Donald Trump has torn up a foundation of U.S. foreign policy and is causing irreparable damage to the Middle East—and world order—in the process.
Hal Brands, Steven A. Cook, and Kenneth M. Pollack
By most measures Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a lackluster one. Americans were experiencing malaise at home and a string of apparent defeats abroad, highlighted by the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Yet it was these twin crises that produced the Carter Doctrine, which has served the United States and its allies well ever since. The Carter Doctrine explicitly committed the United States to defend the oil fields of the Persian Gulf against external threats. Carter’s successor, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, built on this strategy with what should be seen as a “Reagan Corollary,” which committed Washington to defending the free export of Gulf oil against threats from within the Middle East as well. Since then, both Republican and Democratic administrations have recognized that the United States’ role in protecting Gulf oil exports constitutes a critical component of the international order the United States built after 1945—an order that has made America stronger, more secure, and more prosperous than it otherwise would have been.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.
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.
Until now. In the summer of 2019, President Donald Trump tossed the United States’ alliances with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states into the flames of his own inadvertent bonfire. By withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and imposing “maximum pressure” on Tehran economically, Trump provoked the Iranians to begin attacking the Gulf states and their oil exports. May, June, and July 2019 saw attacks on six oil tankers, the seizure of two more, rocket and missile attacks from Iraq and Yemen, and drone attacks on Saudi airports. Through it all, the United States did next to nothing. Worse, Trump and his senior subordinates publicly insisted that they did not consider Iranian attacks on our Gulf allies to be threats to the United States’ vital interests.
In September, Iran is suspected of having upped the ante by conducting a massed drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s irreplaceable Abqaiq and Khurais petroleum processing plants. (Iran has denied any role in the attack, which has been claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.) Again, Trump did nothing. And by doing so, he undercut the central premise of U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf. By calling into question the United States’ long-standing commitment to the security and stability of the region, Trump’s approach to Iran and the Gulf will have grave consequences. It threatens to destabilize an already volatile region, undermine the U.S. diplomatic position vis-à-vis Tehran, and increase the very threats the administration is now trying to ignore. Indeed, Trump’s desertion of the Carter Doctrine is making it more likely that Tehran will achieve its greatest strategic victory since the Islamic Revolution—a victory that is still very much in the United States’ interest to deny.
An Iranian oil refinery burns during the war between Iran and Iraq in September 1980. Henri Bureau/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Throwing Away Four Decades of Success
The year 1979 was tumultuous even by the standards of the Middle East. The Islamic Revolution, the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Arab fury at the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Saddam Hussein’s accession to the presidency of Iraq, and the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca threw the region into chaos and spawned radical new threats. Moreover, between the civil strife that followed the shah’s fall and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s disdain for the corruption bred by Iran’s oil wealth, Iranian oil production collapsed to one-quarter of its prerevolutionary level. The resulting oil shock caused dramatic increases in inflation and unemployment throughout the Western world. Fuel shortages forced Americans to line up for hours to buy gasoline. Things were so bad that even Carter, whose inclination was to resist rather than embrace new military commitments, was forced to act.
In his State of the Union Address in January 1980, Carter proclaimed that the United States would use force to safeguard the Persian Gulf’s oil fields against outside invasion. At the time, what became known as the Carter Doctrine was chiefly aimed at the Soviet Union, which bordered Iran and then had tens of thousands of troops in neighboring Afghanistan. The Iranian oil crisis had driven home the importance of Persian Gulf oil to Western prosperity, and Washington feared that the Soviets would seize upon the chaos of the Iranian revolution to overrun the region’s oil fields. To put teeth into the new commitment, Carter created a new military force that eventually grew into U.S. Central Command, which was given the primary responsibility of defending the region’s oil exports.
Yet it soon became clear that threats to those exports could come from within the region as well. In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. From the start of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, both sides attacked each other’s oil production and export facilities. In 1987, Iran expanded the conflict, targeting the oil exports of the GCC states for supporting Iraq. After much debate the United States launched Operation Earnest Will in response, escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers transiting the Gulf. Iran would not back down and attacked both the tankers and their U.S. Navy escorts, triggering an air-naval war across the Gulf in which American forces destroyed much of the Iranian navy. Thus a Reagan Corollary was appended to the Carter Doctrine: The United States would defend Gulf oil exports against all military threats, whether from within the region or without.
