Last week, two commercial tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway through which about 20% of the world’s oil passes. United States officials, including President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, quickly blamed Iran. When pressed for evidence, the U.S. released a video of Iranians on a small boat removing what appears to be an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers.
Major U.S. allies, such as Germany and Japan, were skeptical and said so in public. Yutaka Katada, the Japanese owner of one of the tankers, said the ship was attacked by a flying object, not a mine. U.K. Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said his country is “almost certain” Iran was behind the attacks, but instead of condemning the Iranians or calling for freedom of the seas, he urged “all sides to de-escalate.” The European Union offered a similar message.
Europe and Japan probably suspect Iran too, even if they doubt Trump and Pompeo’s statements. Their publicly-expressed skepticism and calls for restraint from all sides sends a signal. They do not want to join Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, they do not want conflict, and if the situation escalates to war, America will be alone.
That’s Trump’s fault.
Donald Trump is not the only reason one might question an American accusation. An accidental explosion on the USS Maine, blamed on Spain, helped lead to the Spanish-American War. False claims about a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin led to escalation in Vietnam. More recently, the United States justified invading Iraq with inaccurate accusations about nuclear and biological weapons.
But none of this prevented George W. Bush or Barack Obama from leading a global coalition to pressure Iran. Escalating sanctions, authorized by Security Counsel resolutions, had support from the U.K., E.U., Russia, China, Japan, India, and others. That effort culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which traded sanctions relief for most of Iran’s enriched uranium — i.e. bomb fuel — and their capacity to create more, moving the country further away from a nuclear weapon.
In May 2018, Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran was upholding its end of the bargain — an assessment shared by U.S. and allied intelligence. The U.S. imposed sanctions, going against the wishes of every other party to the deal, including NATO allies U.K., France, and Germany.
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As a result, everyone outside of the United States blames Trump for the current Iran situation (except for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, Iran’s regional rivals). But the president’s inability to build an international anti-Iran coalition stems from more than just disagreement over the JCPOA.
It’s About Trust
Freedom of the seas is an international right. Threats to it merit an international response. But the country that usually leads such an effort is the United States, and the U.S. is suffering a crisis of trust.
Few trust that the Trump administration will be honest with them, consider their interests, or move the situation in a productive direction, so they don’t want to line up behind America now. While the Iraq war plays a role, a lot is specific to this presidency.
In his first trip abroad, Trump gave a speech in Saudi Arabia, delighting his hosts by inaccurately blaming Iran for most terrorism. He publicly backed the Saudi-led diplomatic isolation of Qatar — now in its third year — even though Qatar hosts America’s largest Middle East airbase. He repeatedly lied about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to cover for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). His son-in-law/adviser Jared Kushner took an unannounced trip to Riyadh in October 2017, reportedly giving MBS intelligence on influential Saudis the Crown Prince later arrested in a power grab.
This is different than previous presidents, and makes American allies less confident the United States will do the right thing when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s main rival.
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In Syria, Trump oversaw the successful conclusion of the campaign to retake territory from ISIS, and then in December 2018 issued a surprise order to withdraw. Quickly leaving would abandon the Syrian Democratic Forces, America’s local partners, and risk increasing instability. Trump’s order prompted resignations from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk, who were arguably the administration’s two most credible officials on Middle East issues. Later, the president partially reversed course, agreeing to leave half the force in Syria.
The officials currently at the forefront of Iran policy — Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — have advocated regime change for years. Bolton has openly backed the MEK, an Iranian dissident group, which the U.S. designated a foreign terrorist organization from 1997–2012. The MEK recently got caught running a fake Iranian activist persona online, who got articles published in Forbes, the Hill, the Daily Caller, the Federalist and other U.S. outlets.
On May 31, a suicide bomber attacked a U.S. convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan and the Taliban took responsibility. But two weeks later, Pompeo called it one “in a series of attacks instigated by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its surrogates against American and allied interests.” The Secretary has not presented any evidence, and almost no one shares his assessment.
This doesn’t mean Pompeo’s accusation that Iran was behind the tanker attacks is false. Iran is one of the few actors with access, and may have wanted to signal that it can disrupt shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. But that’s not the only possibility, and Pompeo’s boy-who-cried-Iran routine makes him a poor messenger.
The Uncertainty Isn’t Helping
Compounding the problem of the administration’s credibility, it’s not clear what the U.S. wants.
