The second part did not happen. Iran became a more aggressive regional actor against the Sunni Arab states around it. But it did nothing to threaten the U.S. and was really a tacit U.S. ally in defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
So Trump tried to one-up Obama with Pompeo’s 12-step program. But it has not worked. And now Iran’s countermove — in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions designed to drive Iran’s oil sales to zero — has reportedly been to deploy proxies and covert operatives to attack oil and gas tankers passing through the Persian Gulf, forcing the U.S. to protect all of those shipping lanes.
That is hugely expensive for the U.S. and overstretches the Navy. We need allies to confront this Iranian strategy successfully. But Trump has alienated our allies by his incessant lying, his tariffs on their products and his rejection of their willingness to try to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal in a limited way.
Trump could have gone to Germany, France, the U.K., Russia and China and said: “Let’s improve the Iran deal. Let’s demand the Iranians extend their nuclear weapons freeze for 10 more years — from 15 years to 25 — and restrict all their missile testing to the radius of the Middle East.” If he had, there was a good chance Trump could have achieved a decent improvement on the deal. Instead, he wanted to show that he could transform Iran and one-up Obama.
Now that this has produced a crisis, Pompeo and Trump have been backtracking, telling the world that they are not after regime change and want to use diplomacy and even talk with Iran’s supreme leader. For the moment at least, though, the Iranians, who are hurting economically, have chosen to call Trump’s bluff. They’ve not only allegedly attacked the shipping lanes, but they’ve announced plans to resume higher uranium enrichment heading for weapons-grade levels. It’s a dangerous escalation.
Meanwhile, on North Korea, Litwak notes, the Trump administration has adopted its own version of precisely what it criticized the Obama administration for: “strategic patience.” Trump is turning a blind eye to mounting evidence that the Kim regime continues to develop missile capabilities that can hit us.
As with Iran, Litwak says, the way out of the North Korea impasse is to pivot from the transformational goal — complete denuclearization up front — to the transactional — a verified freeze of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and missile program to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.