On foreign policy matters, President Donald Trump through this week's midterm elections has demonstrated a refreshing willingness to take on critical issues that his predecessors either avoided altogether or ineffectually kicked down the road.
His tactics can lack diplomatic elegance (mostly by intention) and anger partners, but it's undeniable he has locked his legacy-seeking sights on what looks to be an overwhelming list of long-festering problems. Among them: NATO allies' unwillingness to bear sufficient defense burdens, China's unfair trade practices, Russia's violation of a short and intermediate-range missile treaty, North Korea's nuclear proliferation and Iran's dangerously malign behavior.
Of all those issues, the Iran showdown provides the most dramatic lens through which to track whether President Trump can turn his disruptive determination into a strategic outcome of lasting significance. Without minimizing the other challenges, my wager is that the Iran issue may become the Trump administration's most defining foreign policy challenge over the coming two years, viewed alongside North Korea as part of a dual effort to counter rogue regimes.
That's because, first, Iran is the issue where there is the greatest alignment among top Trump administration officials on the significance and urgency of the threat. President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton may disagree occasionally on tactics or the achievable end-game, but not on the priority.
Second, the administration has begun to execute a comprehensive, three-pronged "maximum pressure" campaign to alter Iran's behavior, driven by the resourceful and tireless Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative to Iran and senior advisor to Secretary Pompeo.
A senior U.S. official says that approach involves intensifying diplomatic engagement to bring about greater international support and sanctions compliance, increasing deterrence against Iranian behavior by more aggressively going after the money, missiles and arms fueling its regional influence, and heightening efforts to be seen as "standing with the Iranian people," who have wearied of their leaders' corruption and costly misadventures beyond Iran.