Trump’s Iran Strategy

This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

First, I hope you’ll take a couple of minutes and read the op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal by A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times. It’s a response to President Trump accusing The Times of “a virtual act of treason.” Sulzberger submitted the piece to a rival news organization to highlight that this issue is much bigger than any one publication.

“Over 167 years, through 33 presidential administrations, the Times has sought to serve America and its citizens by seeking the truth and helping people understand the world,” he wrote. “A free, fair and independent press is essential to our country’s strength and vitality and to every freedom that makes it great.”

The Iran confrontation

On many issues, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to have a strategy. It lurches from tweet to policy announcement, without any clear connection. The situation with Iran is different. On Iran, the administration has at least the beginnings of a strategy, whatever you may think of it.

Administration officials believe that the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal was too lenient for two main reasons. One, outside of nuclear policy, the deal allowed Iran to continue making trouble in all of the ways it was already making trouble — financing terrorist groups like Hezbollah, trying to build a radical “Shiite crescent” across the Middle East and so on. Two, Trump’s aides believe that Obama’s deal had too short of a time horizon and would eventually allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

So the Trump administration has set out to ruin the Iranian economy — by reimposing sanctions — in the hope that the resulting pain will force Iran’s government to make bigger concessions.

It’s a high-risk strategy that increases the possibility of both big success (a less menacing Iran or even the fall of the current regime) and big failure (a terrible war or a further radicalized Iran that builds nuclear weapons in the short term).

I’m skeptical that the strategy is going to work, partly because Trump himself is such a flawed president, whom other world leaders don’t trust, as I explain on this week’s episode of “The Argument” podcast, and as The Washington Post’s David Ignatius notes. “Trump’s Iran credibility problem stems partly from the fact that he has been pushing for a confrontation since before becoming president, without ever articulating a clear strategy for an endgame, short of regime change or war,” Ignatius writes.

But I also think it’s too early to conclude that the approach has failed. Iran’s economy is suffering mightily, and its rulers are growing anxious. This is the biggest international confrontation of Trump’s presidency, even bigger than the trade fight with China. If you want to understand it, I’ve included a few more smart, clear pieces below.