The Trump administration still has no Plan B on Iran
Hoping for an inside straight is not a strategy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, like all his Trump administration colleagues, isn’t quite sure what to do about Iran. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Last week, my Fletcher School colleague Monica Duffy Toft wrote a sharp essay in War on the Rocks on the rise of “kinetic diplomacy”:
The reduction of U.S. leadership in global politics to what I term kinetic diplomacy: diplomacy by armed force. Two statistics make this clear. As of May 2018, the Trump administration has appointed 75 of 188 ambassadors [afsa.org], while it has deployed Special Operations forces to 149 countries [warisboring.com] (an increase from 138 during the Obama administration in 2016). Put differently, while U.S. ambassadors are operating in one-third of the world’s countries, U.S. special operators are active in three-fourths. And while it is true that the United States maintains embassies in countries without an ambassador, and that not all deployed special operators are on combat missions, the symbolism matters: “killing yes, diplomacy no.”
The problem goes beyond the hollowing out of the State Department and the bolstering of Special Operations forces. It also applies to how the United States negotiates even when military force is off the table. As Toft notes, “the ‘irrational adversary’ meme tends to make it seem sensible to reduce ideal options from a broad spectrum of tools (in particular, diplomacy) to the hammer: If we cannot reach their minds, the argument goes, we can at least (or only) destroy their bodies.”
And this brings us to the Trump administration’s two latest diplomatic blunders. The first was the attempt by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to provide the Plan B on Iran that was so clearly lacking when President Trump pulled out of it. Pompeo’s scheduled speech at the Heritage Foundation on Monday was supposed to provide it.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t. Pompeo’s speech did what every Trump administration official on Iran has done:
- Complain about the flaws of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (the Iran nuclear deal);
- Create a vision board of an Iran that does everything the United States wants (even Pompeo acknowledged that his 12-point plan of what Iran had to do was “pretty long”);
- Handwave the part about how that will happen.
To be fair, Pompeo said a few things. Here’s the gist of it:
First, we will apply unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime. The leaders in Tehran will have no doubt about our seriousness ….Second, I will work closely with the Department of Defense and our regional allies to deter Iranian aggression ….Third, we will also advocate tirelessly for the Iranian people. The regime must improve how it treats its citizens. It must protect the human rights of every Iranian. It must cease wasting Iran’s wealth abroad.
That’s it. Even Pompeo acknowledged that U.S. allies would not necessarily agree to support all of this. He failed to mention China or Russia at all. As Vox’s Alex Ward notes, not much has changed in the last six months of Trump administration pronouncements on this question.
The Trump administration is hoping for the foreign policy equivalent of lucking into an inside straight. They hope that renewed sanctions can tip Iran’s civil society into open revolt and destabilize the regime. I’ll leave it to the Iran experts to assess the likelihood of that outcome. As a sanctions expert, I will say this: Trump has given Iran’s theocratic regime the perfect scapegoat to offer up to explain Iran’s stagnant economy. Now everything can be blamed on the renewed sanctions, rather that Iran’s indigenous dysfunctions.
Kinetic diplomacy crowding out coercive diplomacy is not unique to this administration; that was a long time coming. Implementing a coercive strategy without understanding the necessary conditions for it to work in Iran? That is all on this White House.