For 16 months, President Donald Trump has pursued a policy toward Iran known as “maximum pressure,” beginning with the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear accord secured by President Barack Obama under which Iran stopped advancing its nuclear weapons program.
This maximum pressure was not enough to bring Iran into line. Now, having ratcheted up the pressure so high, Trump’s options to deal with a new and drastic escalation this past weekend are badly limited. Military retaliation is one option, but the destabilization that follows could be devastating. Another path must be found.
The nuclear deal was imperfect, allowing Iran to continue funding terrorism and conduct proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. But the 2015 agreement, which included China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany as signatories, provided a foundation from which Iran might have been persuaded to pursue better behavior in return for fewer economic sanctions.
Then Trump walked away from the deal in 2018. Since then, Iran has seen its economy dwindle into recession as oil exports were stymied. In response, Iran blew holes in four ships — including two Saudi oil tankers — anchored in the Persian Gulf in May, attacked two British oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz in June, increased its uranium enrichment and shot down a drone operated by the United States.
This weekend, the Trump administration accused Iran of bombing crucial Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure. On Monday, this led to a cut in the world’s oil supply by 5 percent and a 13 percent spike in the price of oil, and Iran seized another tanker. If the attack came from Iran’s soil, it’s an extraordinary provocation.
Saudi Arabia says it will ask for a full UN investigation before it responds. Trump said of a possible war, “We’d certainly like to avoid it,” and that’s better than his vague weekend tweet that the United States is “locked and loaded.” Only a week ago, Trump was talking about meeting with Iran’s president and considering a $15 billion line of credit to lure Iran into better behavior.
The atmosphere surrounding this weekend’s attacks is distressingly unstable. Voters in Israel will decide Tuesday whether Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump’s staunchest ally against the 2015 Iran deal, will continue to lead. In Iran, it’s not clear how the bombing of Saudi Arabia affects the machinations between hard-line clerics who want to spit in the eye of Americans and Saudis, and moderates who prioritize peace and prosperity.
In the United States, we have no national security adviser, no director of national intelligence, a defense secretary who has been on the job for six weeks, and a fickle, mercurial president. And our ally, Saudi Arabia, is as dedicated to funding terrorism, stoking proxy wars and ignoring human rights as Iran.
Trump played the tough guy, and Iran called him on it. Now he must try to bring Iran back into line by promising progress, because punishment has failed. There is no justification for the United States attacking Iran, and the consequences for the world if Saudi Arabia does so could be devastating.