Trump Is Giving Iran More Than It Ever Dreamed of

Tehran’s retaliatory strategy was failing—until the United States started handing it a generational victory.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump share a laugh during a cabinet meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 18, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump share a laugh during a cabinet meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

For the past six months, there has been plenty of reason to believe that Iran has primarily been motivated by fear, even desperation, in its confrontation with the United States. Lately, however, there are signs that Tehran has shifted to a strategy driven instead by a sense of opportunity and advantage. The trigger for this shift has been the Trump administration, whose misguided approach to Iran is on the cusp of splitting the United States from its Sunni Arab allies—a monumental geostrategic victory that Tehran has sought for 40 years.

Initially, Iran’s attacks on Gulf oil exports were almost certainly driven by fear and anger over the impact of the reimposed U.S. sanctions, which are devastating Iran’s economy and inflicting real hardship on average Iranians. The regime, even its hard-line elements, probably feared this would generate public protests and other problems for it. Tehran’s attacks on Gulf oil exports were likely meant to drive up the price of oil (which would be good for Iran, bad for the United States) and to create a crisis that would energize other countries to demand that Washington ease off the pressure on Iran. Iran’s attacks on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were initially intended as a form of indirect pressure on the United States to get it to alleviate, or even eliminate, the sanctions.

That Iranian strategy has failed miserably. While their attacks did create crises, only the recent strike on Abqaiq caused any significant jump in oil prices, and even that was probably less than the Iranians had hoped. Meanwhile, in part because the oil market has remained mostly placid, the Iranian strategy has had no impact on U.S. policy, either directly or indirectly by moving Arab, Asian, and European countries to persuade Washington to back off.

At the same time, however, the Iranian attacks have succeeded wildly in a way that Tehran probably never imagined. Because the United States has barely responded at all—only applying more fatuous sanctions and a single cyberattack that Iran seems to have shaken off—and because senior U.S. officials starting with the president have trumpeted that they will not employ force unless Iran attacks American citizens or property directly, the Iranian attacks have driven a lethal wedge between the United States and the GCC.

Although this has been part of a larger, longer process of the Sunni Arab states losing faith in their long-standing relationship with the United States, recent developments have had an outsized impact, dramatically accelerating that process. We may well have reached a tipping point, as Foreign Policy’s Steven A. Cook has insightfully argued.

Because the Iranians have been able to attack the GCC states with impunity—the Trump administration instead going out of its way to not respond to Iran, overturning at least 39 years of American policy—those governments are coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that they can no longer rely on the United States to protect them. Since that is the very foundation of the U.S.-GCC relationship, its fracturing is pushing Gulf leaders further and faster toward the realization that they need to solve their security issues themselves, with whatever means they have available.

The most visible manifestation of this trend has been the United Arab Emirates’ decisions to abandon the Yemen war and begin discussions with Iran over the tensions in the Persian Gulf. The UAE has been the first to recognize that because it can no longer count on the United States to protect it, it now has to find a way to peacefully resolve its differences with Tehran, even if that means bowing to Iranian wishes. It cannot afford to fight Tehran on its own. Although it is clearly not Abu Dhabi’s preference, without resolute U.S. backing, the Emirates have no choice but to try to reconcile with Tehran rather than oppose it.

Rumors from Saudi Arabia indicate that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are both feeling the tug of this logic, but have been more reticent to follow the Emirati lead. Withdrawing from Yemen would be humiliating for Mohammed bin Salman. The Saudis detest the Iranians even more than the Emiratis do, and deferring to Iran means potentially giving up the Saudi bid to be the leaders of the Arab world. Yet they too increasingly feel that they are being left with no choice. They lack the strength to fight Iran on their own, especially in a protracted conflict. Moreover, if the Saudis don’t follow the Emirati lead and reconcile with Iran, Mohammed bin Salman might do the exact opposite and strike Iran anyway, hoping that this would force U.S. President Donald Trump to defend Saudi Arabia.

Again, it is impossible to know how much Iran’s leadership recognizes this, but it seems most likely that if we have noticed, they have too. Splitting the United States from its Sunni Arab allies has arguably been Iran’s preeminent foreign-policy goal since the 1979 revolution. Doing so would make it difficult for the United States to retain its military forces in the region. In that sense, it would also make it much easier for Tehran to dominate Arab governments—and potentially their oil resources. In short, Iran’s recent moves and Trump’s abandonment of four decades of U.S. policy have suddenly created the potential for Tehran to achieve one of its wildest dreams.

If the Iranians recognize this, the implications over the long term are profound. It suggests that the hard-liners who currently dominate Iranian foreign-policy making will see the potential geostrategic gains from their current approach as outweighing (in their minds) the economic costs of prolonged U.S. sanctions. That means that they will have even less interest or incentive to cut a new nuclear deal with Trump. It means that Iran will probably absorb whatever limited response Trump makes to the attack on Abqaiq and look for an opportunity to launch another attack of some kind on the GCC to accentuate their vulnerability and give Trump yet another opportunity to fail to do anything meaningful either to defend them or deter subsequent Iranian attacks.

If the Iranians believe, as they probably should, that they now have a path toward achieving their highest foreign-policy goal of the last four decades by destroying the U.S.-GCC alliance, they will make that—not Trump or the U.S. sanctions—their highest priority. Unless Trump is willing to radically change his approach, he may just hand them a victory for the ages.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the new book Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.

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