Despite his late Sunday night ALL CAPS tweet threatening Iran, Donald Trump is not looking for a war with the Islamic Republic. Indeed, a day and a half after his tweet, he asserted that he's looking to cut a deal.
The flip-flop speaks volumes: The administration has no coherent policy toward Iran.
The administration foolishly withdrew unilaterally from the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, the president favors the use of maximum pressure, either to force the regime to cave in a renegotiation of the agreement or to hasten the collapse of the regime. Both are non-starters. Right now, the best we can hope for is that the administration manages to muddle through and avoid a dangerous and unnecessary war.
Regime change won't work
For all his bombastic rhetoric, Trump has been very risk averse when it comes to the use of force abroad. Still, he's surrounded by two uber-hawks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who have advocated regime change in Iran.
Whether the administration decides to use military force, strangle Iran economically or foment internal unrest through covert means or by openly backing opposition groups to provoke an internal uprising, a policy of regime change is dangerous and reckless. The U.S. military can destroy a lot of military targets from the air, including most of Iran's nuclear infrastructure. But it can't remove the regime unless it is prepared to invade and occupy the country, at the cost of billions of dollars, thousands of lives and the destruction of Iran. The Iranian people would rally in support of their government if the U.S. attacked and the Iranian security apparatus would crush an internal rebellion.
Such an effort would isolate the U.S. internationally; Russia and China would almost certainly lend diplomatic, material and military support to the regime. And Iran would likely move to ramp up its nuclear weapons program, this time with legitimate reasons and likely wider international support. Simply put, the use of military force or economic warfare to rid the Middle East of another government the U.S. doesn't like would leave behind one heaping hot mess.
Iran isn't North Korea
It's also possible that Trump is borrowing a page from his own North Korea playbook: threaten war and impose a campaign of maximum pressure and Iran will come to the negotiating table to capitulate. That strategy certainly hasn't worked with North Korea. Sure, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is at the table, but things are moving at a snail's pace, and it's unlikely that he will agree to give up all of his nukes.
If that's the president's play, he's misreading the reasons for his success with North Korea. Sanctions played a role. But, more likely, Kim came to the table because he was a victor, not the vanquished. Having acquired the capability to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon, Kim had serious leverage. Iran does not. Iran simply has no reason to cave to U.S. pressure. Nor does Trump have political space at home to engage with Iran. And Israel and its supporters in the U.S. would push back against any deal that didn't seriously undermine Iran's influence and activities in the region, especially in Syria.
This administration believes that Iran is the root of all evil in the region and a fundamental threat to U.S. interests there. The Iranian regime is nasty and repressive; it abuses human rights and uses repression to maintain control at home; it has aided and abetted the murderous Assad regime in Syria and uses brutal proxies to increase its influence in Shiite communities in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The Iranian regime, in Washington's eyes, has no legitimate interests anywhere in the region — not even in Iraq, a country that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians, including with the use of poison gas, in a war that Iraq started.
The U.S. does have an interest in containing Iran's influence in the region. But it has no stake in using military force against Iran unless it violates three core U.S. red lines: use of terror against the U.S. at home or in the region; interrupting the flow of oil; and breaking out to produce a nuclear weapon.
At the moment, Tehran is respecting these red lines. Threatening military force in response to verbal threats by Iran's leadership — as Trump did — is both ridiculous and reckless.
War with Iran?
War with Iran would be an unmitigated disaster. The U.S. military could do major damage, but Tehran has options to retaliate throughout the region against U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and our allies with conventional weapons, terrorism and cyberwarfare. Iran's Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, could unleash a ferocious war against Israel and rebel forces in Yemen allied with Iran could escalate missile attacks against Saudi Arabia.
These attacks would kill many Americans and Israelis; seriously set back U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan and defeat jihadists in Syria; ignite a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Yemen; and destroy critical energy infrastructure in the Persian Gulf and seriously disrupt the flow of oil out of the region. The conflagration would cause a sharp spike in global energy prices and possibly trigger a global recession, depending on how long it takes to extinguish the firestorm.
Should the unpredictable Trump try to engage Iran in negotiations, he'd have to recommit to the nuclear accord and likely satisfy Iran with additional concessions should he want to alter it.
At the moment, there's probably no option for this administration to get U.S.-Iran policy right. But Trump could get it dangerously wrong if the policy drift and vacuum he's created leads to an aggressive campaign to topple the Iranian regime or to military conflict.
A rational approach to Tehran — confronting Iran when we must and cooperating when we can — seems out of the question. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the Trump administration won't do more damage, muddles through and doesn't destroy U.S. vital interests in the process.