Not long after the conflict between Iran and Iraq ended, Saddam mounted a challenge to the Reagan Corollary when his armed forces invaded Kuwait. The United States responded with Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, deploying more than 600,000 troops and roughly half of its worldwide combat forces to defend Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait. What’s more, the administration of President George H.W. Bush purposely destroyed much of Iraq’s military power to diminish or eliminate Saddam’s ability to threaten the Gulf states.
U.S. Marines watch black smoke from an oil fire after Iraq’s attack on Kuwaiti oil fields in January 1991. Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
From Containment to Regime Change and Back Again
Operation Desert Storm did not, however, relieve the United States of the burden of defending the Gulf. Any Iraq strong enough to balance Iran was more than strong enough to overrun the GCC, and any Iran strong enough to balance Iraq was also a threat to the region. Thus U.S. officials in administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton concluded that only a significant U.S. presence could contain Iraq and Iran and deter them from renewed aggression. Throughout the 1990s, the United States also periodically undertook limited interventions to degrade Saddam’s military capabilities and prevent him from coercing the Gulf states or threatening their oil exports.
Over time, the frustrations of containing Saddam’s regime mounted. The U.S. objective vis-à-vis Iraq gradually shifted to regime change, with the decisive break coming after 9/11. The administration of President George W. Bush had multiple rationales for invading Iraq in 2003, some of which were strategically sensible, while others were not. Ensuring that the GCC states were never again threatened by Saddam was on that list, but seems to have been near the bottom—certainly well below the administration’s paramount fear that Iraq represented the nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Yet having invaded and then botched the reconstruction of Iraq so badly that it pushed the country into all-out civil war, Bush opted not to walk away from the mess, but instead to stabilize the country with the so-called surge that sent more U.S. forces to Iraq to implement a new strategy. Bush’s recognition that allowing Iraq to spiral out of control would threaten the wider region and its oil production partially motivated his decision to double down rather than accept defeat and withdraw. “The consequences of failure,” Bush explained in announcing the surge, would be “chaos in the region,” which would jeopardize the region’s vital energy supplies and perhaps even allow terrorists to “use oil revenues to fund their ambitions.”
For decades, then, defending the oil exports of the United States’ Gulf allies has been a cornerstone of U.S. global strategy.
In contrast, President Barack Obama rose to prominence largely on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War. He believed that the United States’ presence in the Middle East undermined its power, and withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Yet Obama was forced to reverse these cherished policies in 2014 to protect the region’s oil exports. He committed U.S. forces and built an international coalition to fight the Islamic State in part because it threatened to spread beyond its Syrian and Iraqi origins and destabilize the oil-rich region. Moreover, Obama’s signature regional policy—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal—was meant to ensure that the United States could “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia without leaving in its wake a nuclearizing Iran that would overawe the Gulf.
For decades, then, defending the oil exports of the United States’ Gulf allies has been a cornerstone of U.S. global strategy. Throughout, the United States established and upheld the basic rules of conduct in the region: the United States would meet efforts to interfere with the free flow of oil by force; uphold freedom of navigation; demand that regional powers give up their irredentist claims on other states or face grave consequences; and prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Even presidents who were initially reluctant to get involved in the region ended up affirming this basic approach. Until Donald Trump, apparently.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Shale Insight Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Oct. 23. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
Come the Shale Revolution
Trump’s break with decades of U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf has been conducted in his typically cavalier manner. But it did not come out of nowhere. Americans have been debating their long-standing strategic commitment to the Gulf for several years now. Critics of that commitment have offered multiple arguments for why Washington ought to pull back from the region. Each is founded in realities that should refine U.S. strategy toward the Gulf, but not abandon it, as Trump appears to be doing.
