First, it is important to understand what’s behind Iran’s move. “I think this aimed more at making the [Europeans] nervous and spurring them to deliver on the sanctions relief benefits that they have said will continue to flow to the Iranians but which they have been unable to produce because the administration has actually been effective with the unilateral sanctions effort — far more than people thought they would be able to achieve,” says former ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman. “The Iranians are trying to signal that this is a response to the Trump withdrawal from the deal and that they are still acting within the ambit of the letter of the agreement — I doubt that the Europeans will see it that way.”
What then would be an appropriate response? Edelman advises, “I don’t see any need for a precipitous response by the U.S. — rather, let the Europeans sort the [implications for the Iran nuclear deal] out.” He warns, “What is going on in the Gulf is actually more dangerous and serious right now. … I do think that the administration needs to make the additional evidence that [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo has promised on that score available to allies pronto.”
Some is rooted in a suspicion of President Trump, who has made numerous misleading statements in the past. Some is focused on the national security adviser, John Bolton, who advocated the 2003 invasion of Iraq on the faulty assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.And some skepticism is aimed at Pompeo. In laying out a litany of Iran’s behavior in recent weeks, Pompeo said Tehran was behind a May 31 car bomb in Kabul as a U.S. convoy was passing, lightly injuring four U.S. service members and killing four Afghans. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that. But Pompeo said the Taliban claim should not be believed.
But ultimately it is Trump, after more than 10,000 “false or misleading claims,” who has lost the benefit of the doubt usually accorded to the president and the U.S. intelligence community. His greatest and most damaging deception has been his ongoing insistence that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” and that there is some doubt as to which country interfered with our election and on which candidate’s behalf. Knowing this was poppycock, our allies have come to see Trump as not an honest leader but as a world-class liar obsessed with his own image.
“It should be every American’s priority to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) tells me. “Iran’s behavior has been belligerent and destabilizing, and the administration needs to ratchet down tensions and avoid further provocations and rhetoric.” He warns, “Congress must be fully apprised, and the United States should immediately engage with our allies and partners to form a united front and work to deescalate the situation.”
Moreover, if we wanted the Europeans to follow us out of the Iran deal, we probably shouldn’t have begun threatening them with secondary sanctions. We are paying the price now for exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action unilaterally with little thought about what would come next. (The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor writes, “Privately, European officials see the current state of tensions as a direct consequence of the United States slapping major sanctions on Iran after it unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal — a move British, French and German officials desperately lobbied against. U.S. officials argue Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran is squeezing the regime and may force Tehran to make more concessions, including reining in its broader activities in the Middle East, than it did with the 2015 nuclear accord.”)
Trump may think of himself as a tough guy, but allies and foes alike see him as a fabulist, an easy mark for despots and a bumbler unready to back up his threats (e.g. backing down repeatedly from threats against Mexico, threatening war with North Korea). As Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress remarks, “It’s hard to say what the United States can do under Trump, because Trump’s decision to step out of the Iran nuclear deal has, in a real sense, unilaterally disarmed America and unnecessarily narrowed its policy options.”
We are facing two troubling scenarios. “A lot of analysts correctly worry that the Trump administration’s reckless approach on Iran may have put America on a slippery slope to another Middle East war," says Katulis. “Another scenario is one in which other global powers start to ignore America’s threats and bluster and start to figure out a new way to engage Iran on its own.” He adds, “We’re in the middle of a dangerous game of chicken — Iran has taken destabilizing actions, and Team Trump doesn’t seem to have gamed this out and planned for the many negative scenarios that could emerge in the coming days and weeks.”
In sum, thanks to Trump’s weakness and lack of credibility, our friends don’t trust us and our foes don’t fear us.