FPI Bulletin: Trump Must Challenge Iran on Human Rights
Thirty-six years ago this week, the 444-day Iranian hostage crisis came to an end just minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. To be sure, the timing of the release, which followed months of negotiations with the outgoing U.S. administration, likely stemmed from Tehran’s wish to humiliate Jimmy Carter rather than fear of his successor. Nevertheless, the confluence of events has come to symbolize the disparity between the two presidents’ broader foreign policy legacies: Whereas Carter projected weakness and equivocation in the face of aggression, Reagan championed moral clarity and a robust commitment to peace through strength.
Donald Trump has sought to portray his differences with Barack Obama in similar terms, lambasting the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as a humiliating strategic failure that empowers the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. Trump, however, has virtually ignored Iran’s modern-day hostage crisis: At least six Americans, as well as numerous other foreign nationals, continue to languish in the regime’s notorious prisons. This error of omission reflects a flaw in Trump’s larger worldview, which regards the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad as a futile and costly distraction from the pursuit of America’s real national interests.
During the campaign, Trump described Iran’s nuclear and expansionary ambitions almost exclusively in terms of the threat they pose to the United States and its allies — yet he remained virtually silent about the regime’s appalling human rights record. In so doing, he implicitly sought to distinguish his approach from the policies of his two immediate predecessors. George W. Bush, in Trump’s view, foolishly conflated the cul-de-sac of Iraqi democracy with U.S. strategic interests, producing a bloody quagmire that destabilized the region. Obama, in turn, naively chased the mirage of Iranian moderation by falsely presuming that one-sided nuclear concessions would spur reciprocal goodwill in other arenas.
Trump apparently seeks to avoid both mistakes by charting a narrower, and more clear-eyed, third course — “America First” — that aims to preserve U.S. national security without pursuing quixotic adventures in regional transformation. Yet this approach presumes a false dichotomy between American values and American interests — and, in so doing, fundamental mischaracterizes not only the nature of the Iranian threat, but also its long-term solution.
Tehran’s nuclear program, support for terrorism, and repressive state apparatus spring from a common ideological agenda: the pursuit of regional hegemony and the contraction of U.S. global leadership. As Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for secretary of defense, noted in an April 2016 speech, Iran is “not a nation-state,” but “a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem.” Its aggression in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen; its global terror networks that stretch from southeast Asia to Latin America; and its burgeoning alliance with U.S. adversaries like Russia and China reflect a fanatical devotion to exporting the Islamic Revolution.
For this reason, Washington must combat not only Iran’s malign behavior but also the ideology that underpins it, with the ultimate goal of delegitimizing and replacing the regime. Such an objective need not entail a U.S. invasion of Iran, but the injection of pressure on human rights as part of a larger campaign to dismantle both the nuclear deal and Iran’s support for terrorism.
For example, Trump should strengthen human rights sanctions on Iran, a step Obama pledged — but failed — to take in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. The incoming administration should meet openly with Iranian dissidents, provide robust funding to human rights organizations seeking reform in the country, and work to isolate the regime in international fora. At every opportunity, the administration should publicly and privately condemn the regime’s repressive treatment of its own people, and caution international banks and companies regarding the dangers of conducting business with a theocratic dictatorship. In other words, Trump should aim to demoralize, discredit, and debilitate the Iranian regime.
In this context, Trump can learn an important lesson from Reagan’s fight against the Soviet Union. Moscow’s nuclear and expansionary ambitions posed a material threat to the United States, yet Reagan recognized that Soviet communism also posed a civilizational challenge that aimed to compete with America’s democratic, capitalist worldview. As such, his routine denunciations of Soviet human rights abuses were a key part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at eroding the political and ideological roots of Moscow’s regime. Put differently, Reagan understood that the Soviet Union’s internal despotism and global belligerence amounted to two sides of the same coin, and that halting one would be key to halting the other.
As such, Trump’s silence on Iran’s hostages, which intersects the boundaries of the regime’s domestic repression and external aggression, sends a troubling message concerning his overall strategy to halt Iran’s behavior. If the president-elect wishes to make U.S. relations with Iran great again, he should make clear that Iran’s malign treatment of innocent Americans and Iranians alike will trigger severe consequences.
The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.