The most pervasive argument in favor of ditching the Gulf is that the United States’ commitment is simply unnecessary due to the shale revolution. In the decade after 2008, U.S. crude oil production increased 140 percent. In November 2018, the United States exported more oil than it imported for the first time since the Department of Energy started keeping record in 1973. This surge has caused U.S. oil imports from OPEC members to drop to nearly one-quarter their level in 2008. In short, the United States imports less from the Gulf than ever, and the expansion of North American shale production (along with the growth in strategic oil stockpiles) has made the global market better able to withstand small and medium disruptions. The relatively modest economic damage wrought by Iran’s attack on Abqaiq and Khurais illustrated this new reality. All of this should breed confidence that the United States does not have to react every time an Iranian speedboat leaves harbor, but it should not lead to the mistaken belief that Gulf oil is no longer important to the United States’ security and prosperity.
To begin with, the U.S. role in the Gulf has never been about protecting America’s own oil imports, only a modest proportion of which ever came from the region. Rather, U.S. forces have patrolled the Gulf because the health of the global economy and therefore global security are inextricably connected to the region’s energy resources. This is why the United States cared about Persian Gulf stability even when it was a net oil exporter in the early 20th century. “The Marshall Plan for Europe,” noted U.S. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in the late 1940s, “could not succeed without access to the Middle East oil.” So long as U.S. allies and trading partners remain dependent on Gulf oil, so long as preserving a stable global economy is a primary national interest, and so long as supply or price shocks in one region can resonate worldwide, the United States will
have an interest in defending Gulf oil flows. And so long as United States’ allies lack the capability to project power, and the United States’ regional partners lack the military competence (despite decades of U.S. arms sales and training) needed to protect Gulf oil flows themselves, the United States will have to take primary responsibility for that mission.
It is also important to understand the limits of today’s relative hydrocarbon stability. Although the global oil market is more resilient than in the past, it still cannot withstand a major oil shock, such as the loss of most or all Saudi production for an extended period. In 2018, Middle Eastern OPEC members were still responsible for about 25 percent of global oil production. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that by 2050, Middle Eastern oil production will grow to 31 percent of the global supply, while U.S. production is expected to peak in the next decade and decline thereafter. It’s worth noting that the 1979 oil crisis caused by the Iranian revolution removed 4 to 7 percent of oil from the market. Today, Saudi production accounts for 10 to 12 percent.
Thus, the fact that the oil market has not responded more adversely to small-scale attacks may provide a false sense of security that instability in the Persian Gulf can no longer harm the United States or global economies—or that there is someone else who can protect our interests there for us. The United States is somewhat better insulated from disruptions to Gulf oil supplies than it once was, but not nearly well insulated enough to turn its back on the region.
On the eve of renewed sanctions by Washington, Iranian protesters demonstrate outside the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2018. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
A second critique of the United States’ commitment to the Gulf is that the renewal of great-power competition requires the United States to pull back from secondary theaters. It is true that competition with China and Russia should be the United States’ highest strategic priority, and that Washington will struggle to compete effectively if it is engaged in large-scale military operations in the Middle East.
The force structure required to prevent Iran or others from disrupting the world’s oil supply is quite modest, however, and that mission should not require costly, multiyear nation-building missions. Deterring Iran has never required more than a small U.S. military presence in the Gulf, typically no more than a handful of surface naval combatants, a squadron of air force fighters or an aircraft carrier, and prepositioned equipment for several Army and Marine brigades, themselves based in the United States. At this point, even doing more to help stabilize Iraq would require only a small U.S. military footprint, combined with greater economic and political aid. None of this should detract meaningfully from U.S. security commitments in Europe or Asia, let alone bankrupt America’s global military posture.
The force structure required to prevent Iran or others from disrupting the world’s oil supply is quite modest.
Moreover, the collapse of the United States’ position in the Gulf would have global ramifications. Most U.S. allies and key security partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific still depend on Gulf oil. They have a tangible stake in the Gulf, which they look to Washington to defend because they cannot do it themselves. In an age of intensifying challenges to American power, allies—and adversaries—are paying close attention to which commitments the United States is or is not willing to maintain. Given the importance of the United States’ commitment to the Gulf over the decades, precipitately abandoning that commitment is likely to unnerve those allies, making them doubt the reliability of U.S. power and thereby undermining U.S. alliances well beyond the Gulf region. The United States can’t abandon the region without weakening the global network of alliances and partnerships it will need to compete with its geopolitical rivals.
