As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to extricate the U.S. from wars in the Middle East. As president he has been bellicose about possibly getting the nation into another war in that region.
In June, he threatened Iran with “obliteration” after it shot down an unmanned U.S. drone in the region, but prudently approved a cyber attack instead.
After drone and cruise missile attacks Sept. 14 on Saudi oil facilities by Houthi rebels from Yemen — undoubtedly armed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, if not actually perpetrated by it — Trump tweeted the U.S. was “locked and loaded,” ready to respond militarily.
A day later, though, he was conciliatory about a potential conflict, saying, “We’d certainly like to avoid it. I know they want to make a deal. At some point it will work out.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chided his “weakness.”
But Trump called it a “sign of strength,” admonishing Graham. “It’s very easy to attack, but if you ask Lindsey, ask him how did going into the Middle East, how did that work out? And how did going into Iraq work out?” Point well taken.
This is playing out because Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 agreement that prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in the near term. The accord had the backing of Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia. Israel, Saudi Arabia and U.S. conservatives opposed it.
The main sticking points were that restrictions on Iranian nuclear production would sunset in part by 2025 and in total in 2030, and no mechanism curtailed the mischief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Islamic battle for supremacy between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
The Revolutionary Guard has been a force in Iraq (Shi’ite militias), Syria, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Palestine (Hamas), Yemen (Houthis), the Gulf States and Pakistan (Zeinabiyoun Brigade).
Trump wanted to bring “maximum pressure” on Iran with severe economic sanctions to punish the Revolutionary Guard for its activities and preclude threats against Israel and Saudi Arabia
He essentially mounted a blockade against Iran by threatening any country or corporation with huge fines or potential exclusion from the U.S. market for doing business with Iran.
India, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Taiwan, Greece and China, to some extent, were told to stop buying Iranian oil. Its oil exports fell from 2.5 million barrels a day in May to 250,000 barrels. That resulted in a severe economic crisis with shortages of food and medicine.
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Recently, Trump targeted the Central Bank of Iran.
Foreign policy experts believe Iranians who supported the nuclear agreement, hoping to re-engage with the world community, lost leverage. With the nation becoming desperate, hardliners began calling the shots.
In May and June, after another round of sanctions, U.S. officials blamed the Revolutionary Guard for attacking Western tankers in and around the Strait of Hormuz and seizing ships.
Then came the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities, which were considered too sophisticated for the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who ousted the Saudi-supported government from the capital of Yemen in 2014. That war has claimed 80,000 lives. Nearly 12 million may on the brink of starvation.
U.S. hawks are eager to engage Iran, despite the Iraq experience.
Iran has an army of 534,000 compared with 227,000 Saudi troops (plus its fleet of F-15 fighter jets).
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates once said Saudi Arabia “wants to fight the Iranians to the last American,” and the Trump administration appears willing to accommodate them. It quietly sent 1,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia during the summer and re-equipped U.S. bases. It announced Friday a few hundred more troops are going for “defensive” purposes.
Trump wants Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to form an international coalition to oppose Iran — highly unlikely given Trump’s history of unilateralism and lecturing allies.
We doubt Trump wants a war with Iran, but the Iranians may want to goad him into a conflict. The New York Times reported Ali Bigdeli, a political analyst in Tehran, said of Trump, “He is not a lion. He is a rabbit.”
What does Iran have to lose? Its economy is in shambles. In any confrontation, it likely will rally more disaffected Muslims (not a Trump base at home or abroad) against the “great Satan” than Trump will convince allies to come to his cause.
We harbor no illusions about theocratic Iran or the Saudis, which candidate Trump correctly called “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.” Even if gas prices go up 10 percent, will Americans want to shed blood for a tyrannical regime that embraces the extremely fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, which begat such variants as al-Qaida (15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis) and ISIS?
Trump would do well to revisit “The Art of the Deal” rather than lighting a powder keg.