After reviewing President Trump's strategy on Iran, no doubt is left that there is a tremendous change taking place in White House policy towards Iran.
Obama made it clear that he did not desire a regime change strategy in Iran. He has been using the full title of “Islamic Republic of Iran” at various occasions, including his Nowrooz messages--confidential messages to Ayatollah Khamenei--all meant that he was thinking of a strategy other than regime change, which was known as the “Smart Power Doctrine”.
Based on this doctrine, the United States’ strategy was using a combination of software and hardware power to confront the Islamic Republic, and according to President Obama, his purpose was to ensure that Tehran's nuclear program was stopped, as well as “changing the regime’s behavior," rather than changing the regime itself.
Considering the fundamental change that has taken place in American leadership, is Presdient Trump now thinking of a regime change in Iran? Or he is seeking another option such as containment?
Hossein Mousavian, a senior diplomat in the Islamic Republic, predicts that Trump’s premier target is a change of regimes, due to the Republican majority in Congress. Such a reversal of US foreign policy in a multi-national agreement requires the input of at least three global partnerships: Moscow’s cooperation, European Union co-operation, and the alignment of the Arab world.
Meanwhile, the Arab world, led by the Saudi Arabia, has pointed its arrow in a confrontation with Tehran. in a conversation with the new UN Secretary-General, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jabir, describes Tehran as “a threat.” And such a political statement is not merely the Riyadh positioning. Using all its power at the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Riyadh has gained these three organizations' support.
Trump’s opposition to the Islamic Republic could be implemented through either maximal or minimal programs. The maximal program would be done by a regime change plan which will definitely encounter serious barriers. Trump neither believes in the “Smart Power Doctrine," nor the possibility of “changing the behavior of the regime, therefore “Iran's Containment Doctrine” can be his only desirable option. The Containment Doctrine was previously preceded by Bill Clinton's foreign policy as opposed to Iran and Iraq during the Saddam’s presidential period. This doctrine was referred to as the “Dual Containment," officially used by Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, for the first time, and was implemented by the Clinton Administration, aimed at Israel’s security and supporting Arab countries.
Among the several parameters of the doctrine, at least two of its main headings will also be applied in Trump government:
- Further military engagement in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East in favor of the US.
- Preventing Iran's usual trade and political relations with other countries.
Among these parameters, it can be assumed that the first option will be welcomed by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, so that the Arab coalition, set up be Saudi Arabia against the Houthis, will be totally in line with this idea.
In the second option, the policy of intensifying sanctions on Iran in order to target Iran's poor economy will be prioritized by the Trump government. This set of sanctions can be done under the pretext of Iran's missile program, human rights violations, and their support of terrorism.
In order to facilitate the implementation of the recent case of supporting terrorism, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation during their last summit, specifically called the Hezbollah of Lebanon a terrorist organization and the Islamic Republic as a supporter of terrorism. Such a statement by the most prestigious organization in the Muslim world paves the way for the United States to impose sanctions on Iran.
In this regard, the United States recently offered an unprecedented total reward of $12 million for capturing two key members of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Talal Hamiyah and Fouad Shukr.2
In short, the ultimate goal of Iran's containment policy is to intensify its international isolation in such a way that brings Iran back to its pre-JCPOA position. In this strategy, the military option is not the first choice; however, the first choice is to apply all measures that will exacerbate Iran's isolation.
Reducing Iran's influence in the Middle East
Trump, Israel and Saudi Arabia believe that the Middle East Obama inherited is an arena for Iran’s ambitiousness. Saudi Arabia has always highlighted Iran's influence in the region, saying that Iran now has an active presence in the four Arab capitals, Sana'a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, and such a Middle East is neither desirable for Saudi Arabia, nor for Israel and the United States.
If Trump's strategy is to curb Iran, then there should be measures that could reduce Iran's influence in one of these capitals, as Tehran looks at each of these countries as a “strategic depth” arena.
Recently, in a telephone conversation between the Iraqi Prime Minister and Trump, Haider al-Abadi, announced the result of his talks with Trump that Baghdad would take “neutrality” in the conflict between Tehran and Washington. Although the detail of Abadi and Trump conversation has not been released, it can be assumed that Trump’s most important demand was Abadi's counteraction to Iranian influence in Iraq. He will also demand such a request from Michel Aoun, the President of Lebanon.
It seems that the decertifying of the United States from Iran's nuclear agreement –if takes place- is the beginning of a path that Trump has begun to change the regime in Iran. In his point of view, if his strategy does not succeed in regime change, it will at least curb it. However, on the assumption of Trump's determination to change the regime in Iran, for which he will definitely encounter opposition from Moscow and the EU, it is unclear what his preparations would be. therefore, it may be more likely that he would soon deviate from the strategy of regime change and take on a strategy of containment of the Islamic Republic.
Researcher at the Tampere Peace Research Institute / TAPRI