In his speech last week laying out a new Iran strategy, President Trump focused less on the 2015 nuclear deal that he was decertifying (but not actually canceling), than on what he called the Iranian regime’s “long campaign of bloodshed” in the Middle East. Trump vowed to “counter the regime’s destabilizing activity and support for terrorist proxies in the region.” But so far, he’s not doing much on that front.
Iran’s proxies have been pretty busy in Iraq over the past few days. The Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Tehran-backed Shiite militias supporting the Iraqi government, moved in to reoccupy areas around the town of Sinjar, which had been under the control of U.S.-supported Kurdish forces. Over the weekend, the armed forces of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated, Iranian-allied government retook the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurdish Peshmerga had taken control of during the fight against ISIS. The American-backed Kurdish forces mostly backed away without putting up a fight.
This has, not surprisingly, set off some alarm bells among Iran hawks in Washington. Sen. John McCain said he was “especially concerned by media reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are part of the assault” on Kurdish-held areas. But a relatively blasé Trump said on Monday, “We don’t like the fact that they are clashing, but we’re not taking sides.” The U.S. embassy in Baghdad more or less endorsed Baghdad’s move on Kirkuk, saying “We support the peaceful reassertion of federal authority, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas.”
Even if the U.S. has been frustrated with the Kurds lately, it’s striking to see the U.S. sit on its hands as Iranian proxies and allies seize oil fields and cities from one of America’s staunchest regional allies. Despite the apocalyptic terms in which Trump framed the threat of Iran’s regional influence last week, Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability is seen as a larger priority, especially while ISIS still maintains a few pockets of resistance.
The story is much the same in Syria. The Syrian conflict is entering a new (and hopefully final) phase as ISIS’s last urban strongholds fall. With the ISIS situation more or less under control, the Trump administration seems content to let Iranian-allied Russia take the lead in negotiating a final settlement for the wider conflict. This means that Iranian-backed leader Bashar al-Assad will almost certainly remain in power, and the U.S. seems okay with that. As the New York Times put it last month, “in areas nominally under Mr. Assad’s control, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and local militias empowered by the war often exercise greater control than the Syrian state.” (Not surprisingly, Israel has been critical of the ceasefire deals backed by the U.S. and Russia, worried that they will expand Hezbollah’s influence in Syria.)
Others have noticed the contradiction between Trump’s Iran focus and his administration’s Syria policy. Jake Sullivan, a former top advisor in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, told the House Foreign Affairs committee last week that "The administration's current ISIS-only strategy has created open running room for Iran, its client [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, and its proxy Hezbollah to assert greater control over Syria, including areas adjacent to the border with Israel.” (This was a little ironic coming from Sullivan, given that ignoring the wider Iranian threat and focusing solely on the nuclear issue was exactly what Republicans spent years attacking the Obama for doing.)
One thing Trump did do is call for new sanctions on Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support of terrorist groups. But he stopped short of designating the group as a terrorist organization, a move that was widely expected and supported by Iran hawks in Washington. Asked to explain, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that such a designation would "put in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield, and it would trigger actions that are not necessarily in the best interests of our military actions.” Translated from diplo-speak, this means that the IGRC and the U.S. military are fighting common enemies on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Officially calling them terrorists would make that even more awkward and dangerous than it already is.
The sort of aggressive anti-Iran strategy that a President McCain or Lindsey Graham might put in place would probably seek to counter Iranian influence by stepping up support for the Iraqi Kurds and encouraging them to fight back against the militias, as well as backing anti-Assad rebels in Syria. This, to be clear, would not be a wise strategy, as Trump’s military advisors—not exactly Iran doves—no doubt realize. It would also run counter to Trump’s own impulses dating back to his campaign: focus above all else on the fight against ISIS and avoid backing rebel groups.
So what actually was the new strategy Trump announced last week? We’re left with a nuclear deal still intact, perhaps some new sanctions that aren’t as tough as they could be, an appeal to Congress that may or may not actually go anywhere, and the continuation of a counterterrorism strategy that virtually ensures that Iran’s regional influence will grow.
With a few days perspective, Trump’s decertification announcement looks less like a legitimate threat to Iran than a symbolic sop to the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran hawks in Washington, who’ve been alarmed by Iran’s expanding power. From Trump’s point of view, the main point was probably to allow him to make good on his campaign rhetoric. The primary target was not Iran, but Barack Obama.