by Shahed Ghoreishi
On Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and Air Force bombers were rerouted to the Persian Gulf because of “new threats” emanating from Iran and its Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials have privately declared that the vague intelligence, which Israel apparently passed to the United States, is “completely blown out of proportion.” As Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told The New York Times, “in the absence of some solid evidence about what triggered this action, it feels like the U.S. is picking and choosing what it considers a threat.”
The threat inflation of Iran, a country with a far smaller defense budget than its neighbors, attracts the attention of hawks like Bolton for one specific reason. They want to prevent Iran from becoming a legitimate, independent power outside the U.S. orbit. In their view, this requires capitulation or regime change. It is the latest example of America’s hegemonic hubris.
Bolton’s view of the world is a mix of what realist scholar Stephen Walt calls “hegemonic hubris” with a dash of hawkish unilateralism. According to Walt, the post-Cold War era was one of “hubristic fantasy,” leading the foreign policy elite to “believe they had the right, the responsibility, and the wisdom to shape political arrangements in every corner of the world.” Mix in Bolton’s hatred of multilateralism and it’s a recipe for strategic disaster. There’s a reason why Bolton framed the executive order President Trump signed that pulled United States out of the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). It’s everything Bolton stands for.
It’s also a complete refutation of President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine on the Middle East.
Whereas the United States mostly accepted Russia and China as independent powers worthy of engagement, Iran had largely remained a pariah since its revolution in 1979. The Obama administration wanted to change that by pursuing diplomacy. The successful result, the JCPOA, could have become a diplomatic foundation to discuss other issues and might have led the United States to accept Iran’s role in its region. In such a case, the United States could have pursued offshore balancing in the Middle East and pivot away, allowing Saudi Arabia and Iran, in President Obama’s own words, to “share the region.” In other words, the JCPOA was an attempt to refocus U.S. foreign policy on more pressing issues, like the major role China is now playing on the global stage, while avoiding another costly Middle Eastern quagmire.
Bolton, on the other hand, views the United States as a unilateral hegemon that can pressure any country, small or large, as desired. He has threatened not only Iran (“bomb Iran”), but also Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. However, this is an outdated and misplaced take on U.S. power. After Bolton rerouted the United States towards confronting Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced reduced compliance with the JCPOA. This outcome is not in the interest of the United States. It undermines U.S. allies, handicaps global disarmament efforts, and limits U.S. strategic flexibility in the Middle East by locking in relations with intransigent allies.
Meanwhile, regular Iranians are the real victims of this strategy. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran has caused the country’s economy to shrink by 3.9 percent in 2018 and inflation to skyrocket to 31 percent. The costs of red meat and poultry, cheese and eggs, and vegetables increased by 57 percent, 37 percent, and 47 percent respectively. The economy is expected to shrink another 6 percent in 2019.
If Iran’s human rights track record were an honest concern, then the Trump administration would realize that sanctions only make the situation worse for regular Iranians. By limiting the country’s access to foreign markets, for instance, the United States is strengthening the Revolutionary Guard’s influence over the economy. If Iran’s foreign policy were the main concern, then the Trump administration would have stayed in the JCPOA as a way to address outstanding concerns all while not undermining an agreement that prevents Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Instead, the Trump administration’s foreign policy team demands regime change. As a senior Trump foreign policy official puts it: “we can collapse their economy – it’s not that difficult. But it’s up to the Iranian people.” This is not moral leadership. It’s not even a strategy. It’s economic torture.
It also won’t work. As veteran diplomat William Burns explains in Foreign Policy, “false assumptions about how a muscular, unilateralist U.S. approach can produce the capitulation or implosion of this Iranian regime, which I think is an assumption untethered to history.”
Now that the Trump administration has decided to welcome Iranians celebrating the first day of Ramadan with threats from a national security advisor known to twist intelligence, it’s up to not only Democrats but all of Congress and the media to pay attention to the escalating tensions with Iran. Like its Yemen policy, the Trump administration’s Iran policy is mean-spirited, misguided, and an unnecessary drain on its global influence. It also accelerates the decline of U.S. hegemony that Bolton so fears, especially if the implosion strategy turns into an actual U.S. intervention.
Only four years ago, the Iranian people were dancing in the streets at the possibility of a brighter future post-JCPOA. With a travel ban and economic sanctions in place and touting a policy of “unrelenting force,” the Trump administration has purposefully dashed their hopes. For now, the Iranian people will have to shoulder the burden of an administration “picking and choosing” enmity inspired by the last throes of hegemonic hubris.
Shahed Ghoreishi is a U.S. foreign policy analyst, focusing on U.S. grand strategy and the Middle East. He’s previously published pieces for the Huffington Post, the Atlantic, and CSIS’s cogitASIA program. He graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with concentrations in American foreign policy and Middle East studies. @shahedghoreishi.