Trump isn’t the first American hard-line adversary Iran has faced, and their usual strategy to deal with these challenges is to remain cautious until the US becomes enmeshed in another crisis, and then resume activities in full force.
“It is a formula that has historically served the regime well, as Iran and its machinations have not remained an important priority for even hawkish administrations with too many other entanglements,” writes Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in his article for the Washington Examiner.
He goes on to say, “In the aftermath of their revolution, the clerical oligarchs were relishing their moment of vengeance as they emasculated the U.S. by holding its diplomats hostage. A confused Carter administration seemed incapable of either negotiating the release of the hostages or freeing them through a military raid. However, underneath their triumphalist rhetoric, the mullahs did take notice of President Ronald Reagan, a hawkish Republican promising to restore U.S. power. Reagan’s scathing critique of Carter’s handling of the hostage crisis may not have emboldened the hapless president but did leave an impression on Iran. Shortly after his election, the hostages were released. The stormed passed. The Reagan White House became preoccupied with a truculent Soviet Union and rebuilding U.S. defenses, leaving Iran aside. Washington failed to take advantage of its own success of scaring the mullahs straight.”
President George W. Bush was the next president that menaced Iran, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was accomplished in merely three-weeks. It shocked Tehran. The regime was terrified by Bush’s indictment of states that engaged in terrorism and pursued weapons of mass destruction.
“The theocratic state was then, as it is today, the leading sponsor of terrorism and was surreptitiously building a nuclear weapons infrastructure that was soon unveiled by a dissident group. The Iranian response was to engage in negotiations with Europeans and suspend their nuclear program,” writes Takeyh.
After the U.S. became became involved in the sectarian civil war in Iraq, Iran soon resumed its nuclear activities, and savaged the U.S. military through the lethal Shia militias that it trained and the munitions that it exported to Iraq, according to Takeyh.
Now President Trump has unsettled Iran. Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi’s assessment of the Trump administration cautioned that it is composed of an array of factions and Iran should not transform itself into a unifying point among these groups, for “this could be very dangerous.” This warning may urge Iran to a quieter stance, and and perhaps comply with such issues as adhering to its nuclear obligations, while it hopes that budget issues, tensions in the South China Sea and the Islamic State, etc. will become a shadow under which Iran can once engage in destructive activities. Iran is clever, after all, as it has maintained its role as one of the longest-standing regimes in a turbulent Middle East.
“The task at hand for the Trump administration,” writes Takeyh, “is to build on its initial success and to develop a systematic and disciplined approach to Iran that will not be distracted by other competing mandates. Despite its grandiose pretensions, the Iranian regime is disdained by its neighbors. A state whose primary instruments of power are terrorism and subversion and whose closest allies are Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not have too many adherents in the region. Still, the clerical regime’s principal vulnerability remains at home as it rules over a restive population tired of its cruelty and corruption.” He adds, “The U.S.’s objective in the Middle East should be to shrink Iran’s imperial frontier while pressing it at home. This means the tough task of reconstituting the battered sanctions regime while developing an understanding with Europeans regarding restrictions on trade and technology outside normal sanctions channels. It means refurbishing the alliance with Sunni Arab states and Israel. It means pressuring Russia to distance itself from its alliance of convenience with Iran.”
Recognizing the primary cause of disorder and instability in the Middle East will be the difficult challenge the Trump administration faces. However, Trump has a capable national security team who launched an initial successful foray into Iran policy, and this is a challenge that his administration may well be up to.