Is America after regime change, hoping the sanctions will collapse the government or spark a revolution? Is pressure supposed to antagonize Iran into an action that justifies a military response? Or is it designed to bring Iran to the negotiating table, ideally with new concessions?
And with the tanker attacks, is the U.S. aiming for freedom of the seas? In that case, a smart approach would involve coordinated international condemnation, a Security Counsel resolution, and perhaps an offer to provide military escorts for merchant vessels near the Strait of Hormuz. But if the U.S. aims to frighten Iran into concessions, or is looking for an excuse to bomb, there’s value in ratcheting up tensions.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of the Armed Services Committee called for “a retaliatory military strike against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens said the U.S. should threaten to sink Iran’s navy. Both advocate regime change, but argue these threats would deter Iran from further attacks on shipping.
Where the Trump administration falls is less certain.
In May 2018, Pompeo issued twelve demands, including ending support for Hezbollah, withdrawing from Syria, and leaving Iraq alone. Essentially, the secretary told Iran to abandon its foreign policy interests — a degree of capitulation to which no country would agree, except after losing a major war. This week Pompeo said the U.S. doesn’t want war, but considering his pre-administration calls for regime change and his absolutist demands, he probably wouldn’t mind it.
Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan also said the U.S. doesn’t want war with Iran, but he just resigned over accusations that he punched his wife, leaving civilian military leadership in flux.
Mixed messages combined with poor credibility undermines strategies of deterrence and coercion. If the Iranians don’t know where the U.S. draws the line, and what will happen if they cross it, then they’re less likely to be deterred. If Iran doesn’t know what non-absolutist concessions the U.S. would accept, then it’s less likely to be open to negotiations.
What About the President?
Trump seems like he might want a deal. In July 2018, the president publicly floated the idea of meeting without preconditions. This month, Trump asked Shinzo Abe to convey an openness to negotiations when the Japanese prime minister traveled to Tehran.
After the tanker attacks, the president struck a different tone from his senior staffers. “So far, it’s been very minor,” Trump said in an interview with Time, downplaying the possibility of a military response, but “I would certainly go [to war] over nuclear weapons.” This sounds like something out of a gangster movie: how about I let the little thing slide and then you and I have a talk about the big thing?
And it suggests an under-appreciated possibility: Trump might be following the same strategy he used with North Korea. In that case, we’re currently in the “fire and fury” stage, with sanctions and threats. Trump might be trying to get to the Singapore summit stage, where he gets a photo op and something he can call a deal to tout back home.
Some theorize that Trump would like a war to distract from domestic problems or create a rally-around-the-flag effect to help his re-election. But I don’t think the president who ordered withdrawal from Syria, refrained from attacking Venezuela, and sings Kim Jong-un’s praises is eager for war. And he has little trouble creating distractions.
Wars are messy. Expensive. Trump is willing to use force against terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, who have little ability to respond. But with governments, which can resist and retaliate, he sticks to threats, hoping that bullying will work.
Military action could go wrong and hurt his electoral chances. A chunk of Trump’s base is isolationist and wouldn’t like it, much as they denounced limited missile strikes against Syria in April 2018.
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But this situation is different from North Korea. Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and may worry that it has to establish deterrence by demonstrating the ability to impose costs, such as by disrupting global oil markets. North Korea is boxed in by China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan, while Iran is involved in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza. And Iran has domestic politics.
It’s not a democracy, but it’s not built around one man like North Korea. Iran has factions competing for influence, and when Trump broke the JCPOA, the faction that’s open to negotiations lost ground to the one that said America can’t be trusted. Iran rejected Trump’s offer to meet, and the government has domestic political incentives to stand firm, even as sanctions create pressure to come to the table.
This week, Iran announced it will resume some uranium enrichment activities banned under the JCPOA. It’s not surprising, since the U.S. reneged on its commitments first, but it’s still a sign that Iran plans to escalate. However, whether they’re trying to generate leverage for negotiation, deter American action, or increase the chances of conflict isn’t clear.
The most worrisome part is not that Trump personally wants war. It’s that without unified global pressure Iran won’t back down, the sanctions will achieve little besides suffering, and Trump won’t get an agreement he can take credit for. And then people with the president’s ear — from Bolton and Pompeo to the Saudis and Israelis — will tell him he has no choice but to bomb because otherwise he’ll look weak.