A related critique holds that the United States’ commitment to the Gulf leads inevitably to long, draining conflicts such as the Iraq War. Yet this conflates two very different things. One can support what is essentially a denial (or, if deterrence fails, a punishment) mission overwhelmingly reliant on modest air and sea power to prevent Iran from disrupting Gulf oil supplies without supporting manpower-intensive counterinsurgency, regime-change, or nation-building missions. Put differently, one can believe that the Iraq War was a mistake and also believe it would be a mistake to walk away from the United States’ larger position in the Gulf.
Finally, some Americans contend that the United States should distance itself from the Persian Gulf as a way of distancing itself from the Saudi regime. Yet the Saudi-American security relationship was not built on American sympathy for Saudi values, but for the vast reserves of oil beneath Saudi sands. Riyadh has never been a perfect ally (who is?), and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a particularly problematic partner. But the United States’ long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia is based on the compelling U.S. national interest in ensuring that Saudi Arabia can and will export oil to the global marketplace. Dropping the Gulf security mission to punish Saudi Arabia for its misdeeds would be the geopolitical equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
Trump signs Iran sanctions with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at the White House on June 24. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
The Right Way vs. the Trump Way
In his own ignorant and idiosyncratic way, Trump manifests many of the issues that have been causing Americans to rethink the United States’ role in that region. He has promised to achieve an ill-defined “energy dominance” that will insulate the United States from a volatile world. He has repeatedly argued that nothing good can come of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East. His administration has publicly touted a shift toward great-power rivalry and the need for retrenchment in the Persian Gulf—even while insisting, at least in Syria, that a U.S. military presence is needed “only for the oil.” And while Trump has defended the Saudi regime against its growing chorus of critics, he has long said that the wealthy Gulf states should take up the burden of their own defense.
All of these conflicting tendencies leave Trump incapable of understanding the logic behind the U.S. commitments he inherited in the Gulf. Moreover, he has exacerbated the long-building tensions in U.S. policy by pursuing an Iran policy that is destabilizing, self-defeating, and crippling to the United States’ regional position. In a long list of problematic policies around the world, Trump’s Iran policy may be his worst.
Since early 2018, the president’s policy toward Iran has been a bewildering combination of belligerence and weakness. Determined to undo a key aspect of Obama’s diplomatic legacy, Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action over the objections of advisors who noted that the accord was successfully forestalling the prospect of a nuclear Iran that could dominate the Gulf. The administration then pursued a maximum-pressure campaign that inflicted significant pain on the Iranian economy by driving down Tehran’s oil exports. U.S. officials insisted that this campaign was meant to produce a “better” nuclear deal, but the administration never articulated any clear sense of what such a deal would entail or how it might be obtained.
Yet American coercion did have a major strategic effect—one that Trump appears not to have expected, even though he should have. By withdrawing from the nuclear deal, Trump empowered Iranian hard-liners who had always opposed making a bargain with Washington and emasculated the pragmatists who favor accommodation with the United States. Thus, he weakened the only Iranian faction that might have been willing to negotiate a new nuclear deal. Moreover, by strangling the Iranian economy, Trump encouraged Tehran to respond with one of the few forms of counterpressure available to it: military operations against the Gulf states and their oil exports. In so doing, the administration provoked precisely the sort of actions that U.S. officials have long averred the United States could not abide. Trump’s response then exposed the glaring contradiction at the heart of his policy: A president that talked tough and used sanctions aggressively never had any appetite for the dangerous confrontation that was sure to follow.
Trump has so far declined to punish Iran militarily for any of its provocations in the Gulf. Senior U.S. officials, starting with the president, have instead insisted that Washington would not employ force unless Iran attacks U.S. citizens or property directly. Confronted with the unwanted consequences of his own careless policy, Trump responded by repudiating decades of U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf. If the United States’ commitment to the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary had already been weakening, Trump—without acknowledging or perhaps even understanding the significance of what he was doing—has taken a major step toward junking those battle-tested concepts altogether.
