Volker Perthes | Executive chairman and director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin
If there is a U.S. strategy for containing Iran, it is well hidden. Washington’s policy toward Iran is confrontational, but it is unclear what it seeks to achieve, how, and with whom. By exiting from the nuclear agreement with Iran and reimposing sanctions, the Trump administration doubtless sought to increase pressure on Tehran. It is not clear, however, whether this was to force Iran into bilateral negotiations or rather to penalize and destabilize it. And instead of maintaining a sense of international unity with regard to Iran, the move has opened a deep rift between the United States and its European allies.
In Syria, the U.S. is confusing its allies and foes with conflicting messages about the purpose and future of its troop presence. Is this presence designed to finish the fight against the Islamic State or to disrupt an Iranian land bridge to the Levant? Also, Washington seems to support Israeli rhetoric about not allowing any Iranian military presence in Syria, while at the same time relying on Russia to prevent a major outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Iran.
George F. Kennan, the intellectual godfather of containment of the Soviet Union after world War II, would probably tell Donald Trump that containment, beyond any intention to stem the influence of an adversary, needs a strategy for the long haul. This strategy has to be clear, with clearly communicated objectives, a certain level of engagement with the adversary (if only to prevent misunderstandings), and a commitment to work together with allies. Kennan wouldn’t see much of this in the current U.S. policies.
Steven Heydemann | Chair and professor of Middle East studies at Smith College; senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy
The hallmarks of the Trump administration’s foreign policy are confusion, contradiction, and inconsistency. Iran, however, is the rare exception. President Donald Trump has singled out Iran as an adversary of the United States, its Arab partners, and Israel. Since he took office, the stated goals of U.S. policy have been to force Iran to accept permanent constraints on its nuclear program and to reduce its presence and influence in the Levant. Withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and efforts to secure Russian support in limiting Tehran’s role in Syria are the key elements of U.S. policy. So, there is a strategy. The real questions are whether such an approach is in the long-term interests of the United States, whether it will work, and how Trump will respond if it fails. On all of these issues we have good reasons to be worried.
Pierre Vimont | Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, Brussels
The Trump administration in the United States is openly looking for regime change in Iran. Through sanctions and pressure it wants the Iranian regime to change its behavior, or the people of Iran to change their regime.
Is this a strategy that aims at containment or at least encourages it? As observed with the Helsinki process in Europe, for containment to be effective it requires strong support from partners. That is not the case today, as the other signatories of the nuclear agreement with Iran reject the U.S. position. Containment must also offer a positive path to cooperation and entice the other side to compromise and dialogue, which the Trump administration’s strategy does not seem to contemplate. Lastly, by making Iran’s population a hostage to this whole policy, American moves risk feeding nationalism and strong anti-American attitudes.
Therefore, this strategy seems to be one of confrontation, not containment, openly stirring tension and crisis. Here and there it may push back Iranian influence in the region, but that is not the purpose of such a policy, which promises a troublesome journey.
Eli Lake | Columnist for Bloomberg View
If one defines containment in the traditional sense, as proposed by George Kennan, who was the first to suggest containing the Soviet Union, then the answer is no. But it depends on what one means by containment. Under Kennan there was an understanding that the United States would not be fighting the Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe. In this respect it was more dovish than an invitation for roll back, which envisioned using American power to free captive nations.
Does U.S. policy now recognize a similar Iranian sphere of influence in the Middle East? No. On the other hand, there is no U.S. strategy to use military force to push back against Iran in Syria. In Yemen, the U.S. continues to supply the Gulf states and help them with targeting in the conflict with the Houthis. I think U.S. strategy at this point is to reimpose sanctions and starve the Iranian state of the resources it needs to maintain its presence in Syria and Yemen. Trump himself has said that this is part of a plan to pressure Iran to go back to negotiations so that he can, presumably, get a better deal than his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump’s administration, along with Israel, has also explored whether it is possible to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran that would allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stay in power, but require Iran to leave Syria.
Wang Suolao | Associate professor in the School of International Studies, Peking University.
Yes, I think the Trump administration does have a strategy to contain Iran. The reasons are as follows: First, the administration has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement with Iran; second, it has reimposed sanctions on Iran; third, the administration has threatened the countries who continue to trade with Iran, such as China and Russia. And fourth, the Trump administration has strengthened its ties with countries hostile to Iran, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, to encircle Iran and contain it.