Trump reluctant to pursue military options on Iran
Much of the Middle East and Europe wants to know what the US intends to do about Iran. They want to know if President Donald Trump is really seeking to meet with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani or other Iranian leaders. They want to know how much harsher Trump is willing to make the sanctions or if he will loosen them. They want to know if anything will draw Trump into military conflict with Iran. And they want to know how the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath will impact the US response to Iran.
Yes, Trump would meet with Iranian leaders if the opportunity arose and he thought it could lead to a peaceful resolution. This has always been his stance. Trump was hired by the people in large part because they hoped he would be a strong negotiator, not because he would refuse to try. He has met with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, so we can assume he will meet with anyone.
When it comes to sanctions, Trump has been, and continues to be, very hard on Iran. However, the world must also realize that, if he sees an opening, he will be willing to relax sanctions. Trump has reiterated many times that his strategy in a negotiation is to be very tough and demanding at the start but also willing to make concessions in exchange for concessions from the other side. Trump has regularly alternated between toughness and concessions in trade negotiations with China, and those talks are more vital to the basic wellness of the US than the Iran situation.
War is a different matter altogether. A peaceful resolution with Iran is a top priority. The president clearly does not want to fight if it can be avoided. From the US perspective, Iran must know that the American military is ready, but Trump is not as eager to pull the trigger as some other past presidents.
Most importantly, the people of the US do not want war. More than a year ago, I wrote in this column that the governments of the Middle East should realize “the United States is not going to fight Iran for you.” At that time, I wrote about the thousands of American servicemen and women who have been killed and the tens of thousands wounded in the Middle East and Afghanistan over the last 40 years. Americans do not want to send more of their young men and women into danger at the other end of the globe. Any way to avoid combat while limiting Iran’s militaristic and bellicose behavior is preferred.
President Trump and his top aides realize this, and they seem to agree with the American people. On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke about the US’ actions countering Iran. Pompeo, who is one of the president’s most loyal aides, said: “Our mission set is to avoid war.” He explained that the deployment of additional troops to Saudi Arabia was “for the purpose of deterrence and defense.”
The American military is ready, but Trump is not as eager to pull the trigger as some other past presidents.
Ellen R. Wald
However, within the Washington society of pontificators, there are many advocates for military adventurism in Iran, and they are constantly pushing the White House to act. These come from both the right and the left, from within the traditional Republican and Democratic circles. The most well-known among these is John Bolton, who was recently fired (he claims he quit) as the White House national security adviser. Bolton is a well-known hawk and his policy ideas clashed with Trump’s. Unfortunately for Bolton, in the US, the president sets foreign policy.
There are think tanks, newspaper columnists, television news personalities and legislators in Washington who seemingly want combat with Iran. Many of them argue that Tehran is a rising threat that must be contained. Some go so far as to cite Nazi Germany, which is an unreasonable historical comparison.
Iran is a threat and cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear bomb, yet it is important for the US to limit itself to proportional responses to any Iranian aggression. After Iran shot down an American drone a few months ago, the president’s advisers pushed for a strike on Iranian targets. Trump stopped the mission before it started when he was told that Iranians would be killed. He said later that killing Iranians would have been disproportionate when Iran only destroyed a piece of American equipment.
Trump’s restraint has led to an odd phenomenon in American politics. Many Democrats, eager to oppose any policy of the president’s, are now hinting that they support military responses to Iranian aggression. This is a marked divergence from the near-unwavering Democrat support for President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal. But the Middle East and Europe should not believe that this growing belligerence is real. There is no heart for war with Iran in any part of the American electorate, and a Democrat president is no more likely to pursue it at this point than Trump has been.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy