Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama, is the counselor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute.
President Trump is a belligerent isolationist. In keeping with what was historically a real, if fringe, strain of thinking about America’s approach to the world, Trump favors unilateralism over alliances that carry obligations and responsibilities. The paradox, of course, is that anyone who disclaims any interest in being the world’s policeman needs allies.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the escalating tensions with Iran. The Islamic republic is practicing its own version of “maximum pressure” on the United States and its interests in the Middle East, employing proxies and deniable sabotage to attack tankers, petroleum pumping stations and even airports in Saudi Arabia, firing rockets at an oil facility used by ExxonMobil, at bases where U.S. forces are present and near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, even as it signals it will incrementally respect fewer of the limits in the nuclear deal. At this point, the Trump administration seems to have few answers for the Iranian asymmetric responses to our pressure campaign — other than to say, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has, that the United States will continue with our diplomatic and economic approach.
Notably, Pompeo left out any reference to military responses to Iran’s actions. Yes, we have moved relatively few forces to the region. But to counter the Iranians and deter their continuing indirect or deniable attacks, the administration needs others to join. At a minimum, the moment others also acknowledge that the Iranians were behind the attacks, everything changes: Once Iran loses deniability, it faces the prospect of collective responses if it continues to carry out such attacks. Shining a spotlight on the Iranian actions can thus enhance deterrence of the Iranians, provided others also attribute responsibility to them.
Regrettably, our traditional allies have been slow to accept the administration’s charges that the Iranians carried out the recent attacks on two ships. While Pompeo is surely right that no one else, certainly not any proxy forces, had the means to place mines on the hulls of the ships, there is little trust in Washington.
When you berate allies, they are not quick to respond when you need them. But, of course, there are other reasons for the reluctance of our allies in Europe and Asia to back the Trump administration’s approach toward Iran. Most of our allies believe that starting with the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and then the adoption of a maximum-pressure campaign, the Trump administration has been provocative and should have known its policies would produce an Iranian response. Our allies fear that supporting U.S. charges will lead the administration to escalate and make a war with Iran more likely. Even though Trump says he does not want a war, our allies are not convinced that is the real position of the administration, and even if it is, they see the potential for tit-for-tat actions that could easily escalate and produce a conflict through miscalculation.
But this could play to Trump’s advantage. The administration could use the fear that it might provoke a war as leverage on the Europeans and others to internationalize the response to the Iranians. For example, in return for our allies and others acknowledging Iranian responsibility for the acts of sabotage against ships and agreeing to form an international naval effort to protect them, Washington would refrain from unilateral responses to the Iranians. The combination of publicly calling out the Iranians and forging a coalition of countries to safeguard oil supplies would both deter the Iranians and necessarily constrain U.S. actions.
Using the fear of U.S. unilateralism can also make a virtue of necessity: The sheer volume of shipping that carries 17.5 million barrels of oil a day out of the Persian Gulf means it would be difficult for the United States alone to protect all the ships that might need it. But a multinational task force, dividing up the responsibility, would be more feasible and add much greater surveillance and coverage from Iran’s small boats and dhows.
Moreover, with 80 percent of the oil shipped through going to Asia — China, Japan, India and South Korea — these countries have a stake in protecting the oil supply. Especially at a time of growing tension in the U.S.-China relationship, this is one area where we could actually work together. China’s involvement could also have a chilling effect on the Iranians.
Trump may not value alliances and allies, but if he wants to blunt Iran’s sabotage without a war, now would be a good time to become less belligerent and less unilateral and work with our allies and others who share a stake in the free flow of oil.