Donald Trump Still Has No Idea What to Do About Iran, (but Does Something Anyway)

Tulsi Gabbard thinks Donald Trump has become “Saudi Arabia’s b****” (1. I wouldn’t have used quite that language, and 2. I knew I liked Gabbard).  The Democratic Rep. from Hawaii and presidential candidate tweeted the remark after President Trump said that he was “waiting to hear from the Kingdom”  i.e. Saudi Arabia, on how to proceed against Iran – a stance I also found rather odd – after the recent drone attacks against Saudi oil production.  In less colorful but equally biting language, the conservative National Interest republished an article that “Trump won’t like,” which argues that Iran has successfully called the US administration’s bluff this summer by stepping up a series of aggressive moves against the US and its allies in retaliation for US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.  Indeed, as documented in that article, this past summer has seen Iran or its proxies seize a British oil tanker, shoot down a US drone, and now likely launched or facilitated an attack against US frenemy Saudi Arabia.

The US/Iran/Saudi triangle is an odd one, fraught with problems on all sides. Saudi Arabia and Iran, as claimants for lead position in world Sunni and Shia Islam, respectively, are engaged in a Middle Eastern Cold War (which is rapidly heating up) that has its ultimate roots in the aftermath of the Prophet Muhammad’s death (and more immediately in the geopolitics of two rival major oil producers).  The US, meanwhile, condemns one of these nations as a major state sponsor of terror, a systematic abuser of human rights and an overall repressive theocratic regime, while ignoring the other for being, well, exactly all those things as well.  This selective moral and political outrage has been going on for a while, under both parties, but has been stepped up by the Trump Administration. Donald Trump goes out of his way to pander to the Saudi government (Jared Kushner’s bromance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman– MbS – helps with that), while Trump has made countering the threat of Iran a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

A week ago, I said that Trump didn’t know what he wanted to do with Iran, that he had many instincts and considerations pulling him in opposing directions (including wanting to keep the Saudi leadership happy), and I predicted that he would likely substitute tough talk for real action, as he is hesitant to go to war anywhere and especially in the Middle East.  I was mostly right; over the last week, the Trump Administration’s immediate tangible response has been to declare new sanctions against Iran, a relatively weak and mostly rhetorical response given that sanctions are already about as stringent as they could be.  In what is either uncharacteristic level-headedness or an attempt to cover for a weak hand, President Trump commented that the US “showing a little bit of restraint” by going the economic rather than military route against Iran was a show of strength by America.

That restraint is muddled, however, by the announcement that the US will be sending hundreds of troops to Saudi Arabia to shore up the latter’s capabilities against further attacks.  Sending troops for “defensive purposes” in the absence of overt military retaliation is a sort of middle ground between tough talk and deadly action. It’s also a very dangerous move.

First, the show of military cooperation between the US and Saudi Arabia is a boon to a Saudi regime still suffering international scorn for its brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the continued atrocities committed by Saudi forces in Yemen.  MbS has little incentive to curtail his government’s aggressive and oppressive policies at home or abroad if he can count on such unquestioning support from America, (constant dragging by Hasan Minhaj notwithstanding).

Second, if the simmering conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to heat up, American troops will now be caught in the middle. A fight that leads to Americans dying in the crossfire would be a tragedy for this country, and would significantly step up pressure to strike directly against Iran. With the US still fighting its longest war ever in Iran’s eastern neighbor, Afghanistan, and several thousand US troops in Iraq and Syria to the West of Iran (mostly fighting ISIS), a nightmare scenario becomes a possibility: the US having to fight a contiguous, multi-country, multi-sect, multi-faceted war across a wide swath of the Middle East. This is exactly the kind of thing a war-weary population and hesitant administration want to avoid.

And let’s not forget that the last time the US sent troops to defend Saudi Arabia (initially from Saddam Hussein as part of the Persian Gulf War), their presence became the rallying cry from Osama bin Laden and the justification used for the attacks of September 11, 2001.  I’m sure al-Qaeda, looking for some “good” news as it becomes increasingly decimated by US efforts and pushed aside by groups like ISIS, will jump on this news to decry US redeployment in Islam’s Holy Land and try to recruit new members to fight this desecration, as they see it.

We’re not yet at the worst-case scenario of this situation, but the administration appears to have no firm plan or strategy, leaving a major military confrontation as one among many plausible scenarios.  Though it would be a major departure, the Trump Administration could instead re-partner with its erstwhile European allies, such as the French, who have been trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal.  The resulting agreement would presumably have to be a bit tougher than the Obama version in order for Donald Trump to save face, but there’s space to negotiate (and even more so now that John “Regime Change in Iran” Bolton is out of the White House). Iran has shown its unwillingness to make the first move, but it would presumably be receptive of a good faith relaxation of some of the sanctions against it (while continuing to oppose Iran on other fronts, like it’s very real sponsorship of terrorism) The White House could also cut off military support for Saudi Arabia and otherwise signal that MbS should not continue killing journalists and Yemeni children if it wants to remain in America’s good graces.

As it stands now, though, the White House’s selective use of economic and diplomatic pressure – maximized against Iran, virtually non-existent against Saudi Arabia – has given the Saudi government no reason to back down and let the Iranians show that they won’t be forced to deescalate the situation, either.  There’s a popular East African proverb, “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” While not as in your face as Rep. Gabbard’s assessment of the situation, it’s fair to say that the current administration is laying out American troops as the grass that could get trampled as these two Middle East elephants fight.

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