After President Donald Trump last week called off airstrikes on Iran while the mission was en route to attack, some thought it was the end of any military threat against Iran.
They drew parallels with former President Barack Obama’s red lines in Syria, which Bashar Assad crossed repeatedly and Obama ignored the transgressions. So here, they concluded, Trump threatened several times to punish Iran severely if it dared to harass US forces in the Gulf. And then he didn’t.
To be in Washington this past week was akin to being on a wild rollercoaster. Even before the US drone was downed last Thursday, speculation was rife that the US would surely respond to Iran’s provocations over the past two months on international shipping and increased Houthi missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia. When Iran downed one of America’s best and largest drones, many believed that a severely punishing attack was certain.
Discussions with officials in Washington revealed to me bits of the wide-ranging debate on the most effective actions to respond to Iran’s provocations. This debate is part of a larger discussion on how to best implement the administration’s Iran strategy.
There appears to be clear consensus between the US administration and leaders of both political parties to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to stop its support for terrorist groups and other destabilizing activities in the region. This position enjoys wide popular support and is shared by think tanks and opinion-makers. This has been a consistent US policy since the start of Iran’s revolutionary government in 1979 and its open animosity toward the US.
The US goal has been to steer Iran toward conducting itself as a normal state, living within its borders, and ending its ambition to become the regional hegemon. The US has sought to achieve this goal through economic, diplomatic, political, legal and military pressure, and has called on Iran to negotiate over all issues, not only the nuclear file.
Although this goal has been constant since 1979, views differ within the current administration about the best tools and timetable for achieving it.
An important faction within the administration advocates a decisive and quick military response against every aggressive act by Iran. Otherwise, they argue, American deterrence will be blunted if it remains theoretical. Prompt military reactions would disabuse Tehran of the notion that it can gain advantage by threatening international shipping and attacking its neighbors. The deterrence would, in turn, persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table.
Although American officials may not openly admit it, the political cycle plays an important role. The president and Republican leaders need to stop Iran’s embarrassing provocations before the 2020 presidential and congressional elections, lest their political opponents accuse them of caving (the wimp factor).
In the hours following the downing of the US drone, the hard-line faction had the upper hand and swift retaliation against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was certain. This conclusion was supported by Trump’s frequent verbal attacks on Iran and the previous administration’s soft approach.
In the end, the US response was muted and there was no military reaction against the clear Iranian provocation, indicating that the majority in Washington supported a more nuanced approach.
As I found out, this majority faction in Washington is no less hostile toward Iran than the hawks, as they also see Tehran’s threat as existential to US influence in the region. But they believe that the US should stick to a long-term strategy without being baited into unplanned actions that divert attention from the long-term objective. By looking at Iran’s worsening economic indicators, its export earnings and government revenues, they believe that the “maximum pressure” policy is working. It has also put the squeeze on IRGC finances and its ability to fund mischief in the region. The IRGC’s recent attacks indicate the success of US pressure; it uses the threat of war to persuade America to reduce its pressure.
The designation in April of the IRGC as a terrorist entity was another important factor in the US strategy. That designation and the concomitant sanctions have pushed it to confront the US directly. The IRGC has openly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and stop oil exports by other countries in the region. Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, the IRGC’s new commander-in-chief, boasted that the downing of the US drone was a “clear and decisive message” to America, indicating that the action was intentional at the same time as Trump was presenting the possibility that it was an accident.
Eventually, perhaps, it was the domestic political factor that made Trump decide to call off the military retaliation. Any military action is risky and a failure could be fatal to the Republicans’ election campaign. In another generation, President Jimmy Carter lost the 1980 election in part because of the failure of his military intervention to rescue American hostages in Iran.
Despite these complications, I concluded from discussions in Washington that Iran would be mistaken to think that Trump will not retaliate in the future. The bigger mistake is to think that there is much daylight between the White House and the rest of the American establishment when it comes to confronting Iran’s nuclear program and its attempts to dominate the region through support of terrorism. There is a consensus on exercising maximum pressure on the Iranian government, short of an all-out war, to change its behavior.
There is also a similar global consensus to bring Iran to the negotiating table and change its behavior, to make it live like a normal state within its own national borders according to the UN Charter and international law.
If the pressure does not achieve its objectives, the US administration will surely be able to persuade its citizens and allies to adopt tougher means to meet IRGC provocations.