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Is Donald Trump Doomed to Repeat History in the Middle East?

Emma Ashford

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made waves when he
publicly declared that the Iraq War had been a disaster for America, causing chaos in the
Middle East. With the rise of ISIS, a refugee crisis, and
substantial unrest across the region, it’s not hard to see
why the majority of Americans now agree with him.

Yet the Trump administration appears poised to make many of the
same mistakes in its increasingly belligerent approach to Iran, a
strategy virtually guaranteed to increase tensions and worsen
regional conflicts.

This month’s internal turmoil inside the Trump White House
over whether or not to recertify Iran’s
compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal is only the most recent
example of the administration’s steps towards a tougher
approach against Iran.

In reality, Iran is complying with the terms of the deal.
But administration officials have repeatedly sought to shift the
goalposts, arguing that Iran is instead violating the
“spirit” of the agreement.

Indeed, though the details are not yet clear, the
administration’s ongoing Iran policy review is widely
expected to result in a more assertive and belligerent approach to
Iran. In recent testimony, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress that the
administration intended to support “elements inside of Iran
that would lead to a peaceful transition of that

And while others have refuted the idea that regime change is
under consideration, the administration’s Iran hawks —
from Secretary of Defense James Mattis to CIA Director Mike Pompeo
— have repeatedly described Iran as “the single
most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle


Whether it takes the form of “ripping
up” the nuclear deal, adding new sanctions, or pushing back
militarily against Iran in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen, it
seems likely that the new administration is headed for a collision
with Iran. Yet the assertions and arguments made in favor of taking
a harder line against Iran are profoundly misleading.

For starters, the idea that Iran is a threat to the United
States comparable to that of the late Soviet Union — an idea
expressed in several recent articles – is laughable. The Soviet
Union was a suprastate of almost 300 million people with a massive
army and civilization-ending nuclear arsenal. Iran, by comparison,
has around 82 million citizens and no nuclear weapons.

Iran may be able to threaten American citizens abroad, but it is
fundamentally unable to harm the U.S. through military means.

Another common misconception is the idea that Iran is the root
of all regional problems.

It is certainly true that Iran’s regional influence has
grown in recent years, particularly in Iraq. But that growing
influence is due less to Iranian revisionism and more to the U.S.
invasion of Iraq, which removed a regime that acted as a check on

And while Iran’s behavior in regional conflicts like Syria
is reprehensible, it has not alone caused the chaos currently
gripping the Middle East.

A variety of factors, including the failed Arab Spring
revolutions, the U.S. War in Iraq, and malicious meddling by other
regional states from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, have all contributed to
today’s turmoil.

Even the idea that the Iranian people seek external support for
regime change is flawed.

Certainly, many Iranians are hungry for more democratic rights.
But the leaders of Iran’s 2009 Green movement protests have
been clear that they want to improve the system from inside, not overthrow
it. There is no true domestic support for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI),
the group most commonly presented as an alternative by
regime-change hawks.


In the absence of domestic support, attempts to
conduct “regime change from within,” as some
administration officials have suggested, is a recipe for failure at
best, and disaster at worst.

Ultimately, it remains baffling that the Trump administration
— faced with historically high levels of unrest in the Middle
East — would voluntarily seek to undermine one of the
region’s few relatively stable and semi-democratic

Donald Trump was right about Iraq during the campaign: the 2003
U.S. invasion was a massive, unforced strategic error. Yet it is a
mistake his administration seems poised to make again, albeit on a
smaller scale.

If the president forgets history, he is likely only to worsen
the chaos in the Middle East.

Emma Ashford
is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.