Shadow Government

Trump’s Iran Policy Is a Failure

Blame U.S. blunders for the worsening crisis in the region.

U.S. President Donald Trump exits after speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24.
U.S. President Donald Trump exits after speaking at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 24. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This month’s attack on two Saudi Aramco oil facilities marked a stunning escalation of tensions in the Middle East. The scale, sophistication, and accuracy of the strikes all suggest that Iran most likely conducted them, as both Riyadh and Washington allege.

The strikes represent a surprising and ill-conceived escalation by Iran, just as U.S. President Donald Trump appeared be on the brink of offering concessions as an incentive to return to direct negotiations with the United States. But they also represent a massive, self-inflicted policy failure by the Trump administration, which triggered the crisis in the first place and has since worsened it through diplomatic, rhetorical, and strategic blunders. In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, Trump offered more of the same: the promise of continued economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, which will do little to reduce tensions deter Iranian aggression.

The White House’s original mistake was its decision in May of last year to walk away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which was keeping Tehran’s nuclear program in check. For a year after the United States withdrew, Iran remained in the deal and tried to isolate Washington from its partners. This approach met with some success as key European governments, along with Russia and China, sided with Iran and worked to keep it compliant with the nuclear agreement. However, international companies fearing U.S. sanctions quickly withdrew from Iran, eliminating the economic benefits associated with the accord. Meanwhile opponents of the deal argued that their strategy had led to the best of both worlds: an Iran under severe sanctions that was still abiding by its 2015 nuclear commitments.

That changed in April, when the Trump administration announced that it would no longer provide any waivers for countries purchasing oil from Iran, in an attempt to drive Iranian oil exports down to zero. With dwindling oil revenue, Iranian leadership decided to demonstrate to the United States the costs of continuing with maximum pressure and send a message to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that if Iran could not sell oil, their oil exports would also take a hit.

In May, mines damaged oil tankers in the UAE port of Fujairah. In June, a Japanese tanker suffered a mine attack in the Gulf of Oman even as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran trying to de-escalate U.S.-Iran tensions. Days later, Iran shot down a U.S. drone, nearly leading to a direct military confrontation. And now it appears that Iran has conducted a significant attack on critical pieces of Saudi oil infrastructure.

Though led by a president who prides himself on his toughness and brags about withdrawing from the supposedly terrible Iran deal, the Trump administration responded to the recent incidents in the region—almost assuredly conducted by Iran—with incompetence and fecklessness, failing to establish deterrence and instead only encouraging Iran to go further and further. It has entirely undercut U.S. credibility—an absolute necessity when an adversary like Iran pursues attacks meant to leave it with plausible deniability. The administration has also alienated key allies that are crucial to developing a unified international response. Further, its insistence on speaking loudly and incoherently while carrying no stick at all has led to the collapse of deterrence and allowed for an increasingly emboldened Iran. Because of these missteps, the United States is closer to war with Iran than it has been at any time in recent memory.

The first and most important task when an adversary such as Iran conducts an unattributable attack is to convince Congress, the public, and the world—especially the United States’ closest allies—that Iran was in fact behind the attack. Yet this requires credibility the president no longer has, because of his willingness to lie on a daily basis about everything from voter fraud conspiracy theories to falsified hurricane paths.

In spite of Trump’s penchant for lying, the United States has close partners, especially in Europe, that might still be willing to believe U.S. accusations toward Iran if presented with compelling evidence. To make that case, the administration must carefully and deliberately gather all the available intelligence, show it to key allies and partners to build broad international support, and only then release it publicly.

Instead, the Trump administration did just the opposite. Within hours following the Sept. 14 attack, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Iran the perpetrator on Twitter, before briefing Congress or consulting with partners. Further undercutting any shred of credibility the administration may have maintained, the president contradicted Pompeo, saying it was not clear yet whether Iran was the culprit and he would consult the Saudis before formulating a response. Rather than generating support for a unified response, this initial rollout of the intelligence created deep skepticism.

