Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 July 2019

Averting conflict with Iran is the right move, but Trump's margins for manoeuvre are limited

The US president has gravitated between bombast and a desire to avoid military engagement – both positions with far-reaching implications for the region

President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, flanked by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, in the Oval Office of the White House. AP/Alex Brandon
President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, flanked by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, in the Oval Office of the White House. AP/Alex Brandon

When US president Donald Trump called off military retaliation against Iran last week, media outlets focused on the decision-making process within his administration. It was as if the impending confrontation was taking place in an American bubble – everything a prop in a drama that Mr Trump had nearly created.

However, Mr Trump was not first in the minds of many leaders in the Middle East, who breathed a sigh of relief when the he called off the attack. Two countries in particular – Iraq and Lebanon – had particular reason to fear a US-Iran conflict, while several Gulf states, though they oppose Iran’s regional ambitions, would certainly have been caught up in a war, with unforeseen consequences.

In fact, what everyone could see was that Mr Trump had no plan for a sustained military confrontation with Iran. Had war occurred, the US could have found itself caught up in rapidly escalating hostilities without any clear endgame. Mr Trump showed good judgement by sticking to his original plan, namely maintaining debilitating economic sanctions on Iran, while avoiding being drawn into a conflict that could have had serious domestic political repercussions and possibly isolated the US even more over Iran internationally.

That is why even Iran’s most antagonistic regional enemies must have been wary of a conflict for which Washington seemed ill prepared politically. Anything less than a complete US triumph could have represented some sort of victory for Iran, which would have used this to its advantage against its Middle Eastern rivals.

The biggest unknown to them was Mr Trump himself, who gravitated between bombast and a desire to avert a war. Given the president’s volatility, it was impossible for any of his regional allies to predict how he would behave, let alone rely on his going all the way against Tehran to seek regime change. That uncertainty must have contributed to their relief that a war had been avoided.

Iraq and Lebanon were two Arab countries feeling that they had dodged a bullet. Both have complex sectarian makeups, with large Shia communities that maintain ties with Iran. Their governments also want good relations with Washington and Tehran. For the US and Iran to go to war would have forced both countries to take sides, only heightening internal rifts and tensions.

For the US and Iran to go to war would have forced other countries to take sides, heightening rifts and tensions

A conflict in the Gulf could very easily have extended to Lebanon. Hezbollah would likely have retaliated against any US bombing of Iran by targeting Israel – part of the Iranian deterrence formula. That could well have led to a wider war, very probably Lebanon’s destruction, but also a polarising regional clash that would have increased fragmentation all around, to Iran’s advantage.

All that likely did not factor into Mr Trump’s thinking. Yet his decision to concentrate on economic sanctions was sound. The shooting down of a drone did not merit a wider conflagration that could have led to hundreds of casualties, if not more, and it was to the president’s credit that he did not lose sight of his objective. He did come across as both impetuous and reticent, which was hardly to his advantage, but an inconclusive war might have cost him much more.

One thing still missing, however, is that the Trump administration has not found an exit from the dynamics provoked by the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran. As the deal has slowly collapsed, Iran has threatened to resume enriching uranium beyond the limits the agreement imposed. The nuclear deal had its flaws, but it’s difficult to see how removing a check on Iran’s nuclear programme ensures a safer region.

And that is where Mr Trump has to be careful. He likes to portray himself as someone who can push back against the hawks, but in a post-nuclear deal environment, the hawks will find it much easier to justify using military force against a recalcitrant Iran. Mr Trump said no to a military retaliation this time, but can he be sure of doing so if the Iranians harm Americans or fully abandon the nuclear deal? Not very likely. His margin of manoeuvre is very limited.

Mr Trump remains unaware of domestic Arab politics and inter-Arab dynamics. His approach to the Middle East has factored little of either into his decisions. The risks for Arab countries of his standoff with Iran is one example. His son-in-law’s so-called plan for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement is another. His indifference towards the regional fallout from the war in Yemen is a third.

That is not say that Mr Trump should place the priorities of regional countries ahead of those of the United States. However, his often disjointed, bull-in-a-china-shop approach is why an American war with Iran worries so many Arab countries. It also explains why the president has tended to find himself alone in the region, regardless of the hypocritical words of encouragement.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut

Updated: June 26, 2019 12:29 PM

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