US vs Iran: the costs of an erratic president
“Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear . . . to attack,” said Dr Strangelove in the classic cold war movie. Some of Donald Trump’s defenders have taken to citing that comic masterpiece in defence of his drone strike last week on Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military figure. It was the first time since the second world war the US had overtly targeted a foreign government official.
Mr Trump can be impulsive, his defenders concede. He may even take his advisers by surprise. But at least he keeps the enemy off balance. The fact that Iran confined its missile retaliation early on Wednesday morning to military buildings that host US troops in Iraq only reinforced their view. The US president’s surprise strike had cowed Iran’s clerics, they said.
“Iran appears to be standing down,” said Mr Trump in an address on Wednesday following Iran’s casualty-free riposte. “We must all work together towards making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
That was the upbeat script on Mr Trump’s teleprompter. It was greeted with awkward silence by America’s allies. This was true in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, America’s closest Gulf allies, kept their counsel following Soleimani’s assassination.
Even Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who is usually the first to back Mr Trump, instructed his cabinet to keep quiet. “The killing of Soleimani is a US event, not an Israeli event, and we should stay out of it,” Mr Netanyahu reportedly told the Israeli cabinet.
It was also true in Europe, where the leaders of the UK, France and Germany called on both sides to show restraint. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, even rebuked Mr Trump for threatening to target Iranian cultural sites.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, meanwhile set up an emergency visit this weekend to Moscow to talk to Vladimir Putin. The fact she is not boarding a flight to Washington is notable. Even at the lowest point in George W Bush’s Iraq war, he could point to a coalition of several dozen countries — even if Germany was not among them.
“Not a single country has said the Soleimani killing was a good idea,” says Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato. “You have Germany’s leader going to Moscow because she thinks Russia’s leader is likelier to defuse Middle Eastern tensions than the US president. When has that happened before?”
It is at least possible that the US ends up with the upper hand in this latest episode in the more than four-decade stand-off between Washington and Tehran, which started with the 1979 hostage crisis. But following the high drama of the past week, when the erratic decision-making of the Trump administration has been in full-view, the question facing the US is whether Mr Trump can regain the trust of allies — or if he even wants to. Few observers think the answer to either is yes.
The most pressing immediate issue is how Iran will follow up on Tuesday’s symbolic strikes — its first direct attack on US targets. Senior Iranian figures make little secret that Tehran is planning more dangerous retaliation. This could range from cyberwarfare in the US to harassing shipping in the Gulf, or attacks by Iranian proxy forces on American targets in Iraq and beyond.
“The rules of the game have changed,” a regime insider told the FT. “Our missile attacks marked the beginning of this shift.” Hossein Amir Abdollahian, a former senior Iranian diplomat, who was close to Soleimani, says “it is best for the US to respect” Iraqi parliament’s approval or else “the Iraqi nation will kick it out of Iraq and the region”.
“Time will show that the Middle East will look different after the assassination of our general,” says Mr Amir Abdollahian. The regime insider adds: “You will see Iraq will go through a metamorphosis soon and will become a more religious state and more independent of the US.”
The nuclear clock has also restarted. Last week Tehran abandoned the uranium enrichment restraints to which it agreed in the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran’s breakout time, which measures how quickly it can reach weapons-grade capacity, is likely to shorten progressively. On Wednesday, Mr Trump said he would pressure Iran to negotiate a new deal and called on the EU3 — France, Britain and Germany — to quit the original one, which he abandoned in 2018. He also urged Nato to expand its operations and even coined a new term “Natome” — Nato Middle East — to describe his new idea. The suggestion was met with incredulity.
“The thought of Nato expanding further into the Middle East is nonsense, and belies any understanding of how Nato works,” says Brett McGurk, former co-ordinator in the fight against Isis, who resigned in December 2018 after Mr Trump first said he would pull US troops out of Syria. “Any decision requires unanimity of 29 allies, most of which warned that ‘maximum pressure’ would result in the very crises we’re now seeing. They won’t bail us out.”
America’s diplomatic isolation is most acute in the region. Initially, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were ecstatic about Mr Trump’s election. His hostility to Iran contrasted sharply with Barack Obama’s dovish approach. Mr Trump’s first overseas visit as president was to Saudi Arabia.
The mood changed last May, however, after Mr Trump imposed a full oil export embargo on Iran and designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. Iran responded to Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure” by allegedly attacking shipping in the Gulf. It also shot down a US drone. In August Iran allegedly launched a devastating attack on Saudi oil installations, which took out half of the country’s capacity for several days.
Mr Trump’s reluctance to respond prompted a change of heart in the Gulf. He called off an air strike on Iran with 10 minutes to spare and did nothing in response to the drone and missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities. The suddenness of Mr Trump’s assassination order last week came in glaring contrast to his earlier passivity.
“Trump’s pattern of non-reaction followed by extreme overreaction has destroyed regional trust in him,” says William Burns, a former senior US diplomat, now head of the Carnegie Endowment. “He is corroding America’s reputation in ways that will be hard to mend.”
There is also a global impact to Mr Trump’s unpredictability in the Middle East. By coincidence, Iran conducted its first joint naval exercises with Russia and China a few days before Soleimani’s death. China was also quick to offer Iraq assistance in its wake. In his address this week, Mr Trump said that the US no longer needs Middle Eastern oil because of the discovery of domestic resources in recent years. America’s bountiful energy has bolstered Mr Trump’s resolve to quit America’s “endless wars” in the Middle East and beyond.
Mr Trump’s official national security strategy says America’s priority will be to focus on “great power competition” with China and Russia. That means paring back on counter-terrorist warfare. In practice, however, he is going in the opposite direction. There are 14,000 more US troops in the Middle East today than last May. That is likely to increase following the Pentagon’s latest movements, including the deployment of 3,500 82nd Airborne Division troops to Kuwait in the coming days.
“The action-reaction cycle since May has sucked the US further into the Middle East, even while President Trump claims he’s bringing troops home”, says Mr McGurk. “In the one place Trump retreated, Syria, he gave an overnight windfall to Iran and Russia.”
America’s Nato allies, meanwhile, have withdrawn personnel from Iraq in the past few days and suspended Nato’s anti-Isis mission in Iraq. It is unclear when, or whether, those operations will resume. At the same time, leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and his UAE counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed are strengthening ties with Russia and China. The Gulf states are also making quiet overtures to Iran.
“The Russians and the Chinese are filling the Middle Eastern vacuum,” says Vali Nasr, an Iran expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “Neither Russia nor China wants to see conflict between Iran and the Gulf states. Their aims are more predictable and more responsible than President Trump’s.”
According to two former US officials, the Gulf states stepped up their overtures to Beijing and Moscow last summer after a visit to the region by Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state. Mr Pompeo went to the region to rally support for a more aggressive response to Iran. When one counterpart asked Mr Pompeo whether the Trump administration would stand militarily with the Gulf if Iran targeted a big city, such as Dubai or Riyadh, he could not offer a full assurance. It was a Rubicon moment. Even Mr Trump’s most senior lieutenant could not vouchsafe whether he would come to their defence.
The question now is not whether but how quickly America’s allies can insulate themselves against further Strangelovian twists. “America still has a stronger hand to play than any other global power,” says Mr Burns. “Part of that is our ability to forge close friendships and alliances around the world. We are squandering those relationships at an alarming rate.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson