War Stories

Trump’s Incoherence on Iran Has Created a Crisis

And he has no idea how to get out of it.

Donald Trump stands on the White House lawn.
President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

If it’s true, as now seems likely, that Iran was responsible for the missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil sites last weekend, the larger question remains what President Donald Trump will do about it.

On the one hand, Trump seems determined to crush Iran’s regime through extremely stringent sanctions. On the other had, he has proved squeamish about starting a war. In June, he ordered military strikes on Iran after it shot down a U.S. drone, then changed his mind at the last minute. This month, before he fired National Security Adviser John Bolton, the two clashed over Trump’s vague desire to relax sanctions against Iran as part of a diplomatic overture.

If all this sounds confusing (Trump coming off as hawkish, then dovish, sometimes both at once), that’s because it is. It seems that Trump believed that his “maximum pressure” campaign would force the Iranians to cave in to his demands. Now that it’s clear they’re not caving, he doesn’t know quite what to do; he has no Plan B. (He barely had a Plan A, since it was never clear what his demands were in the first place.)

The contradictions are unlikely to be resolved soon. When it came to Iran, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were on the same page. Pompeo has advocated regime change as forcefully as one can without uttering the words explicitly; he is also very leery of resuming diplomacy with Tehran, having once listed 12 conditions that the regime must satisfy—most of which would amount to terms of surrender—before the U.S. would even return to the negotiating table. Pompeo, the last surviving member of Trump’s original national security team, might be walking his own tightrope at the moment: On the one hand, he’s gained power by kowtowing to Trump’s every instinct; on the other hand, he’s almost religiously opposed to sitting down with the Iranians. Will he be the next to leave? (That wouldn’t be the worst outcome.)

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a private research organization, says that, “without question,” Iran launched the missiles against the Saudi oil sites (though Iran denies doing so)—and that, even if it didn’t, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have taken credit, could not have done so without Iran’s permission. First, the attack was larger and more sophisticated than the Houthis could have managed: Satellite imagery reveals 19 points of impact on the oil facilities. Second, 15 of those points are on the west-northwest side of the targets, suggesting a strike from Iran, not from Yemen, which lies to the south.

It may seem odd, at first glance, that Iran would take such a risk. First, a U.S. retaliatory attack on Iran—which the Saudis have been trying to whip up for years—could be devastating. Second, Trump’s sanctions—not only against Iran but also against any entity that trades with Iran—have left Tehran’s rulers with very little bargaining room; they truly are in a desperate situation. Escalating the conflict is likely to make it more desperate still.

Then again, these factors might also explain why Iran would make this move. First, as an old adage has it, a wounded creature is most dangerous when it’s cornered, and Iran is wounded but still quite well-armed. Second, it’s possible that, given his recent behavior, the Iranians think Trump won’t strike back. Finally, whatever the Iranians’ calculations, striking out—while an enormous risk—may be their only way to gain an upper hand. The Saudis and Americans must also know that if they do retaliate, that probably would not be the conflict’s final blow. Iran would retain plenty of options to strike back once more, including the shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway through which one-fifth of the world’s oil flows.

Would the Iranians actually go that far? Who knows? They’ve apparently demonstrated that they’re risk-prone enough to attack Saudi oil sites. Trump may soon prove that he’s risk-prone enough to strike back. If this is all a contest of “escalation dominance,” to see which side can flex enough muscle and moxie to make the other side back down, prudence and restraint could take a back seat to arrogance and miscalculation—as has often happened in the darker annals of human history.

There are ways out of this spiral trap, but both Trump and Iran’s rulers seem unwilling or ill-equipped to take them. The roots of this crisis are, first, Saudi Arabia’s intervention against the Houthis in Yemen, which has metastasized into a proxy war with Iran, and, second, Trump’s senseless withdrawal from the 2014 Iran nuclear deal.

The war in Yemen sports no good guys, but Trump could put an end to it quickly by halting the sale of munitions to the Saudis—and prodding other regional powers or the U.N. to take an active peacekeeping role. But he has no interest in doing anything to offend the Saudi royal family, seeing it as a “great ally.” Previous administrations have kowtowed to the Saudis because of their status as a friendly supplier of oil. This role is of diminishing importance, given the United States’ growing, near-total independence in energy supplies. Trump himself has noted this fact (and, inaccurately, taken credit for it). However, he has a new rationale for maintaining the special relationship: The Saudis buy a lot of American weapons, and as he put it, they “pay cash.”

So this is the first obstacle to a way out of this crisis: Trump’s tendency to view all foreign policy in narrowly transactional terms—with favors granted or withheld according to how much a nation’s leader pays in hard currency or in gushing fealty (real or feigned) to Trump personally.

The second obstacle is Trump’s unwillingness to reverse his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—even though, if he did that, he would go far toward ending the crisis, possibly very quickly. A few things are worth keeping in mind. First, until recently, the international inspectors attested several times that Iran was abiding by the terms of the deal. Second, Iran agreed to this deal in order to get economic sanctions lifted. Third, once Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions (not only against Iran but against any entity doing business with Iran), the Iranians had no reason to stay in the deal; in fact, they had every incentive to broach it, as leverage—their only leverage—to bring the United States back in.

But here’s where things get irrational. The main reason Trump pulled out of the deal is that Barack Obama signed it. Many hailed it as Obama’s signal diplomatic triumph, and so Trump had to condemn it as “the worst deal ever made.” For Trump to rejoin the deal and relift the sanctions would be to admit that he was wrong and Obama was right—and that is about as unlikely as any event that might be imagined.

Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders have ruled out sitting down with the United States unless and until Trump returns to the nuclear deal and revokes all the sanctions that he reimposed—and, from their point of view, this is perfectly reasonable. The United States and five other countries negotiated and signed the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the deal was then consecrated as a U.N. Security Council resolution; the International Atomic Energy Agency certified, repeatedly, that Iran was abiding by the deal—and yet, Trump withdrew, for no reason other than he didn’t like it. Iran is hardly an honorable international actor, but why should the Iranians trust anything Trump says—unless he returns to the way things were before the withdrawal: before his rejection of multilateral diplomacy and international law?

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron, seeking the role of peacemaker, proposed giving Iran $15 billion—as compensation for its lost oil revenue—if it returned to compliance with the nuclear deal. Trump briefly mulled endorsing the plan. But even if he did, it would be a short-term stratagem; the underlying problems would remain.

So, here is where we are. All the players—the Trump administration, the Saudis, and the Iranians—are running in traffic with bombs strapped on their backs, and no one has the strength or the gumption to yell “Stop!” and make it stick. That is the tragedy of an anarchic world in which the most powerful nation is led by a man who has no idea how to think about its interests or how to use that power for good.