Kenneth M. Pollack is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
It was always going to come to this. President Trump’s policy toward Iran was so fanciful, so ignorant of Iranian and international realities, and so self-contradictory that it was bound to leave the United States without any good options.
Iran has mounted a devastating attack on the Saudi oil infrastructure. In normal times, it would have been unthinkable that the Iranians would try this and equally unthinkable that the United States would not respond. Today, in the bizarre world Trump has created, the former has happened and so might the latter. Worse, the latter might be the best course of action given the appalling situation Trump has put us in.
It’s important to recognize how we got here. The Obama administration signed on to a multilateral agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), whereby the Iranians would limit their nuclear program in return for a relaxation of U.S. sanctions. Some Americans loved the deal, some hated it, but the United States agreed to it and had strong international support in doing so.
Iran’s pragmatists, led by President Hassan Rouhani, agreed to the deal because they hoped that the lifting of sanctions would boost Iran’s foundering economy. Tehran’s hard-liners hated it, arguing that it was too favorable to the United States, that the Americans would never live up to their obligations under the deal, and that Washington would walk away from it whenever we found it convenient, leaving Tehran saddled with its costs but no benefits. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was wary of the deal because he feared his hard-liners were right, but went along with Rouhani to let him see if the deal would deliver the economic turnabout the Iranian people desperately wanted.
Thanks to Trump, the Iranian hard-liners were proved entirely correct. The United States did walk away from the deal, reimposed the old sanctions and added new ones, all despite international opprobrium and without any clear idea of how this might lead to a “better” nuclear deal.
What Trump never understood was that you cannot embrace a highly aggressive policy toward Iran of maximum economic pressure, eliminate the risk of war and simultaneously retain the possibility of a new nuclear deal, all while preserving America’s alliances. These things might have worked harmoniously in Trump’s brain, but not in the real world.
The fundamental conundrum at the heart of Trump’s Iran theory is that by walking away from the deal, Trump not only destroyed the trust necessary for any international agreement but he also undermined the political standing of Iran’s pragmatists and ensured that the hard-liners would lead. Today, Rouhani is entirely on the defensive, trying to protect what’s left of his policies and personnel. Khamenei has publicly condemned him for signing the JCPOA and is favoring hard-line positions, especially in foreign affairs.
So Trump’s actions emasculated the one group in Tehran who might be willing to even consider new negotiations with the United States, leaving them with little influence on Tehran’s course. Instead, he empowered the hard-liners, who have zero interest in making a new deal with him, especially since they hated the old deal and he wants one that would be worse for Iran.
By putting the hard-liners in the driver’s seat in Tehran, Trump also made the current crisis inevitable. Iran’s hard-liners have always favored greater confrontation with the United States. It is their preferred policy that we have been seeing play out over the past four months: attack U.S. allies throughout the Middle East, threaten regional oil exports to jack up oil prices, and push beyond the limits of the old deal to try to resume Iran’s nuclear program.
This created Trump’s current dilemma. He can’t properly respond to Iran’s acts of aggression — acts of war against U.S. allies in many cases — without risking his two primary goals with Iran. If he retaliates militarily, it could trigger an escalation to a wider war he dearly wants to avoid. It also risks putting the final nail in the coffin of his dream of a new nuclear deal with Iran.
So he is now left with a series of bad options, inherent in his entire misguided approach.
- Respond militarily. This would be the best way to reestablish deterrence and prevent additional Iranian attacks. It would reassure our allies and stop the collapse of those relationships. But the Iranians would inevitably retaliate — with a military, terrorist or cyberattack of some kind — and that could start an escalatory spiral.
- Launch a cyber-strike. This was Trump’s response in July after Iran shot down an American drone, and the Iranians don’t seem to have retaliated. The danger is that if the United States keeps mounting cyberattacks against the Iranians, at some point they probably will respond to try to deter us from future attacks. And Iran has developed some sophisticated cyber-capabilities that could make a mess here in the United States if they chose to do so. Moreover, this wasn’t enough to get them to stop the last time.
- Announce additional sanctions (i.e., do nothing). This would avoid war in the near term and retain the figment of a new nuclear deal but would probably embolden Iran’s hard-liners. They would see Trump as a paper tiger — a windbag too scared of war to stop them. It could encourage them to further acts of aggression, raising the risk of war over the longer term. It will also further damage America’s relations with Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
This is one of those moments that presidents face when there is no good option, only a range of bad options. Trump has no alternative but to pick whatever he considers the least bad. Hopefully he will recognize that he has no one to blame but himself for getting stuck in this foreign policy hole. We can all hope that, at the very least, he stops digging.