Once again, President Donald Trump is playing foreign policy games to the detriment of American credibility in the Arabian Gulf. This time around, his prop is the Islamic Republic of Iran and its clerical leadership.
After an Iranian air defense missile commanded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) downed an American spy drone on 19 June, the Trump administration sprang into action; but not much happened.
President Trump said in a television interview that American assets were ready to strike Iranian targets in retaliation but that he decided to call off the attack. He cited – however disingenous it might appear – the possibility of 150 Iranian casualties as the main factor influencing his decision to retreat.
But to compensate, the president authorised US Cyber Command to attack Iranian targets, including missile and rocket control computer networks, and units from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp.
On 22 June, he tweeted that new, severe sanctions on Iran would begin promptly to ensure that the Islamic Republic does not acquire nuclear weapons.
The president’s meandering decisions regarding Iran perpetuate the crisis of credibility he faces with American allies in the Gulf and with Israel. One thing is sure, however; his retreat from a military confrontation with Iran will help him maintain the support of a loyal domestic constituency.
The president helped Iranian hardliners
Trump has made his political fortune, at least partially, from cynically excoriating Iran and promising to punish its actions.
He also criticised former presidents and administrations for supposedly “going easy” on the Islamic Republic and withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement that the Obama administration was instrumental in negotiating.
His retreat from a military confrontation with Iran will help him maintain the support of a loyal domestic constituency
His latest acrobatics are nothing but an about-face that will help the Iranian regime escape the many internal political, economic, and social problems it faces.
Standing up to the United States and shooting down an American spy craft gives the hardliners of the clerical regime a much-needed legitimacy boost that will extend into other spheres of Iranian politics. Doubtless, hardliners are already eyeing Iran’s presidential elections in 2021, and want to undo what they see as an accommodationist foreign policy.
Moreover, whatever the truth about the drone violating Iranian air space, hardline propagandists in Tehran will for a long time use the success in downing it to prove that they are capable of governing and protecting the Iranian nation from outside attack.
Concomitantly, the IRGC will undoubtedly exploit its military prowess to challenge the moderate diplomatic track of President Hassan Rouhani and his administration.
Since the US unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 P5+1 nuclear agreemnt, Iran has stopped abiding by provisions regarding enriching uranium. Militarily standing up to the United States is likely to encourage its hardliners to go further on other provisions without fear of an American response.
Indeed, bets are on that they may soon move to abrogate the whole nuclear agreement which they believe has limited Iran’s options without necessarily helping it end the old and debilitating American sanctions.
Fears of Iran’s regional challenge
Regionally, the most recent developments give Iran a coveted opportunity to manoeuvre for added advantage now that it has proven that it cannot be bullied.
For one thing, Iran will bank on President Trump’s obvious reluctance to put American military assets where his mouth is. It may find it opportune to increase its activism in the Gulf and specifically in Yemen, from where the Houthis – who according to Saudi Arabia enjoy Iran’s backing – are already conducting almost daily missile attacks.
This regional activism is the most feared outcome by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and contributes to tensions in the region. US allies in the Gulf as well as Israel are likely disappointed with what they see as the president’s “retreat”.
Making the best of a bad situation, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a meeting with US National Security Advisor John Bolton to repeat old accusations about Iran’s nuclear threat.
Bolton, an Iran hawk who could not have been happy with Trump’s retreat, declared after that meeting that Iran should not “mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness” and that it does not now have “a hunting license in the Middle East.”
To be sure, regional American allies are most discouraged that Trump may have fully forsaken them. In his latest interview with NBC News, referenced above, the president reiterated the administration’s readiness to negotiate with Iran without preconditions.
In May, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged him to de-escalate tensions with Iran, the president unequivocally announced that he is not seeking regime change in Tehran.
The IRGC will undoubtedly exploit its military prowess to challenge the moderate diplomatic track of President Hassan Rouhani and his administration.
Such declarations and his retreat a few days ago will not be received well by his Gulf and Israeli allies. While there is no question that the cause of avoiding a military conflagration in the Gulf was well served, their trepidation about Iran’s stridency will not have been eased.
Absent another change in the president’s position, they cannot but think that Iran was the ultimate winner. Whatever Trump’s plans for ramping up pressure – with cyberattacks, sanctions, or polemics – to them, the American president has for all intents and purposes capitulated.
As far as they are concerned, they again are left to fend for themselves despite all the incentives they offered to encourage Trump’s more belligerent rhetoric on Iran. In short, they feel short-changed by a president whose promises often turn out to be hollow, and cares little about the impact.
A better way in the future
It would be more conducive to peace in the Gulf and the wider Middle East region if the American president allowed honesty and decency to dictate how he approaches Iran and its neighbours.
Only a committed policy of de-escalation, pursued through open and comprehensive negotiations, can help the United States and all regional actors step back from the brink of military disasters.
Threatening Iran and ignoring its interests only increases its regional activism and nuclear designs. By the same token, empty and incendiary rhetoric the president may use to feel good and appear tough, robs the United States of much-needed credibility to conduct its affairs and protect its interests in the region and around the world.