, because she is a politician.”

Still, absent of a strategy with clear components on Iran, both Mr Abrams and Mr Alterman agree that the game of musical chairs may not have much impact on policy.