IT MAY have made the United States look wobbly, but President Trump was right to hold back at the last minute from launching a military strike against Iran — and not only because, as the president later tweeted, 150 Iranians might have been killed. The proposed airstrikes in response to the shooting down of a U.S. drone would have dangerously escalated a confrontation with Tehran that Mr. Trump has pursued without a coherent goal, and thus without any prospect of a successful outcome.
Iran is almost certainly responsible for a series of provocative acts around the Persian Gulf in recent weeks, including the mining of ships, as well as the drone shoot-down. But Mr. Trump made this carefully calibrated offensive nearly inevitable when he escalated sanctions against the Islamic republic in April. U.S. pressure on the European Union, China and other reluctant countries has all but shut down Iranian exports of oil and other commodities.
While threatening the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with economic catastrophe, Mr. Trump has offered it no exit ramp. The president says he wants negotiations, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has laid out a dozen U.S. demands calling not just for stricter controls on Iran’s nuclear program — the goal cited by Mr. Trump — but also the complete reversal of Iranian foreign policy. Mr. Pompeo has candidly acknowledged that the Khamenei regime will never agree to those demands; instead, he suggested that “the people can change the government.”
In fact, however desirable regime change in Tehran might be, sanctions won’t bring it about. Achieving Mr. Pompeo’s goals would require war, and war is what the administration’s actions were leading to until Mr. Trump stepped back on Thursday. No doubt the president has in mind his many promises not to involve the United States in more Middle Eastern quagmires. But a war with Iran would be particularly self-defeating. Until Mr. Trump began his “maximum pressure” campaign, the Islamic republic posed no imminent threat to the United States; according to U.N. inspectors, its nuclear program was contained.
Limited airstrikes of the sort Mr. Trump was considering would not stop Iranian aggression, much less bring about regime change. Most likely, they would prompt another escalation by Iran, which has the capacity to kill Americans across the Middle East. A full-scale war with the well-armed nation of 80 million would be folly — and ought to be unthinkable.
Unfortunately, at least until Thursday, Mr. Trump appeared to have done very little thinking about where his Iran policy might lead him. He ought now to order a reset. The first step is to set realistic goals: Iran might be induced to reimpose and perhaps tighten controls on its nuclear program, but it is not going to entirely abandon its regional ambitions. The United States should not be pursuing Iran’s capitulation on behalf of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Instead, it should reforge the coalition with European partners that succeeded in constraining Iran’s nuclear activities and reopen channels of communication with Tehran.