President Donald Trump has no good options with Iran in response to its recent strikes on critical Saudi oil facilities. The choices, thanks to his administration’s diplomatic malpractice and campaign of maximum pressure, range from very bad to worse: Not responding forcefully gives some administration officials a severe case of reputational anxiety; in their telling, America will be exposed as a paper tiger if it fails to stand up to Iranian aggression and defend its regional partners. But a direct U.S. military strike against Iran would be infinitely worse because it would be untethered from any viable strategy to deter Iran from further attacks and could easily spiral out of control.
The three of us spent a combined total of 80 years working in government on U.S. Middle East policy. We are, therefore, acutely aware of the U.S. obsession with maintaining its credibility by being tough. But it’s our conviction that the only way out of this mess—if indeed there is one—is through negotiations, however poor their current prospects. If the U.S. and Iran can’t find a way to climb down from the ladder of escalation they’re on, the situation with Iran will likely go from really bad to a lot worse.
The pathway forward cannot be a full-blown effort to negotiate a new Iran nuclear agreement or to significantly amend the old one. That is a bridge too far given substantive gaps and the politics of mistrust that divide the two sides. We are suggesting a pathway to de-escalation based on a series of more modest reciprocal binding steps that each side could take to preempt the possibility of conflict and to defuse the current situation.
The case for restraint
The hawks who favor U.S. military retaliation against Iran make two related arguments. The first is that failure to respond to Iran’s challenge will invite military aggression elsewhere. According to this view, for example, we can expect China to take Taiwan if the United States doesn’t pound Iran. But in a crisis, a challenger looks less to the historical record than to its adversary’s stake in the outcome of the confrontation at that moment and its capacity to defend those interests. The related claim is that since 1979 every U.S. administration has declared the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to be a vital U.S. interest and made clear America will fight to defend it. Thus, argue the hawks, the Iranian attack is a clear-cut example of the urgent need to fight for reputation; if we don’t fight for this, what would we fight for?
The Iranian regime has certainly done wicked things and remains profoundly opposed to American policies and influence throughout the Middle East, but despite its chauvinism and eagerness to torment its adversaries, it is not bent on establishing its hegemony over the region. Even if it were not an opportunistic scavenger, Iran lacks the military, economic and political capabilities to mount this sort of challenge. Iran struck the Aramco facilities for limited objectives that, from its perspective, are plainly rational. The United States and Saudi Arabia have prevented Iran from exporting almost all of its oil; Tehran has long said that if it cannot export its oil out of the Gulf, then nobody else will, either. The attack was a test, a demonstration of Iran’s capabilities and Saudi Arabia’s weakness, and an apparently successful attempt to get the Trump administration to put up or shut up. But it was not part of a master plan for regional conquest. A restrained response will not lead to the Persianization of the Arab world or the subjugation of Israel.
Some credibility enthusiasts point to George H. W. Bush’s campaign to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait as a paradigm for dealing with Iran. But the situations are not comparable. Iraq had over 100,000 troops in Kuwait, pillaged the country, terrorized its population, attempted to destroy its entire oil infrastructure and created an environmental catastrophe. The difference between then and now is more than just a matter of degree. Bush, unlike Trump, had international support for his war. The Kuwait war is relevant, however, in at least one respect: It plunged the United States into a nearly 30-year war with Iraq that ultimately cost trillions and killed thousands of Americans and Iraqis. It’s worth remembering for those who have Iran in their crosshairs.
A war would, in fact, be ruinous. Contrary to the prevailing view, Iran would not roll over in response to an American military strike on its territory. As former Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis wisely observed, “the enemy gets a vote.” And Iran’s vote would not be in favor of surrender. An Iranian military response should be expected. Further escalation would be likely and there’s no telling when or how it would end.
The hawks’ reply to this assessment has been to propose an intermediate step that would allegedly signal our resolve and raise the cost to Iran of its bad behavior, namely covert operations that we would deny with a wink and smirk when blamed. Of course, refusing to take responsibility would scarcely be reassuring to our friends, and minor attacks carried out in the night won’t traumatize the enemy. But advocates of this approach really want to get us on the slippery slope to all-out war while they insist they are merely being subtle and, in fact, restrained. The same ploy nearly got the United States into a war in Syria. But one thing is certain: The vulnerability of our friends on the Arab side of the Gulf and their energy infrastructure cannot be overstated. Sitting ducks don’t win wars.
Ironically, if successive administrations have been earnest in declaring a vital U.S. interest in the unimpeded flow of Persian Gulf oil at moderate prices, escalation would be counterproductive, because it would only provoke further Iranian attacks, additional disruptions of oil supplies and rising energy prices. The U.S. has a choice: It can fight to defend its reputation while undermining its interests, or it can restore its reputation for rational decision-making and preserve its interest in abundant, affordable oil. Under the circumstances, America’s interests would clearly be best served by parleying with the enemy. The fact that our closest friends in the Gulf—Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—and our major European allies are all praying for U.S. restraint makes it pretty clear what choice they want Washington to make.
Arguably, it was not the United States that was the victim of an “act of war” but rather Saudi Arabia, whom the U.S. has no treaty commitment to defend in the event it is attacked. (The U.S. has no treaty with Israel either, but would likely intervene on its behalf if it appeared to be in dire straits.) This was also the case in 1996, when the Iranians killed 19 U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia. This gives Trump the option of offering U.S. operational or logistical assistance in the unlikely event that the Saudis decide to retaliate militarily against Iran. This might be the most prudent course, since the notion of the Saudis going toe-to-toe with Iran in the Persian Gulf is as outlandish now as it was in 1996. This is not to say the Saudis are chicken, only that they are capable of mature self-assessment.
