The face-off: President Trump's Iran dilemma

Is the president willing to risk Obama’s agreement—and the possibility of another Middle Eastern war if he tries to improve it—in a face-off with the clerical regime? The odds are good that when Trump first dismissed the nuclear deal on the campaign trail he did so without thinking through the ramifications. Given Trump’s campaign mantra against wasteful wars in the Middle East, does he see the mullahs’ development of nuclear weapons as a fundamental threat to the United States? Does Trump object to the Islamic Republic’s regional activities, especially in Syria, where Tehran’s actions have been the most aggressive and brutal? Given his support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria, does Trump really oppose Iranian aid to Assad? Although President Obama never said so publicly, his staff certainly suggested that the White House grew to fear a triumph of Sunni Arabs in Syria, among whom jihadists are numerous. United Nations ambassador Samantha Power could wax poetic about Assad’s butchery, but Obama’s Washington no long­er viewed the Alawite dictator as a state-sponsor of terrorism against the West.

There is a notable strategic incongruity on much of the American right: anti-Iran but pro-Assad. This shows the enormous advantage that Assad, a thoroughly secularized despot from a heretical Shiite clan, gained when he strengthened the decades-old family alliance with Tehran and framed the rebellion against his tyranny as a battle between secularists and jihadists. Given Assad’s savage tactics and the collapse of Sunni Syrian society, a bipolar world—secular Alawites, supported by militant Iranian, Arab, and Afghan Shiites, versus Sunni radicals—has emerged. Assad’s stage-managed concern for the Syrian Christian community also hasn’t hurt his appeal in the United States, especially among Republicans.

Syria and Iraq have different internal dynamics, but it’s possible that President Trump could start to see a common denominator: The clerical regime in both countries works against Sunni jihadism.