Trump’s Syria Strikes Don’t Bode Well for Iran Policy

by Tyler Cullis and Reza Marashi

Twenty-four hours after launching missiles at Syria, Donald Trump’s decision to increase America’s bombing campaign in the Middle East has received much fanfare and little public debate. Regardless of whether these strikes are a one-off, the beginning of a more robust regime change effort, or something in between, over 25 years of uninterrupted U.S. bombing in the region highlights an inconvenient truth: For every action, there is a reaction. One key area where the reverberations will likely be felt is Trump’s emerging Iran policy. Three specific issues stand out.

First, Trump’s repeatedly stated goal of defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is not possible without some form of sustained U.S.-Iran cooperation. Durable solutions to conflict require the buy-in of each country with the capacity to wreck the solution, and Iran is one of few Middle Eastern countries to display a stable commitment to defeating these terrorist organizations. U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan should be illustrative for Syria. The more aggressive and uncoordinated U.S. military efforts become, the less likely Iran is willing to cooperate and de-conflict—and the more damage American interests absorb. Trump and Iran need each other, but none of his actions to date reflects this reality.

Second, U.S. escalation in Syria increases the risks of a direct military confrontation with Iran. Most egregiously, former CIA head James Woolsey appeared on CNN to argue that the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons has “give[n] [the U.S.] an opportunity…to use force against the Iranian nuclear program.” For some Iran hawks, every outrage in the Middle East is an excuse to carpet-bomb Tehran. But even if Trump does not intend direct confrontation with Iran, America’s targeting of Syrian government forces risks Iranian casualties as a result of their proximity on the battlefield. Although some in Washington would welcome such a development, it needs to be weighed against its likely consequence: Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces through its allies in Syria and Iraq, setting off a chain reaction with the highly probable outcome of a growing conflict that expands the humanitarian tragedy and leads to a broader regional war.

Third, the civil war’s prolongation and intensification also poses substantial risks for the sustainability of the Iran nuclear accord. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the strongest nuclear accord ever negotiated, but it is unlikely to survive a direct military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

There are also less obvious ways in which Syria’s war can negatively impact the durability of the deal. Congress is currently considering a broad sanctions bill targeting the Syrian government, which would mandate the imposition of sanctions on parties providing it support. As demonstrated by the White House talking points released following its strike on Syria, in which Iran and its “allied Shia militant foot soldiers were held responsible for “the killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians,” Iran would be an obvious target for such sanctions. If the president re-imposed sanctions on Iranian parties removed from U.S. sanctions lists under the JCPOA or otherwise negatively affected Iran’s re-integration into the global economy, Trump would risk violating America’s treaty obligations and undermining the deal altogether.

A Middle East without an Iran nuclear deal would throw us back to 2013, when the United States was on the precipice of a major war with Iran, a country four times the size of Iraq.

Trump’s team could be telling the truth when it says that the bombing of Syria was a single strike and it has no current plans for escalation. But Barack Obama (Libya), George W. Bush (Iraq, Afghanistan), Bill Clinton (Iraq), George H.W. Bush (Iraq), and Ronald Reagan (Lebanon) might tell Trump that war in the Middle East doesn’t always go as planned. The White House may not be looking to start another war, but yesterday’s bombing of the Syrian government certainly risks opening a broader conflict than Trump intends.

Photo of Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council. He came to NIAC after serving in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He has been a guest contributor to CNN, NPR, the BBC, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times, among other broadcast outlets. Follow Reza on Twitter: @rezamarashi

Tyler Cullis

Tyler Cullis is a D.C.-based attorney specializing in the practice of U.S. economic sanctions. His writings have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and Foreign Affairs, and he is frequently asked to comment on U.S. sanctions developments for major U.S. publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Washington Post, amongst others. He can be found on Twitter at @tylercullis.