Over the last few weeks, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman have engaged in a conversation on a wide range of foreign policy issues. For the sake of clarity and readability, below is a part of that conversation that focuses strictly on Iran-US relations.
BN: Of the various foreign issues that the Trump administration has taken a hawkish, confrontational position on, arguably the most chaotic is Iran. Lots of mixed messages from the White House. Trump claims he's not interested in a war with Iran. In fact, he wants talks with Iran and some kind of negotiated deal. Yet, at the same time, he's pulled the US from the 2015 nuclear deal, re-imposed tough sanctions, and has agreed to move more military assets to the Middle East, expressly with Iran in mind. And meantime, in the background, advisers, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, are privately cheerleading the charge for a military intervention. Do you think this approach to Iran will work? Will it get Trump what he wants? I'm very skeptical.
YS: At this point, I think Iran is overplaying its hand by declaring that it will up its enrichment of nuclear materials, thus removing any incentive for the European Union to actually defend it. At the same time, I am not sure that the regime is strong enough to deal with more escalations with the US. It is overextended in Syria and Yemen, and its economy is tottering toward collapse. Of course, as Venezuela shows, a terrible economy doesn't really matter much to the longevity of the regime as long as it holds all the levers of power securely—and Iran is still in a much better position than Venezuela. But apparently some in the regime are nervous enough to try sabotaging those tankers.
At the end of the day, though, I don't think there will be an Iran-US war. Iran knows that it won't win the war, and Trump is just Trump.
BN: What do you make of the air strikes that almost happened, but were apparently called off by Trump?
YS: I think Trump does not want to escalate this into something that he cannot pull back from—I believe the argument that he got cold feet once he heard hundreds could die—because that would mean an escalation into something that he cannot pull back from. His pattern of behavior is always the same: he takes the option with less risk, and that allows him to withdraw while claiming victory, all while hoping his opponents fold first in face the of his bluster.
BN: I've come across a few different explanations for Trump's decision. You mentioned one of them—the prospect of killing 150 Iranians is a disproportionate response, according to Trump himself, for downing a drone. Another is that Trump got word that the Iranians themselves, including the Quds force commander Soleimani, are ticked that the US drone was shot down. Perhaps it really was a mistake, committed by a rogue official or grunt, and not intended by Tehran. If so, then there's no reason for Trump to up the ante. At bottom, this argument suggests that Trump values and responds more to Iranian motives than Iranian actions. A third explanation that's been bandied about is US politics. In short, Trump got wind that his base would be displeased with another war in the ME. It also didn't help that Tucker Carlson, of Trump's beloved Fox News, took time out of a recent show to rail against a possible war with Iran. For Trump, almost everything he says and does is about base politics—making sure his core 35% of the electorate stays loyal to him and energized to support him. The prospect of fracturing that base, that core, especially given the upcoming presidential dogfight in 2020, dissuaded him from going ahead with a limited military campaign against Iran.
Of course, that didn't settle the situation. After all, Trump believed Iran deserved some punishment for the drone. And then there are the hawks, who are constantly pushing Trump toward war. And so Trump opted for a lower cost, more clandestine cyber activities against Iran. Trump is probably hoping that a non-military response would be viewed by the clerics as a sign that Trump is willing to calm down the situation and that they'll respond in kind. The problem, though, is that Trump has engaged in a number of bluffs during his presidency and the international community is starting to see him as a paper tiger. Iran could try to drive an even harder bargain based on the perception that Trump and his core supporters seem so averse to war.
YS: At the same time, it could be suicidal if Iran pushed harder against the US. While I agree that Trump's base is completely against another war in the Middle East, if they hear that the Iranians are downing a plane full of 35 US soldiers or they hit a carrier, everyone will rally around the flag and bay for blood. So, to some degree, I agree with you, that Trump's credibility might be damaged, but at the same time, the 800-pound gorilla is an 800-pound gorilla: the US is so powerful that states are wary to invoke its wrath.
BN: Yes, you're right. Iran can't press to hard, too recklessly, so as to provoke the US in a war for self-defensive reasons. But it can make life difficult for the US using a variety of tools. And plus, for lots of reasons, it's in Iran's interest to resist the US. That's why it was so tough to get the nuclear deal in 2015. Which leads me to a concern about US Iran policy under Trump. Constant pressure, with no daylight at the end of it all, will likely only force Iran down the same path it’s treaded for 40 years now—threats, tensions, and hostilities with the US. Getting Iran to change its behavior requires the US to have a much more deft diplomatic touch. And I don't think Trump has the advisors around him who can do that or are willing to do that. It might take a third party, perhaps like Japan’s Shinzo Abe (who recently visited Iran), to break the deadlock, defuse tensions, and move Washington and Tehran toward talks.
