Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 October 2019

Leading from behind: Iran should beware of underestimating Donald Trump

If regime leaders in Tehran conclude they are dealing with a paper tiger, they will be making a grave miscalculation

A damaged refining tower at Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq crude oil processing plant following a drone attack. Faisal Al Nasser / Bloomberg
A damaged refining tower at Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq crude oil processing plant following a drone attack. Faisal Al Nasser / Bloomberg

US President Donald Trump might see himself as the antithesis of his predecessor Barack Obama, yet he often seems to follow his example and even amplify his policies. During the 2011 Nato intervention in Libya, for example, Mr Obama, who was then president, was described by White House officials as "leading from behind". The phrase was quickly seized upon by his political opponents as a derogatory metaphor for his foreign policy, suggestive of shirking responsibility and allowing others to take the initiative.

In the unfolding confrontation with Iran, Mr Trump appears to be seriously attempting to “lead from behind” when it comes to military actions. Washington has spearheaded a "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign against Tehran that continues to intensify and the US administration is directing its diplomatic and political efforts to isolate and stigmatise Iran.

Indeed, its central role in building a strong global coalition to address Iran's misconduct has been complicated because Mr Trump has alienated much of the international community, including close US allies in Europe, who are still trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal after he withdrew from it last year.

But given the recent attack on key Saudi oil facilities, which the US says was orchestrated by Tehran, other countries must set aside whatever resentments and doubts they might harbour because Iran has now targeted global oil supplies and energy markets.

Washington and Riyadh have reacted with calm and deliberate assembling of the evidence and a measured response to Iran’s provocation

Because of a growing diplomatic momentum against Iran and significant steps towards constructing a broad international coalition to thwart its destabilising activities – beginning with an increasing number of participants in the US-led naval force to protect international shipping in the Gulf – it's heartening that Washington and Riyadh have reacted with calm and deliberate assembling of the evidence and a measured response to Iran’s provocation.

The next battlefield will be the UN General Assembly in New York this week, where Washington and Riyadh will work to build a coalition broad and committed enough to restore deterrence without a major military retaliation. The hope is that it might still be possible to thwart Iran without being drawn into the military clash that Tehran is trying to provoke, and thereby maintain prospects for negotiation.

The paramount goal at this stage must be to restore deterrence, given that attacks on the Saudi oil sites demonstrate an outrageous degree of presumed impunity by Iran and a dangerous sense that the US and Saudi Arabia either cannot, or will not, retaliate.

If diplomacy and international coalition-building fail to persuade Tehran, then military force might eventually be required to correct Iran’s evident misapprehension that it is "winning" and, worse, is dealing with countries incapable of striking back.

And that is where Mr Trump appears to be leaning strongly towards a genuine version of "leading from behind”. He is signalling that he wants US allies to take the lead in any necessary military retaliations.

This pattern has already been developing in Syria and Iraq, where Israel has been striking pro-Iranian militias and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps installations and assets.

Since the attack on Abqaiq and Khurais on September 14, Mr Trump has sent unmistakable signals that he also expects Saudi Arabia to take the lead militarily, at least at first.

He tweeted that the US military was "locked and loaded" but was "waiting to hear from the Kingdom" before determining "under what terms we would proceed".

At the very least, this suggested that until Saudi Arabia publicly blamed Iran, and therefore accepted responsibility for whatever subsequently unfolded, the US would not consider military retaliation.

Later the president noted: “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us,” adding: “I’m somebody [who] would like not to have war.”

If diplomacy and international coalition-building fail to persuade Tehran, then military force might eventually be required to correct Iran’s evident misapprehension that it is 'winning'

Given the emphasis the US president has put on the “burden-sharing” by his partners and his aversion to using military force unless American interests have been directly attacked or Americans have been killed, he certainly seems to be sending the strong message that he hopes, or even expects, Saudi Arabia and other regional allies to take the lead in any military retaliation.

There is no doubt that if the confrontation with Iran becomes a conflict, US forces would have to take the initiative fairly quickly. But Mr Trump rightly wants to avoid such a dangerous development and putting the onus on regional allies to take the military lead initially might help him avoid being drawn into an over-hasty clash.

Even more than Mr Obama, then, Mr Trump might have discovered the real virtue in leading from behind.

But if regime leaders in Tehran conclude that, because Mr Trump would rather avoid conflict for political reasons and prefers regional partners to take the lead, they are dealing with a paper tiger, they will certainly rue that miscalculation.

Even those who see the world in “America First” terms must understand that if the US cannot quickly restore deterrence with Iran, its status as a Middle Eastern and even a global power will be all but over.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: September 23, 2019 11:06 AM

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