Anti-war demonstrators gather outside Downing Street in London on June 26. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
The Consequences of Inaction
One of the many problems with the contradictions in Trump’s policy is how they have scrambled the concerns of other knowledgeable Americans. In the days following the various attacks over the summer, many leaders and experts focused more on the dangers of responding militarily than on the dangers of not responding at all. Trump himself invoked the specter of the Iraq War to dismiss criticism that his administration was too passive in the face of Iranian provocations and aggression. Although few Americans want a war with Iran and many were relieved when Trump did nothing, the combination of his belligerence and indolence have created a real danger of escalation. The Iranians increasingly seem to believe that they can strike with relative impunity because Trump is afraid of a war with them—and they will have every reason to keep striking as long as the United States continues squeezing the Iranian economy. Their escalation in attacking Abqaiq and Khurais reflects a dangerous sense of military confidence and suggests that more attacks may follow.
No one should dismiss Iran’s ability to fight back. The danger it can pose is considerable, given its capacity to foment violence throughout the region—in the Gulf and the Bab el-Mandeb, as well as in Iraq and along Israel’s southern and northern borders. Yet if Iran is dangerous, it is hardly omnipotent. Tehran’s conventional military and cyber capabilities pale beside those of the United States. Meanwhile, the specter of an Iraq-style quagmire is overblown, if only because no serious analyst or policymaker advocates a march on Tehran. The risks of escalation are real, but they must be weighed against the costs of inaction.
This is not happening today. Because a consensus quickly emerged on the wisdom of avoiding military action against Iran, there has been precious little appreciation of the many negative consequences of restraint. The first of these is that the Gulf states are more convinced than ever that the United States is no longer willing to defend them. Through the GCC’s prism, the reluctance to take on Iran is the most recent (and most significant) sign of U.S. incompetence and unreliability—a parade of errors that includes the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the failure to support Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and the unwillingness to intervene in Syria from 2011 to 2015, all of which accrued to Iran’s benefit. For the Gulf countries, these failings were capped off with the Iranian nuclear deal, which terrified many of the Gulf states that Washington wanted to trade its Arab alliance for an Iranian one. Sending several thousand American troops to beef up Saudi air defenses (as the Trump administration did this fall) was better than nothing, but not by much. For the Saudis, it was much too little, much too late, and only emphasized Trump’s unwillingness to confront Iran directly.
Because a consensus quickly emerged on the wisdom of avoiding military action against Iran, there has been precious little appreciation of the many negative consequences of restraint.
For the GCC, this is a nightmare. For the hard-liners who now dominate in Tehran, it is a dream come true. Since the revolution, Iranian leaders have sought to break the U.S.-Gulf alliance. They have always believed that Washington was determined to destroy the Iranian regime, and it was the United States’ alliance with the GCC states that brought U.S. military forces into the region to do so. Whether for reasons of ideology or Iranian nationalism, they have likewise sought hegemony across the Middle East, but the United States’ guardianship has been the greatest impediment to their designs. Of course, if the United States will not defend Gulf oil exports, there is no rationale for either side to keep U.S. military forces in the region. And without the U.S. security commitment, the Gulf states have little ability to resist Iran’s influence.
If the United States demonstrates that it will avoid a direct confrontation with Iran even after a significant provocation, Tehran will be able to blackmail its Arab neighbors. The attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais and the lack of U.S. response sent the message to Iran and Washington’s Gulf allies that the United States is no longer interested in upholding the rules of conduct it once established and formerly enforced in the region. In the course of a single morning—and with about two dozen cruise missiles and drones—the Iranian leadership took a giant step toward achieving what it has sought for so long: resetting the balance of power in their favor in the Persian Gulf.