The case for diplomacy is strengthened by Trump’s own sensibilities and self-image. He considers himself the world’s greatest negotiator and believes that only he can close the big deals. He is also preternaturally risk-averse—a chicken hawk—when it comes to the use of military force, even though he has surrounded himself with hawks and loves to indulge in saber rattling. He also privileges talking and tweeting over shooting, because it puts him on center stage.
That said, the president appears clueless about the tactics and strategies that might allow him to succeed. For example, he has repeatedly offered to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani without a strategy to use the meeting to achieve concrete results. The president’s desire to engage Iran, especially now with former National Security Adviser John Bolton out of the picture, may well increase as he heads into the 2020 election season. The last thing Trump needs is another unwinnable war, higher oil and gas prices.
While Trump may be willing to talk with rather than shoot Iranians, Tehran seems to be on a different trajectory. As a result, on both timing and risk-reward calculations, Washington’s and Tehran’s clocks may be out of sync. Trump may be slow rolling a military response to the Aramco strikes, but many experts suggest that Iran is willing to push the envelope. It is possible that the attacks on Saudi oil facilities were a one-off. But where Tehran wants to go in their wake just isn’t clear, and the possibility of further attacks cannot be discounted. New sanctions on Iran won’t change the dynamics of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. And a meeting between Trump and Rouhani at the UNGA would be absurd.
The way forward
Obviously, what’s required is something the administration has lacked from the beginning: a strategy to test the possibility that Iran is willing and able to get into a negotiation and has the will and skill to stick with it. The prospects for a comprehensive diplomatic resolution of U.S.-Iranian differences are dismal. The reason is simple: Neither side is prepared to make the compromises that would be necessary to achieve a win-win outcome. There is a better possibility, however, that the two countries could reach agreement on a path that would deescalate tensions and mitigate the risks of conflict while deterring further Iranian attacks on critical energy targets and ensuring the unrestricted flow of oil through the waters of the Persian Gulf.
First, Trump needs to deliver a stern private message to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman that Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran has gone too far and the two countries urgently need to reach diplomatic accommodation to prevent the region from sliding into a war that serves nobody’s interests; that the days of the U.S. writing a blank check to the Saudis to enable their irresponsible regional behavior are over; and that America will not allow Saudi Arabia to drag it into a war with Iran to defend the Kingdom’s oil exports. The president may lack the spine to deliver this message, but it is long overdue.
Second, the president needs to be very clear with MBS that, while the U.S. is prepared to help the Saudis address the vulnerabilities in their air defense system, assist the Kingdom in bolstering its defenses against Iranian cyber attacks, and draw down on the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to restrain oil price increases, the U.S. will not directly attack Iran unless Iranian military action kills American personnel, destroys American military assets, or interferes seriously with shipping in the Gulf.
Third, Trump needs to deliver a private message to Iranian President Rouhani that, in the interest of preserving peace in the Gulf, the U.S. exercised restraint in its response to the Iranian attacks, but he should be under no illusion that the U.S. will refrain from using force, unilaterally if necessary, should Iran decide to cross his red lines.
Fourth, the U.S. should make clear that it will no longer stand in the way of efforts by its European allies to establish their barter arrangement with Iran or to float the Iranians a $15 billion line of credit. Regime change is a Boltonian fantasy. And the U.S. should make a serious effort to alleviate the suffering that its sanctions have imposed on Iranian civilians.
Fifth, the Trump administration should inform Tehran that the U.S. would be prepared to restore the waivers it revoked to permit Iran’s main oil customers to resume purchases of Iranian oil, but only if Iran agrees to return to full compliance with its obligations under the Iranian nuclear deal. Moreover, under this new arrangement both sides would also agree to maintain these commitments so long as negotiations continue to reach a broader deal.
Finally, as part of a negotiated bilateral agreement, the U.S. and Iran would agree on confidence building measures to lower tensions and reduce the risk of conflict. Most importantly, they would establish a direct channel of communications at the operational level to mitigate the risk of misunderstandings that could trigger an inadvertent conflict. And if Iran is prepared to abandon its provocative military behavior throughout the region the U.S. would agree to start pulling back some of the additional forces it has deployed to the region since June. The two sides would begin a technical-level dialogue to work out detailed arrangements to define that behavior.
We want to be very clear: The fundamental purpose of the steps we are prescribing is not to revive negotiations on a revised nuclear agreement, which now seems out of reach, though they could create a more positive political climate for such talks. Rather, they are intended to give both countries the time and space to avert a military conflict that would likely have dire consequences for U.S. interests and regional stability.
For generations past, policymakers have often agonized over the possibility that actions they are poised to take will provoke exactly the behavior they are seeking to deter. Under conditions of uncertainty and where outcomes are consequential, the agony is understandable, even admirable. But in this case, hawks who believe a U.S. military strike on Iran will deter rather than provoke further Iranian military attacks and ensure the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf are deluding themselves, members of Congress, the American public, and our allies in Europe and Asia. If there is a way out of the current crisis, we will have to talk our way out of it, and not depend on cruise missiles to convey the talking points.