President Trump’s last minute decision to abort a US military strike on Iran is a welcome sign that someone in the administration knows when to slam the breaks on the “maximum pressure” campaign. There is no national security interest at stake in the downing of a U.S. drone in the Persian Gulf that could come close to the costs and risks associated with bombing Iranian territory and military assets. Furthermore, contrary to those in the administration that tried to encourage a U.S. strike, it is likely such an attack would be escalatory, in contrast to Trump’s strikes on Syria in 2017 and 2018. Iran has the capability to respond to nearby U.S. assets in the region, and war games run by the Pentagon going back to the Obama administration have showed even a limited attack carries a high risk of unleashing a major conflict. More troublingly, there was almost no discussion about the actual political/military objective in striking Iran: what would such an attack seek to achieve, and how were we to measure success? Wars that begin without clear answers to these questions are doomed to failure and miscalculation.
The fact that there was hardly any discussion at all about getting authorization from Congress before deciding to engage in new military action against yet another country in the Middle East remains one of the most troubling aspects of this saga. Some members of the Trump administration, most prominently Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been arguing that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which granted the executive branch permission to use force against the perpetrators of 9/11, also empowers the president to take unilateral military action against Iran. For evidence, officials are cherry-picking bits of intelligence to falsely depict an operational relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda. Sound familiar? The truth is that Iran has spent years killing al-Qaeda-type militants on the battlefield. America’s close allies in the Arab Gulf states, like Saudi Arabia, actually have a much more problematic relationship with Sunni terrorist groups than Iran does.
Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran is clearly not working. Backing out of the Iran nuclear deal and ratcheting up the pressure has only made Iran more risk acceptant and antagonistic. The Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran got Iran to forfeit 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium and significantly roll back all elements of their nuclear program while opening up their country to intrusive international inspections. This approach also opened up diplomatic channels with Iran that helped improve Iranian behavior with respect to U.S. interests, as exemplified by the incident in which U.S. sailors in the Persian Gulf accidentally went into Iranian waters and were consequently captured, but then promptly released because Secretary Kerry had a direct channel to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the problem was quickly resolved.
Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, by contrast, has got Iran to threaten to expand its nuclear program and, at least according to the White House, increase hostile and destabilizing behavior in the Persian Gulf by repeatedly attacking ships and tankers. Pompeo even inadvertently admitted this in an interview with CBS on Sunday: he said that the maximum pressure campaign is intended to make Iran behave like a “normal” friendly nation, but admitted that the reason Iran is disrupting oil shipments through the Gulf (allegedly) is because the U.S. sanctions regime has tried to zero-out Iranian oil exports. Our allies in Europe and Asia continue to oppose the White House’s policy, while China continues to purchase Iranian oil exports in spite of U.S. sanctions. This approach has borne no fruit. Ideally, President Trump would take this opportunity as an inflection point and shift to a posture that at least offers Iran an achievable and face-saving diplomatic off-ramp to this unrelenting pressure.