Adding to the sense of vertigo surrounding U.S. defense policy was the withdrawal Tuesday of Patrick Shanahan as Trump’s selection for defense secretary. The nominal reason was a nearly decade-old domestic abuse case involving Shanahan’s son and ex-wife, but the larger issue was Trump’s waffling support of the acting secretary, whom he kept dangling for five months before announcing a lukewarm nomination last month that was never actually submitted to the Senate.
Shanahan’s departure will increase uncertainty at the Pentagon at a moment of significant potential military risk. Allied jitters are likely to expand, too, with Monday’s announcement that the United States is sending 1,000 additional troops to the Persian Gulf.
Global skepticism about Trump’s Iran policy, more broadly, was so intense last week that some key allies initially demurred when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Tehran of attacking two tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Foreign capitals seemed more scared of the threat posed by Trump than Iran to peace and stability in the Gulf. Those doubts appeared to be easing slightly Tuesday, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was “strong evidence” of an Iranian role in the tanker attacks.
But there’s still a vast trust gap, abroad and at home. A president who has repeatedly insulted major allies and denounced U.S. intelligence agencies is finding that his words have devalued what should be America’s best weapons for containing Iran. Incredibly, given Iranian intransigence and meddling in the region, many traditional friends of America view Washington as the problem these days.
The Iran crisis had deepened further Monday as Tehran announced that in 10 days it would exceed the limits on uranium enrichment set by the 2015 nuclear agreement. Trump’s ability to enforce those limits through diplomacy is virtually nil, because the United States withdrew from the agreement last year when Iran was in full compliance.
The administration’s strategy (so to speak) has been to assume European nations would cajole Iran to keep abiding by the agreement, even as the administration shredded the pact and imposed punishing sanctions to obtain a new, tougher deal. Against Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran has begun moving since early May toward maximum resistance, including deniable attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf, perhaps hoping to scare the Europeans into demanding concessions from Trump.
Trump’s Iran credibility problem stems partly from the fact that he has been pushing for a confrontation since before becoming president, without ever articulating a clear strategy for an endgame, short of regime change or war.
The roots of Trump’s Iran fixation go back at least three years and feature some players who later became prominent in the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into the Trump campaign’s alleged solicitation of Russian help in the 2016 election. It’s worth reviewing this history briefly, to explain why so many allies are fearful about a march toward war with Iran.
The intermediary who organized early discussions with the Trump team about taking a harder stand against Iran was George Nader, a Lebanese American who advised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, who, with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, favored a much tougher U.S. policy against Tehran.
The key discussions about stiffening pressure against Iran came in December 2016, after Trump’s election, in a meeting at the Four Seasons in New York. Attending that conversation, in addition to Nader, were Michael Flynn, Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner, soon to become national security adviser, chief strategist and senior adviser, respectively, in the Trump White House. (The meeting was described to me by a source close to one of the participants.)
Trump moved to fulfill his campaign rhetoric about discarding the nuclear agreement soon after taking office. This breach was opposed by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and European allies. Trump ignored these warnings and announced U.S. withdrawal in May 2018. Months after the withdrawal, intelligence officials testified Iran was complying with the deal.
Trump sought to calm war fever Tuesday by telling Time magazine that last week’s tanker attacks were “very minor” and that it was a “question mark” whether he would take military action to protect other tankers.
The real question mark in foreign capitals these days is what Trump’s Iran policy really is.