In his first major policy speech as secretary of state — delivered Monday at the Heritage Foundation — Mike Pompeo set out the Trump administration’s Iran strategy. It’s heartening that the United States has a plan: ditching the nuclear deal is well and good, but it’s not a strategy. But is the plan a good one?
In many respects, it is. The administration’s plan begins with two reasonable arguments. First, fighting in Syria, funding Hamas, building ballistic missiles, and running a nuclear program costs Iran a lot of money. Second, Iranian resources are limited, and it cannot afford all those bills forever.
In other words, the administration is relying on what experts describe as “cost imposition.” This approach seeks to make your less wealthy adversary pay disproportionately for actions that you dislike, with the intention of discouraging or even exhausting them.
Inherent in this approach is that you cannot subsidize your adversaries: If they want to be hostile, make them pay for it. The administration’s core criticism of the nuclear deal is that it allowed Iran to escape wide-ranging sanctions in exchange — at best — for temporary restrictions on its nuclear program. As Pompeo put it, Iran “has been playing with house money that has become blood money.”
I have argued that cost imposition is the United States’ single best strategic approach. It does not reject the use of military force, but it places much greater emphasis on waging and winning a long-run economic competition in a way that ultimately reshapes the strategic balance. It relies on the fact that our greatest strength is not our military: it is our system as a whole.
The end game of cost-imposition strategies is deliberately unclear. If the target regime changes its policies as a result — as the U.S.S.R. did under Mikhail Gorbachev — that is well and good. But the kind of place against which cost imposition can work is likely to collapse as it changes. Witness the U.S.S.R.
In other words, while cost imposition works by making the other side pay for its policies, it ultimately targets the domestic economy and the popular support of the opposing regime. Pompeo summed up this approach perfectly with his argument that renewed sanctions will force Iran “either to fight to keep its economy off life support at home or keep squandering precious wealth on fights abroad.”
I like the sound of all of this. But cautions are in order. First, cost imposition doesn’t work quickly. It puts a big burden on other guy, but it also demands a lot from you. Unfortunately, the U.S. — as our record with North Korea suggests — has trouble keeping the other guy’s nose to the grindstone for the long haul.
Second, the changes the administration wants in Iran’s policies are completely right. But they are also extensive. There is little likelihood that the regime will accept them. That means, again, that we are in this for the long haul, and that the only plausible end points are that the United States ultimately changes its policies or the Iranian regime collapses. I hope it’s the latter — but the former is depressingly possible.
Third, the risk of seeking extensive changes is that it leaves you vulnerable to accusations of failure. In the early 1950s, conservatives were right to want to roll back the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe — but it turned out that the only way to do this was to win the Cold War. As a policy, rollback demanded far more than the United States could achieve quickly, and this was politically damaging.
The administration has a serious Iran strategy. But precisely because it is serious, it will not be easy to execute, and it has many possible points of failure. The effort to craft an Iran strategy is over. The effort to make it real and sustainable has barely begun.