The Trump administration’s top foreign-policy priority is the Islamic Republic—but it’s unclear to what end.
What is the Trump administration’s objective with Iran? We’ve all been watching its efforts for months now—including National Security Advisor John Bolton’s announcement on Sunday that the United States had sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Tehran—and I still can’t figure out what it is trying to achieve. That’s partly because President Donald Trump prizes being unpredictable, and his chaotically run administration is either unable or unwilling to provide clear and coherent justifications for many of its policy decisions. If you never tell anyone exactly what you’re trying to do, it’s harder for outsiders to hold you accountable later.
We are forced, therefore, to divine the administration’s objectives for ourselves. Here’s my best guess at some of the possibilities.
Option 1: It’s just Kabuki theater. It’s possible that the broader drama about Iran is mostly posturing designed to keep the Saudis, Israelis, Gulf states, and wealthy Republican donors like Sheldon Adelson happy. Maybe Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor John Bolton know deep down that the regime isn’t going to fall and isn’t going to renegotiate a better deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But having criticized former President Barack Obama’s handling of Iran, and under pressure from allies and domestic lobbies alike, it was inevitable that Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton would revert back to coercive pressure, even though that approach never worked in the past (at least, not on its own). This interpretation assumes the administration is under no illusions that it is going to work this time either.