YS: That is only true if Iran is in a good shape. Iran’s overextended its commitments in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, coupled with its current economic problems, exacerbated by Trumps' sanctions, mean the Mullahs are far more worried than they show. Granted, that’s similar to Venezuela, in that the despots can stay in power despite of a wretched economy, but by this point the Mullahs have already had 40 years to deliver wealth and freedom to its citizens, and they have failed. They are running out of time.
BN: Iran's economy is being wrecked by the sanctions, but the external commitments, in my view, aren't as problematic. The war in Syria is just about over. Hezbollah is the major player in Lebanon. And in Yemen, analysts have long said that the US and Israel have far overstated Iran's role in propping up the Houthis. Iran has cultivated proxies throughout the ME. The Soufan Group recently released a great report on precisely this topic. And one of the punchlines is that, since 2003, Iran has been able to cultivate proxies, in a very low cost way, who share a similar vision with Iran and are willing to work with Iran. All of these proxies (in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bahrain, the Palestinian territories) can create chaos in the ME and harm US interests--and do so in a way that creates at least some plausible deniability for Tehran.
Moreover, we also need to consider this: the coalition that originally got Iran to the negotiating table now leans in support of Iran. The Europeans, Russians, and Chinese doubt US intelligence, think US is making a phony case for war, and desperately want to do business with Iran. In fact, they're all looking for ways to do business in Iran in ways that get around US sanctions. Getting this coalition back together is almost impossible, especially when they consider the US to blame for sparking the current crisis by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, reapplying sanctions, and labeling the IRGC a terrorist group. All of this means that Iran has more room to maneuver, a bit more flexibility, when confronting the US.
In a recent New York Times article, David Sanger touches on my point. He writes, "In fact, while Iran is weaker economically than it was a year ago, it has developed skills it did not possess during the last major nuclear crisis. It can strike ships with more precision and shoot planes out of the air. It now has a major cyber corps, which over the last seven years has paralyzed American banks, infiltrated a dam in the New York suburbs and attacked a Las Vegas casino. These abilities have altered the risk calculations, making the problem Mr. Trump faces with Iran even more vexing than those that confronted President George W. Bush or Mr. Obama.”
YS: Perhaps Iran's external commitments doesn't hurt it at all. At the same time, though, the sanctions still bite—hard. I am still unsure if other states are willing to defy Trump and break the America’s sanctions. I mean, had the Europeans been willing to defy Trump, they would have done that when Trump decided to reimpose the sanctions—especially with his popularity at rock bottom. Instead of assuring their businesses that they could just ignore Trump’s new sanctions, the Europeans are hemming and hawing, leading Iran to escalate—perhaps in desperation.
BN: At this point, what would you recommend to Trump? What should he do, now that he's in this predicament--a predicament, mind you, that he played a big part in provoking?
YS: What predicament? Just wait. The time is on America’s side. If Iran shoots down a plane, killing people, then it will give Trump the carte blanche to bring hell and fury to Iran. If Iran does nothing, then it will be starved to death and the regime will collapse. If Iran restarts its nuclear program, then the EU will have no choice but to reimpose sanctions.
Seriously, nobody in Washington or Brussels cares about Iran. The US is preoccupied with immigration and border issues, while the Europeans are terrified about the populists and Brexit.
BN: Well, the predicament is that the drums of war are beating. Like you, I think the chance for war is low. I think Trump and the Ayatollah have enough sense to pull back before things get out of hand. Still, Trump has hawkish advisers cheerleading for a military intervention. There's always the chance for misperception and miscalculation as hostilities escalate. And the US media is covering Iran like they did the run-up to the Iraq war--lots of enthusiasm for a big story, but little critical insight and analysis of what's happening.
But I digress. If I was Trump, here's what I'd do. First, I'd fire Bolton. His views and policy positions are completely antithetical to Trump's America First program and downright dangerous to US foreign policy and global security. Second, Trump needs to formulate a clear and coherent Iran policy and ensure that it's communicated consistently. In fact, given the level of importance Trump places on the Iran threat, this should've been done way back in 2017. It's apparent that many states in the Middle East, including Iran, don't have a clear sense of what the White House wants from Iran. Third, Trump's team needs to re-engage with China, Europe, and Russia, three actors that could be enormously helpful in putting pressure on Tehran, if necessary, and/or drawing Iran back to the negotiating table, which is preferable.