by Sina Toossi
In his seminal 1988 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, renowned historian Paul Kennedy posits that dominant powers throughout history have succumbed to the same perennial affliction: imperial overstretch. Whether the British Empire or Ming China, great powers declined after taking on unsustainable commitments and security requirements. Kennedy ominously predicted that the same fate would befall the United States. Decades later, the Donald Trump presidency has proven him correct.
For Trump, nixing the Iran deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) was largely driven by a desire to repudiate his predecessor’s signature foreign policy achievement and to stay in line with the preferences of U.S. regional partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, if strategy is defined as a plan to achieve a desired objective through the minimal expenditure of energy and resources, Trump’s Iran policy is void of strategic foresight.
President Obama’s negotiating of the JCPOA evoked a coherent strategy. The JCPOA was the least costly option to close off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, offsetting the risk of another devastating Middle Eastern war, allowing the United States to reduce its footprint in a region that has long drained American resources, and setting a precedent for U.S.-Iran diplomacy that created a possibility for broader cooperation on areas of mutual interest.
Trump’s approach, by contrast, has been anything but strategic.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Iran Strategy” speech at the Heritage Foundation outlined a policy of maximum pressure and little else. Pompeo issued a list of untenable demands tantamount to regime change in Tehran and offered little by way of a diplomatic off-ramp.
The desired end game may be to cause the Iranian state to collapse—an outcome that would cause instability and blowback for U.S. interests as has occurred in other cases of U.S.-instigated regime change. The escalation track promised by Pompeo’s remarks may just as well spiral into a direct U.S.-Iran war or a broader conflict in an already chaotic region—which would dwarf the costs of Iraq for the United States.
Despite the strategically hollow nature of Trump’s Iran policy, the administration is making no exceptions for America’s traditional European allies in its quest to pressure Iran. For Europe’s commitment to a deal that it believes to be in its core security interests, Trump stands ready to sanction European businesses.
Pompeo reiterated in his speech that the United States would “hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account,” despite what he admitted were the “financial and economic difficulties” this would entail for “a number of our friends.” Trump has also linked his aim to levy tariffs against Europe on steel and aluminum to European acquiescence to Iran sanctions. He has simultaneously threatened a trade war over Iran while signaling to his base that Iran policy takes precedence over his self-avowed aim to protect American jobs.
Europe has reacted with unprecedented fury, raising questions about the future of the transatlantic alliance that has held since World War II. Shortly after Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defiantly declared: “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands.” French President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed that Europe should not allow “other major powers, including allies … to put themselves in a situation to decide our diplomacy [and] security for us.”
European Council President Donald Tusk summed up the continent’s anger: “Looking at latest decisions of [Trump] someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies. But frankly, [the European Union] should be grateful. Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions.”
While seeking to build a “global coalition” against Iran, Trump has at the same time ratcheted up tensions with friends and foes alike. He has infuriated Russia by providing lethal arms to Ukraine and sanctioning high-level Russian officials. He has threatened tariffs against China and again brought up the Taiwan issue. He has angered Asian partners by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And he has irked Latin America through aggressive immigration policies and belligerence towards Mexico.
By renewing the Iranian nuclear crisis and isolating the United States from its allies, Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal also boosted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s leverage in negotiations over his nuclear program. Contrary to Trump’s apparent thinking that abandoning the deal would signal America’s seriousness in getting complete denuclearization in North Korea, Kim wasted no time in throwing cold water on this idea immediately after Trump’s JCPOA decision.
Within days, the North Korean foreign ministry issued a defiant statement marking a break from months of goodwill messaging. The North Koreans threatened to call off the Trump-Un summit over U.S. demands of “unilateral nuclear abandonment” and lambasted Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton. Trump has now preempted the North Koreans by himself cancelling the summit. He has nothing left to show for his self-proclaimed deal-making prowess besides two major nuclear crises with no diplomatic solutions in sight.
Trump has put forward a starkly unilateralist foreign policy at a time when the world is increasingly unwilling to accept American primacy. His bullying and bluster have reinforced perceptions of the United States as an unreliable partner. Today, even Europe is drawing a line on the JCPOA by moving to resist U.S. attempts to punish European businesses and exploring options to circumvent the U.S. financial system in its dealings with Iran. In practice, “America First” has become “America alone.”
Much of the rest of the world desires a rules-based international order grounded in multilateralism. This is evident in new funds and banks such as the “BRICS” banks, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and financial mechanisms associated with China’s “One Belt One Road Initiative.” Notably, Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA is also moving European states, China, Russia, and India to finance their trade with Iran in their own currencies, sidestepping the U.S. dollar.
Trump’s Iran policy is not only catalyzing a global rebalancing away from the United States that was already underway, it is making the United States less—not more—secure. The Trump administration’s Iran “strategy” fails to ask what comes after bringing maximum pressure on Iran. It defers to Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose anti-Iran hysteria has been dismissed by other global powers.
Trump would be better served by recognizing that policies treating Iran as a pariah since 1979 have largely been counterproductive for the United States. Over the years, Iran has managed to uphold its regional policies and expand its influence despite U.S. pressure.
Rather than pursue an approach that will lead to greater instability in the Middle East, Trump can expand U.S. influence by recognizing that American interests periodically align with its traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and sometimes will benefit from constructive engagement with Iran on the many areas of mutual U.S.-Iran interests—such as strengthening state institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan and combatting Wahhabi-Salafist terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Trump’s grandstanding on Iran and other international issues conveys a sense of hubris about American power. It has led other countries to decouple their foreign policies from America and is pushing Europe, Russia, and China closer together at the expense of the United States. By entering a dangerous escalation with Iran, Trump is also turning his back on his voters and most Americans, who do not want a new Middle Eastern war.
Instead, most Americans want Trump to address the deteriorating national infrastructure, declining health care, increasingly unaffordable higher education, and rising mortality rates. By throwing the United States into needless quagmire abroad, Trump is overstretching American capabilities and following the paths of past great powers that declined out of arrogance.
Sina Toossi is a senior research specialist at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, focusing on Iran and Middle East foreign-policy issues. He tweets @SinaToossi.