The US needs international partners to control Iran’s aggression
The opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the U.S. president’s attendance there typically is an opportunity to lay out a global agenda with a major speech and meetings that highlight the administration’s priorities. After Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush used his appearance at the U.N. General Assembly to implore the international community to take seriously the threat of terrorism. (That year’s opening was delayed until November because of 9/11).
President Obama’s first speech at the U.N. focused on counter-proliferation and climate change, two issues that help define his presidency and culminated in the Iran nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and Paris Climate Agreement. Two years ago, President Trump brought his “America first” principles to the General Assembly podium, declaring that the U.S. “can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return.” He went on to threaten “Little Rocket Man” in North Korea, and questioned the survival of the Iranian regime.
This year, the world — and global markets — will eagerly await what President Trump says about Iran and how the U.S. intends to respond to the escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf. In May, Iran started disabling and intercepting oil tankers and shot down an American drone on June 20. Most recently, Iran was responsible for the dramatic Sept. 14 drone and missile attacks against a Saudi oil field and the country’s primary Abqaiq oil processing facility.
Ironically, Trump had spent the run-up to the UNGA week building speculation about whether he would meet with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Now the question will be if — and how — the U.S. will retaliate against Iran’s provocations that have been met with a limited American response other than more sanctions — adding to the U.S. so-called “maximum pressure” campaign.
After the attack on Saudi Arabia, Trump tweeted that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” but that he would wait to hear from the Saudis “as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed the finger directly at Iran, tweeting, “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.” So far, the Saudis have declared the drones and missiles are Iranian, but they have not said definitively that Iran launched the attack, suggesting that one of Iran’s proxies may have fired the weapons while trying to lower the pressure on themselves to respond to Iran militarily.
Although he loves dramatic buildups, Trump is unlikely to use his UNGA platform for “an Adlai Stevenson moment” (Stevenson presented images of Soviet missile sites in Cuba to the world). For one thing, that would tie the president to a military response, or make him appear weak if he backs down without any obvious Iranian concessions. More than likely, Trump will threaten, as he did with North Korea in 2017, and offer a vague way out: If the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. … The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.” Since then, Trump has met twice with Kim Jung Un, while North Korea continues its missile tests.
Trump may end up talking loudly but carrying a short stick, particularly because the president does not want to enter a war, especially going into an election year. But there are advantages to his bluster as long as our allies in Europe believe the U.S. may, in fact, hit back at Iran using covert or proportional means. The threat of force by the U.S. or Israel against Iran’s nuclear program helped compel the Europeans and others to impose financial sanctions that ultimately drove Iran to the negotiating table in 2014. The Europeans also should be alarmed by the brazenness of Iran’s actions and prospect for significant future oil disruptions.
Traditionally, the threat of force against Iran has been magnified by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used his annual appearances at UNGA to highlight Iran’s nuclear program and other threatening behavior. However, Netanyahu is skipping New York this year to concentrate on coalition negotiations at home, where he faces an uphill battle to remain in his post. Even without Netanyahu at the helm, Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, and most recently Iraq, likely will continue under any Israeli prime minister. There is always a chance that if those strikes kill too many Iranian Quds Force operatives, Hezbollah could retaliate and a wider regional war could ensue.
Trump and his team should use the UNGA week to build a coalition that condemns Iranian behavior and is ready to act against Iran, proportionally but directly, if it launches another traceable attack against an oil tanker or foreign territory. The international community should be prepared to do so not out of any great love for Saudi Arabia or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but to prevent further Iranian terrorism and regional aggression.
The unilateral “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran must become a multilateral campaign, and Iran needs to see a release valve as an alternative to sponsoring terrorism, firing drones and missiles and targeting Saudi Arabia. That could be the promise of limited sanctions relief or reinstituting waivers for some oil sales in exchange for a verifiable halt in terrorist activity in the Gulf region.
Trump may devalue allies — and see them as not paying appropriately for America’s security or market — but he needs international partners more than ever to de-escalate the conflict with Iran. He should use his U.N. speech and meetings in New York to make appropriate overtures to our traditional European partners and seek their cooperation if he is going to lay the foundation for a “better deal” with Iran down the road that address its nuclear program and terror activities.
Ben Fishman is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served from 2009 to 2013 on the National Security Council and, in 2009, at the State Department in the office charged with developing policy toward Iran and the Gulf states. Follow him on Twitter @fishman_b.