Trump's Iran Policy: Rollback or Containment?
In his recent article in Foreign Affairs, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has once again demonized Iran as a "rogue" and "outlaw" state that is hell-bent on "exporting its revolution" without any qualm about international norms, thus justifying his administration's policy of "maximum pressure" in order to convince the Iranian government to change its foreign and domestic politics and come to the negotiation table. Underscoring its determination to press ahead a "clear-eyed" aggressive Iran policy, the Trump administration has followed its unilateral exit from the Iran nuclear deal with several rounds of sanctions, with the oil and key financial sanctions to go into effect in early November, 2018.
Yet, while the White House rhetoric on Iran is crystal clear and denotes a familiar narrative since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the exact policy orientation is however covered with ambiguity and, in fact, reflects constant oscillation between the two poles of containment and (confrontational) rollback. To elaborate, containment is a power balancing strategy aimed to limit the spread of influence of an adversary, which can be inferred from Trump's recent defense of Saudi Arabia as a "counterbalance to Iran." In contrast to containment, which has economic, political and even ideological ramparts or dimensions, rollback is an alternative foreign policy that is relatively more ambitious and takes the containment strategy to its logical conclusion, by prescribing "regime change" as a viable strategy to roll back the Islamic Revolution in Iran. There is, of course, no China Wall between the two strategies and it would be a mistake to view them as binary opposites or mutually exclusive. Rather, it is better for conceptual purposes to view rollback as a more hawkish strategy that precludes meaningful engagement with the targeted state, in this case Iran, that plays a role in containment strategy. Not only that, containment usually, as in the Cold War cases, implies the sub-strategies of detente, peaceful coexistence, and rapprochement, which are bracketed in the rollback strategy following the 'maximalist' aim of overthrowing the enemy by all means necessary, including economic warfare, covert and overt operations, and war.
Notwithstanding the above-said, Trump administration's Iran policy is caught by the tensions between the two horns of containment and rollback, reflecting policy division within the administration, between the policy hawks and policy doves. Trump himself has exhibited both impulses, sometimes simultaneously, thus reflecting a fundamental policy incoherence, despite the appearances to the contrary. Thus, whereas his maximalist rollback strategy is displayed by his frequent Iranophobic statements, Trump has also veered in the other direction by (a) offering to negotiate with Iran without preconditions, and (b) taking credit for noticeable changes in Iran's regional behavior. The latter is reflected in Trump's recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. In the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair, it may well turn out that the pressures on Trump to pursue a more 'balanced' Persian Gulf policy are working. This is not to say that US would abandon Saudi Arabia and or suddenly turn in favor of a "balanced equi-distance" from both Iran and Saudi Arabia; The sheer scope of US-Saudi ties and the animosity between US and Iran operate against such a scenario.
But a gradual shift by the Trump administration in favor of containment can, hypothetically speaking, materialize as a direct result of the failure of the rollback strategy to achieve its objectives, which require a 'coalition of willing" hitherto absent, in light of Europe's decision to defy Trump on the nuclear accord. That strategy's attempt to rouse the Iranian people against their political leaders has also gone nowhere and shows its structural weakness. In fact, the damage to previous containment strategy by an overzealous, yet ultimately doomed, rollback strategy cannot be ignored either.
Concerning the latter, suffice to say that if the Trump administration chooses to sanction SWIFT in order to completely cut off Iran from the international financial networks, then this may backfire with Europe and China and Russia and act as catalyst for the latter's pursuit of an alternative system. US dollar may then suffer and then instead of a successful rollback US strategy, we may witness a pushback against it in the international community that is presently fed up with US's 'bullying'. Perhaps this is why the US Treasury Secretary has been reluctant to take that fateful step, which has triggered a tsunami of opposition by the hawkish political voices in US, who are now accusing Trump's Iran sanctions as being "weak" and insufficiently powerful. These US hawks, headed by the national security adviser John Bolton, are inherently sold to rollback strategy as a viable approach, without bothering themselves with its limited chance of success and or side-effects in alienating the allies and countries such as India, which is seeking exemption from the US oil embargo on Iran, so far without much success.
Indeed, the reason the Trump administration has been sending contradictory signals on oil waivers to Iran oil importers such as India, Japan, and South Korea, is that it is concerned about Tehran's ability to remain economically afloat even with a reduced oil export, thus undermining its rollback strategy. At the same time, the administration is concerned about a spike in oil prices attributable to its sanctions on Iran in today's tight oil market, which in turn acts as another potential brake on its omnibus of rollback. The chips must fall in the end in favor of one or the other approach and, chances are, the dictates of economic and political pragmatism will gain the upper hands and remove the sanctions hammer from SWIFT and excluding oil exemptions. These are two key barometers of the priority of containment or rollback confrontation, in the cognitive map of Trump administration vis-a-vis Iran, which will likely become transparent shortly. Should Trump opt to appease his administration's Iran hawks by sanctioning SWIFT and refusing meaningful exemptions, then it must face the consequences of Iran's own countermeasures as well as the backlashes on the part of third parties who resent being subjected to arms-twisting by Washington in violation of their own national interests. By all accounts, Trump's rollback strategy is a risky gamble that does not serve US's foreign policy objectives either, as it is fundamentally based on a caricature of Iran's realities.