A destroyed installation after an attack on Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing plant is seen on Sept. 20. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images
A Seismic Shift
This shift already has and increasingly will alter the behavior of the GCC states. The Emiratis are withdrawing from the war in Yemen, which they joined to help prevent Iran’s Houthi allies from taking over. The United Arab Emirates has also begun talks with the Iranians about decreasing tensions in the region. The Saudis have so far not followed the Emirati lead in Yemen, but they are unhappily being pushed to consider doing so, and they have been forced to open regional security talks with Iran. By one light, these actions can all be seen as constructive steps that will diminish near-term tensions in the region. In the Gulf, however, they are seen as painful retreats and major concessions to Tehran.
In the wider scheme of things, Trump’s stance is forcing the United States’ Arab allies to rethink their entire foreign-policy and security strategies. Unfortunately, neither U.S. military equipment nor Washington’s word seem particularly useful to the GCC states anymore. It is still not clear what alternative approach the Arab states might embrace, but it seems unlikely to suit U.S. interests.
Since the Obama administration, many Arab states have explored creating stronger relationships with China and Russia. Moscow and Beijing cannot replace the weaponry or the strategic peace of mind that the United States has traditionally provided. Still, in Syria, the Russians have shown themselves to be competent, credible, and ready to lead. For its part, Beijing has capital to invest and will never demand liberalizing political reforms. It is striking that in an era in which there is broad agreement within the foreign policy community that great-power competition is back, the United States has been so reticent about competing in the Middle East.
More ominously still, Saudi Arabia, which was formerly not a serious candidate to acquire nuclear weapons, is now the poster child for that problem. Over the years, Saudi officials hinted that they either already possessed or could quickly acquire a nuclear device, though there was no direct evidence of either. In truth, the Saudis never needed to proliferate because of their security relationship with the United States. Now, feeling abandoned by their longtime protectors, and still decades away from developing competent conventional forces, the Saudis have every reason to push for a nuclear device as the only way to avoid falling under Iran’s sway. There is an academic school of thought that argues that proliferation can be stabilizing. Given the uncertainties in the Gulf and the unpredictable changes underway in Saudi Arabia, that is not a social science experiment worth running.
If Trump were ever willing to reconsider his current course, all is probably not yet lost.
Finally, by not responding to Iran’s provocations, the Trump administration has rendered the United States the weaker party in any future negotiations—a fact that Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts to sit down and talk to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani clearly indicates. Tehran has directly challenged the entire rationale for the U.S. presence in the region and has not paid any price for doing so. It has used violence repeatedly in violation of decades of U.S. doctrine and strategic precedent. Far from retaliating, Washington has reiterated its determination to avoid escalation at almost any price.
Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely that the United States can get back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, much less get a better deal. Meanwhile, for Iran’s hard-liners, even after the widespread protests that rocked Iran last month, the economic pain that a new nuclear deal might alleviate is probably of lesser importance than the geostrategic goal of severing the U.S.-GCC alliance and driving the United States out of the Gulf. And if the Iranians believe that Riyadh is now more determined than ever to acquire a nuclear weapon, as seems likely, they will be even less interested in making deeper nuclear concessions to the president who handed them the Persian Gulf on a silver platter.
If Trump were ever willing to reconsider his current course, all is probably not yet lost. The Gulf states still haven’t found a better alternative to their traditional alliance with the United States; a determined U.S. about-face might convince them to stick with it. Yet because the United States has so depleted its credibility in the Gulf, doing so will now require more than a token military presence—and, most likely, more than would have been required to respond to Iran’s provocations earlier this year. The United States would need to respond to any further acts of Iranian aggression with direct action against Tehran’s interests—with strikes against Revolutionary Guard facilities, warships, ballistic missile sites, command and control nodes, or other valuable regime assets. Moreover, the U.S. would have to strike hard enough to demonstrate both to Iran and to the world that it will not back down from a fight, and that if Iran chooses to escalate, so too will America. Ironically, this would probably be the best path to de-escalation—to convincing Iran to give up its military campaign against the GCC states.
Whether the president is willing to do this is anyone’s guess. Trump sees himself as a leader who shatters generations of conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign policy. In this case, sadly, he is right. Unless the president changes course, he will usher in a brave new era in U.S. relations with the Persian Gulf—one that may well help Iran claim its long-sought ascendancy in that region and leave Americans longing, sooner or later, for the good old days of the Carter Doctrine.
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