President Ronald Reagan liked to tell a joke about a hopeful little boy pawing through a big pile of horse dung under his Christmas tree, saying cheerily: “With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere.”
Observers have a similar problem with President Trump’s Iran strategy. They keep looking for something solid, as Trump lurches back and forth near the brink of all-out war, but what they’re left with is a messy collection of inconsistent statements and contradictory claims from the president.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who serves on the Intelligence Committee, voices the frustration. He said immediately after last week’s killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani that the Quds Force leader was a “terrorist with blood on his hands.” But after two intelligence briefings this week, he complained: “I have not seen intelligence that convinces me this was the moment that action had to be taken to prevent an imminent attack.”
King also expresses a widely shared concern that the administration hasn’t articulated a clear long-term policy to contain a destabilizing Iran and advance American interests in the region, beyond this month’s cycle of reprisal and retaliation.
But let’s imagine, with Reagan’s little boy, that there’s a pony in there somewhere (even if Trump himself doesn’t seem to know quite where). What would a real, sustainable Iran strategy — based on Trump’s correct goal of changing Iranian behaviour — look like, and how would it be implemented?
The first step would be to mobilise global partners for a serious diplomatic engagement with Iran. If the last few weeks have taught America and Iran anything, it’s that the current course can’t continue without severe damage to both. The path out begins with the toxic issues at the core: Iran’s threat to regional stability through its proxies, ballistic missiles and renewed nuclear menace; and America’s undeclared but very real economic war against Tehran.
Trump suggested this path in his speech, saying the US was “ready to embrace peace” because Iran was “standing down” after firing retaliatory missiles on two US bases in Iraq. Trump named America’s partners in the 2015 nuclear agreement — the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China — and said, “We must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
Sound policy, but Trump needs to follow through quickly, before another cycle of violence begins. And he needs to signal that in this new negotiation, Iran can expect a relaxation of economic sanctions and new investment that, in his words, “allows Iran to thrive and prosper.”
A second step towards a coherent strategy is a plan to stabilise Iraq without a perpetual US troop presence, which Iraqis and Americans don’t want. A pell-mell US withdrawal would be a big mistake, because it would destabilise Iraq and give Iran a prize it doesn’t deserve (and couldn’t manage).
What Iraq needs is a framework for continued US training — outside the country, perhaps in Jordan — of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service and intelligence service. These two units, carefully nurtured by American mentors over the past 15 years, are the best guarantors that Baghdad can maintain some independence from its big, pushy neighbour to the east.
The reason Tehran should accept this ongoing American role with Iraq is that it’s the best way to prevent a resurgence there of radicalism and the IS — a problem that Iran can’t solve alone. Here again, Trump conveyed the right framework when he said: “The destruction of IS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.”
Trump made a reasonable start on an Iran strategy in an October 2017 speech when he announced that he wanted to stop the “fanatical,” destabilising export of revolution symbolised by Soleimani. The problem is that Trump then ignored three conclusions from his intelligence analysts: Scuttling the 2015 nuclear deal would create dissension among US allies without any benefit; massive economic sanctions wouldn’t drive Iran back to the bargaining table; and killing Soleimani would create more problems than it solved.
Back in 2017, the administration began preparing a legal case for last week’s targeted killing. The problem is that although the evidence of Soleimani’s long-term threat was rock solid, the “imminent” mass-casualty attacks on Americans that triggered last week’s strike may only have been contingency plans, not yet activated, officials caution.
There’s an Iran strategy in here somewhere, lurking under the mess. After more than 40 years of undeclared US-Iranian war, it’s time to clear away the debris and make a new start.
—The Washington Post
David Ignatius is an American journalist and novelist. He is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. He has written ten novels, including Body of Lies, which director Ridley Scott adapted into a film