Iran's Trump Cards: How Washington Should Deal With Tehran's Leverage in the Middle East

This article was first published in Foreign Affairs.

In a freewheeling press conference on February 16, U.S. President Donald Trump signaled to Iran that the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is uncertain. His remarks came days after comments made by then National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn that Tehran was being put “on notice.” Aside from slapping fresh unilateral sanctions on Iran on February 3, it wasn’t clear what this ultimatum by the Trump White House would actually entail.

Iranians are rattled but hardly running for the bunkers. Tehran believes that Trump may be more bluster than action. And it may have a point, given how Trump honed his self-proclaimed bargaining chops. Taking maximalist positions early in business negotiations can be an effective tactic. Particularly in real estate, negotiations are iterative; the back-and-forth, give-and-take process allows for an incremental ratcheting down from extreme positions without necessarily losing face or sacrificing bargaining leverage. 

But this technique’s transferability to the complexities of foreign policy is limited. Because there isn’t always a formal negotiation process in which it is possible to gracefully walk back maximalist positions, backing down can be construed as weakness. Former U.S. President Barack Obama witnessed that firsthand with Syria when he failed to enforce his chemical weapons red line with military action, and Trump did more recently with China and his volte-face on the One China policy. Besides, success in the realm of foreign policy is measured more by how long-term strategic interests are advanced than by short-term transactional wins. 

If the Trump administration takes a maximalist position with Iran, it is likely to backfire. Iran knows that it isn’t completely bereft of bargaining leverage over the United States in the Middle East and beyond, and it might figure that Trump’s diatribes about throwing out the nuclear deal and dealing harshly with Iran are mostly bravado meant to coerce the Islamic Republic into submission. 

This dangerous calculation could lead to more, not less, adventurism on the part of Iran, which views Trump’s foreign policy as having to inevitably face the contradictions between a confrontational posture toward Iran and his campaign promise to defeat the Islamic State (or ISIS) and “make America safe again.” Even though policymakers in Tehran know that Iran would be no match for the United States in a conventional military confrontation, they calculate that the American public has no appetite for such a conflict and that Trump might prefer a less combative approach once he discovers, if he has not already, Tehran’s not so insignificant hand in the fight against ISIS. 

Trump might think that cozying up to Russia and improving the relationship with President Vladimir Putin will be the secret sauce to eradicating ISIS. But he will soon discover that Russia’s presence in Syria, where ISIS must be dislodged from Raqqa, is primarily in the air and that it relies on ground forces provided by Iran and its Shiite militia proxies. Iran is also a critical player in Iraq, where efforts to permanently remove ISIS will need Iranian cooperation, at least in the beginning of the rollback process.

Tehran might also rightly determine that there is little appetite in the international community for a gratuitous uptick in tensions with Iran. In Washington, the consensus might be that Iranian policies are part of the problem and not part of the solution to the ills of the Middle East. But some of the United States’ partners are not so sure. The European Union, for one, remains essential to U.S. security and the fight against ISIS but it is feeling burned by the exodus of refugees from the Middle East, and EU leaders are now scanning the horizon for local actors to act as partners in containing the region’s mayhem. 

Iran may fit the bill. The EU’s foreign policy boss, Frederica Mogherini, was in Washington in early February and asked for the United States to reinforce its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal and potentially go even further should Tehran reevaluate its malign activities such as “Iran’s missile tests, its role in regional conflicts, and support for terrorism.” Mogherini has stressed that “Europe feels an interest and responsibility to engage with Iran” in an economic and political dialogue.  

New Delhi, Seoul, and Tokyo—not to mention Tehran’s close partners Beijing and Moscow—are all engaged in various attempts to rekindle relations with Iran now that multilateral sanctions on the country have been lifted. In other words, Iranians are busy repairing their global ties and are not at the moment short of willing partners. This further enhances their leverage with the United States.

In such an international context, what should the Trump administration do to avoid being boxed in by its own jingoistic rhetoric? Above all, it should continue to adhere to the 2015 nuclear agreement because it is a multilateral deal that closes off Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon for at least the next ten to 15 years. But at the same time, the Trump team needs to come up with some original ideas on how to counter Tehran’s present nonnuclear expansionism in the region and shape Iranian calculations without tampering with the nuclear deal.

This will not be easy, but Trump can at least begin by accepting two realities. First, the Middle East is caught in a web of overlapping conflicts involving a multitude of actors and interests. Washington simply cannot isolate Iran completely from all the moving parts of the Middle East, in order to punish it, without also putting U.S. interests at peril. Tehran’s tentacles are simply too widespread for any one-step negotiation tactic. 

Second, the United States’ experience in the last 38 years shows that although Iran is often able to overcome unilateral actions by Washington, it is more vulnerable to U.S.-led international pressure. That was the unequivocal upshot of the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers. In other words, alliance-building is the safest path that Trump can take to tackle the challenges posed by Iran while also fulfilling his campaign promises to take out ISIS.

After accepting these realities, the Trump White House should coordinate closely with the EU on shaping Tehran’s regional policies. At the moment, faced with much geopolitical fluidity, Tehran sees the budding détente with the EU as a very hopeful development and is loath to see it undone. This is leverage that the EU can use to its advantage. Meanwhile, the Europeans, too, need to look for ways to keep a skeptical Trump administration engaged with both the EU and NATO. A more coordinated approach toward Iran—even as the EU and the Trump administration come at the issue from different vantage points—is not only a constructive continuation of the transatlantic partnership but is also certain to force Tehran to make some tough choices about the direction of its policies in the Middle East.

To protect U.S. interests, the Trump administration needs to show resolve with Iran while also recognizing that Iran holds a number of strong cards. This means that the White House needs to keep the diplomatic track open with the Islamic Republic by not hastily scrapping the nuclear deal, and that it must simultaneously seek to strengthen the United States’ international and regional alliances. This, and not taking maximalist positions that are difficult to back down from, is the smartest way to proceed with Iran.