Trump may have dug himself into a hole with his Iran policy

Negar Mortazavi
Satellite image issued by the US government showing damage to the oil installation at Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia: AFP/Getty Images

Washington and Tehran entered yet another phase of sabre rattling and high tension over the weekend.

Following attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities that disrupted the global market, the Trump administration quickly pointed fingers at Iran.

Tehran denied the accusations and their Houthi allies took responsibility for the attacks. The Houthis have long been fighting a brutal war against the US-supported Saudi coalition in Yemen, and have enough incentives to attack Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of launching the attacks in language that could set the stage for a potential retaliatory strike.

John Bolton’s recent exit from the White House raised the prospect of Trump moving in the direction of diplomacy and away from a potential war with Iran. But less than a week after Bolton’s departure, the war of words has resumed. Trump threatened Iran on Twitter, saying that the US military is “locked and loaded”. And an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander said that they are ready for a war.

Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a grassroots organisation in Washington, says Bolton's exit could be an opportunity for Trump to pivot but may have been merely a cosmetic fix.

He told The Independent that “with people like Mike Pompeo still in the administration and little leadership from Trump, there may be no real will to pivot.”

Polls have shown that there is no appetite in the United States for another Middle Eastern war. Americans have understood the high costs of war and have been demanding their leaders end the ones they already started. Besides the occasional Lindsey Graham and Fox and Friends comments, the overwhelming voice out of Washington today is against a new war.

And Trump echoes that anti-war voice.

The temporary opening for a limited military action on Iran after their shooting of a US drone, was a test of Trump’s will for going to war. And he showed that he doesn’t want to start the conflict.

But his isolationist profile contradicts his aggressive rhetoric. And the hawkish cabinet he has surrounded himself with are trying to push him into incremental and limited military strikes that can eventually escalate into a point of no return.

Back in June, Pompeo was one of Trump’s top aides who supported limited strikes and seems like he still does.

Stephen Miles, executive director at Win Without War, an advocacy organisation in Washington, said: "The Trump administration found a Middle East full of kindling, and decided to pour gasoline all over it. Now a spark won’t just start a fire but an inferno."

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While Iran does not have the military capabilities of the US and its allies in the Persian Gulf, Tehran has long prepared for a day like this. Iranians have beefed up their defence systems and created leverage through various proxies across the Middle East. So even limited strikes on Iran can easily and quickly escalate into a regional war.

But although Tehran may be ready for a war, they do not want to start it.

Ruhollah Nakhaee, diplomatic correspondent at Iran’s prominent Shargh newspaper, says Iran’s strategy is to continue the step-by-step pressure on Europe to force them to take action, while containing Iranian hardliners in order to avoid starting a war.

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He told The Independent there has been no “unjustifiable action” from Iranian military forces that could hurt Iran’s diplomatic stance. “Best scenario is that Trump returns to the JCPOA (the nuclear deal from which the US unilaterally withdrew) and negotiations restart, and if that does not happen Iran is still buying time and trying to prevent a disaster."

But as long as Trump is not willing to abandon his maximum pressure campaign of crippling sanctions on Iran, he may not be able to start real diplomacy with Tehran. Trump may have dug himself a hole without any real way out of it. And the great deal-maker persona that he has been trying to maintain is more and more turning into a war hawk.

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