As it relates to Iran, the Strategy simply reaffirms the positions that the president has been advancing since before he took office. The Trump administration has overseen a dramatic shift in tone in that area of foreign policy, moving away from conciliatory policies that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, and toward a policy of more assertiveness and direct confrontation. On Monday, the president effectively called for more of the same, explicitly putting Iran at the heart of Middle Eastern affairs.
Fox News highlights the fact that the document puts the Iranian theocracy side-by-side with “radical jihadist terrorist organizations” as the main sources of instability and insecurity in the region. It also suggests that these will be countered in coming years by projects that deliberately expand America’s global influence and exert counter-pressures on the Iranian regime and related threats.
The document, however, is short on specific detail about the tools and tactics that the White House will use to reverse the growth of Iranian influence over regional combat zones and Shiite militant populations. Those details will presumably be included in the National Military Strategy document, which is still forthcoming and generally places more emphasis on individual foreign adversaries and obstacles.
As such, it is not yet clear whether the administration will satisfy the critics of recent American policies regarding Iran, many of whom have described the president as having the correct tone in this area but lacking a precise plan for how to accomplish the administration’s ends. Nevertheless, the National Security Strategy serves as a significant re-affirmation of the alignment between the overall perspective of these critics and the US president. And it comes just days after that perspective was described, with relevant policy recommendations, by four former American ambassadors at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
The Washington Free Beacon quoted Stuart Jones, former ambassador to Jordan, saying in that hearing on Thursday, “With the ISIS threat destroyed, malign Iranian interference is now the primary security challenge facing the region.” And whereas the president has made it obvious that his administration recognizes the seriousness of that challenge, there are major questions swirling around what role the US will take in Syria and Iraq now that Iranian proxies have become entrenched in areas where they were previously fighting ISIS.
But the same hearing also called attention to the fact that Sunni jihadism like that of ISIS has not ceased to be a threat just because that would-be caliphate has been largely replaced by Iran. In fact, the Free Beacon also quoted former Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman as anticipating the president’s remarks on the National Security Strategy, specifically by identifying Iran’s “quest for regional hegemony” and “the persistence of Sunni Islamic extremism” as two “primary, intertwined threats.”
Edelman also reportedly reiterated the critiques of a seemingly underdeveloped White House strategy, identifying the retention of a US troop presence in Syria as a necessary first step but also as not being enough on its own. The former ambassador urged the development of a more comprehensive strategy that takes advantage of Iran’s strategic overextension, which has seen the direct involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, even as the regime faces popular unrest and domestic crises at home.
In between the Committee hearing and the president’s announcement on Monday, World Net Daily issued a report that helped to further underscore the severity of the Iranian threat and the fact that it is not only a challenge to Middle Eastern stability but also a challenge to Western interests throughout the globe. It observed that Abdollah Motevalian, a columnist for Iran’s Javan newspaper, recently underscored Iran’s fiercely anti-Western ideology by writing that Iran would be at the heart of a “new world order” built upon the “ruins of the Western world order.”
Javan is considered particularly close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, meaning that its viewpoints can be regarded as those that override any contrary initiatives that might be pursued by other Iranian officials, all of whom are required to defer to the judgment of the top clerical authority.
The positions advanced by President Hassan Rouhani’s lesser authority were initially regarded as partial justification for the conciliatory policies pursued by Western nations during the era of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. But critics of the Obama White House maintain that important leverage was given away to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal, all while Rouhani was failing to function as the moderating force that he was supposed to be.
The latter point has been borne out by the persistence of Iran’s domestic crackdowns and its foreign policy provocations, backed up by rhetoric like that which was published in Javan. And on Monday, around the time that Trump was clarifying his contrary National Security Strategy, Politico issued a report suggesting that the conciliation offered by the Obama administration had been subject to even more criticism than had previously been publicized.
That report quoted agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency as saying that the Obama White House had undermined and ultimately shut down a project that was aimed at disrupting a drug supply network that the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group used to finance terrorism.
“We watched them become an international criminal conglomerate generating billions of dollars for the world’s most dangerous activities, including chemical and nuclear weapons programs and armies that believe America is their sworn enemy,” one ex-agent said, alleging that the agency was prevented from pursuing Hezbollah leaders specifically out of fear of upsetting the Iranians in the midst of nuclear negotiations.
President Trump clearly has no such concerns, as he has threatened to single-handedly tear up that same agreement while also targeting Tehran with fiery rhetoric about the regime’s support of terrorism and its domestic human rights abuses. The newly-released National Security Strategy reinforces the White House’s newly confrontational position and its reversal of Obama-era policies. But it still remains to be seen whether the administration will develop a fully-articulated plan that is satisfying to its supporters.