And this is not the first time the Trump administration has bungled the rollout of critical information. The White House also followed this dysfunctional playbook after the tanker attacks in both May and June. In May, the United States was the first to accuse Iran of sabotaging the four tankers, but none of the three nations to which the tankers belonged—Saudi Arabia, Norway, and the UAE—ever assigned blame for the attacks. In June, Pompeo named Iran as the perpetrator of the attacks on a Norwegian and a Japanese tanker without offering evidence to back up the administration’s assessment, which eventually was released but only after he had pointed at Iran. This overeagerness creates a perception, which is probably also a reality, of an administration that wants to shoot first and ask questions later.

The good news is that in recent days, Britain, France, and Germany put out a statement blaming Iran for the attacks. But this statement was not coordinated with the United States and makes the centerpiece of any de-escalation policy a return to the nuclear deal, which the Trump administration opposes. And the message to Iran would have been much stronger if the United States had taken its time before pointing a finger at Iran and instead coordinated a joint response from the outset.

The administration’s failure to generate any kind of international response is not just about its lack of credibility. It’s also about a closely related issue: its complete unpredictability and unreliability. U.S. partners are afraid to acknowledge Iran’s hand behind the attack even when the finger is likely pointed in the right direction, because they do not want to be associated with the erratic actions the United States might take next, which could potentially draw them into a conflict.

Take, for example, Operation Sentinel, the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s response to recent Iranian attacks in the Persian Gulf. The joint naval operation was meant to build a broad coalition of partners that would contribute ships and aircraft to monitor the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and Strait of Hormuz to deter Iranian attacks on international shipping. This is among the easiest types of coalition operations. Under a more trustworthy U.S. administration, most traditional U.S. partners would be expected to eagerly support such an effort. Instead, key partners such as Germany and France are trying to establish their own separate mission. Trump he is keen to have allies do more of the work, but his policies are driving the opposite outcome. The message to Iran is clear: The world does not care, so carry on with your attacks.

Even one of the United States’ most steadfast anti-Iran partners, the UAE, has not stood by the Trump administration. Not only did the UAE decline to publicly attribute the Fujairah attack to Iran even after the Trump administration encouraged it to do so, but it has also been pulling back from Yemen and begun naval military-to-military talks with Iran. If the UAE had any faith the United States would defend it and the Trump administration would act reliably, it may have acted differently.

Beyond its contribution to degrading U.S. credibility, reliability, and predictability, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric, unsupported by a real military response, inhibits deterrence against Iran and limits Washington’s potential to push back covertly without igniting a large-scale conflict. Again and again, Trump has shown himself to be all talk and no action. Over the weekend, the president tweeted that the United States was “locked and loaded” to respond to Iran, only to pull back. This is a repeat pattern: In June, when Tehran reportedly downed a U.S. drone, Trump posted on Twitter about how Iran would pay but backed away from strikes in the end.

While Trump has no problem promising to punish Iran for its actions, he has yet to carry out any of his threats. Thus far, his lack of military response has kept the United States from the brink of war, but it has also sent a message to Iran that it can keep pushing further and further without consequences. Eventually, the Iranians may overstep and go too far, and when they do, a president who has spent months thumping his chest may feel he has no choice but to go big in response, triggering a major conflict.

Compare Trump’s failed approach to what Israel has been able to do in Syria, where it has struck more than 1,000 Iranian targets in some 200 separate airstrikes without triggering significant retaliation. Israel has left attribution for these strikes ambiguous so as to not embarrass Iran and force a public response. But the message to Tehran is clear: Israel has imposed limits on how far Iran can go in Syria.

Imagine if instead of all of the bravado, the Trump administration had followed this approach. No tweets. Just an important oil facility in Iran mysteriously exploding. And a subtle message from the United States, either through private back channels or leaks, that it had perpetrated the attack in response to unacceptable Iranian behavior. This type of action would send the right message but also give Iran a way out without having to save face.

The crisis is in the Gulf today is the predictable result of the Trump administration’s failed Iran policies. It set the conditions for this crisis by leaving the Iran nuclear deal. It has failed to convince U.S. partners of Iran’s culpability and build an international consensus for a firm response. And it has been heavy on bluster but created no real consequences. As a result, the United States is closer to war with Iran today than it has been at any time in recent memory.

Ilan Goldenberg is the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Twitter: @ilangoldenberg

Kaleigh Thomas is a research associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @kaleighsthomas

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