How the 'Obama Doctrine' can solve the Iran stand-off

How the 'Obama Doctrine' can solve the Iran stand-off
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In April 2016, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe House Judiciary Committee's fundamental choice Teaching black children to read is an act of social justice Buttigieg draws fresh scrutiny, attacks in sprint to Iowa MORE was quoted as saying: “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.

Who knew that President Obama would rescue President Donald Trump from his worst foreign policy debacle?

Assailed for putting the U.S. into a “put-up-or-shut-up” position in the standoff with Iran, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE can invoke the wisdom of his predecessor and restore urgently needed perspective. There are four clear reasons why President Obama is right and the U.S. need not take any overt military action to establish its credibility in the Gulf.

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To bomb Iran simply to prove we can would, as President Obama suggested, be a misapplication of force. Unlike in Syria — and unlike the Cuba Missile Crisis, a comparison now invoked by alarmists — the status quo in the Gulf remains favorable to the U.S. and unfavorable — indeed, intolerable — to Iran.

First, as serious as they are, the attacks on the Abqaiq and Khrais refineries in Saudi Arabia have not altered the status quo. It is Tehran, not Washington and not Riyadh, that finds the current situation of severe economic pressure intolerable. Iran only prevails if it changes the status quo.

In the case of Trump and Iran, there is no ‘red line’ to enforce. Having no treaty, doctrinal or policy obligations requiring a military response, U.S. objectives are met simply by maintaining the sanctions regime in place, bolstering Saudi defenses and working with allies to both isolate and engage Iran.

Second, escalation carries more risks for Tehran than it does for Washington. The strikes delivered a shock, tearing into Saudi production and revealing the country’s vulnerability and military ineptitude, already on tragic display in Yemen. On the other hand, those with skin in the game — global oil traders — have kept their cool, effectively betting against Iran. Traders have priced crude at only 5 percent more than a barrel fetched prior to the Sept. 14 attacks. And even if takes months, as opposed to weeks (as the most optimistic reports suggest), to restore full Saudi production capacity, that hardly mounts to the level of a global oil cataclysm.

With each escalation, Iran risks being caught and suffering consequences it clearly wants to avoid — given the lengths it has gone to cloak responsibility. At the same time, failure to escalate will expose Iran’s own lack of will, costing it credibility and, therefore, leverage.  It is Tehran, not Washington, which is on the horns of a dilemma.

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The U.S. has both less at stake in the Gulf standoff and vastly more capacity to inflict pain, including directly to the Iranian homeland, a vulnerability that Iran must bear in mind if it were to make the mistake of attacking U.S. troops in the region. Escalation would risk isolating Iran not only from Europe, but Russia and China as well.

Third, Iran also is vulnerable in a military confrontation, not just the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Iran faces an array of serious security threats, from separatist movements and terrorist groups to exposed military and civil assets, the loss of which could be crippling. Its oil infrastructure is less resilient than the Saudis’.

The absence of a direct response to Israeli strikes against Iranian — not just Hezbollah — assets in Syria (including the targeting killing of an Iranian general) suggests that Iran also is cautious about military escalation.

Fourth, the U.S. has enhanced diplomatic, not just military, options. The unqualified rebuke of Iran issued on Monday, Sept. 23, by the leaders of France, Germany and the United Kingdom is a game-changer. By condemning Iran for the attack and expressing “full solidarity” with Saudi Arabia, these European guarantors of the Iran nuclear deal have effectively aligned themselves with the U.S. on the crisis. In essence, the Europeans have relieved Washington of the need to come up with ironclad proof of Iranian culpability for the attack and, more widely, relieved Washington of blame for creating the crisis through its “maximum pressure” campaign. Instead, it is Iran that Europe now sees as the primary bad actor in the stand-off.

The Administration must seize this moment of maximum leverage not by intensifying the pressure on Iran, but by creating an exit ramp that inclines Iran towards negotiations, not escalation. Rather than kinetic strikes, U.S. CENTCOM should move military assets in — and out — of the Gulf in a manner that taxes Iranian planners and keeps leaders off-guard.

President Trump must demonstrate uncharacteristic restraint in his statements, neither forcing himself nor Iran to escalate or risk looking weak. The announced troop and hardware deployments to beef up Saudi defenses — and earlier reported cyber attack — are appropriate measures that fall well below the Obama kinetic threshold.

To get Iran to the table for serious talks, Washington must offer two concessions. The direct negotiations that Trump has offered should be held nominally under the auspices of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. This will allow Trump to say that the meeting is merely taking place at a UN agency, while the Iranians can say that the meeting is taking place under the context of the JCPOA. A formula should also be devised to suspend sanctions for the duration of the talks or extend a limited line of credit as President Macron has suggested, as a further gesture to Tehran.

Iranian mistrust of the U.S. has possibly never been greater. What’s more, Iran’s security concerns are broader than any single conflict area like Yemen or Syria. The U.S. should also offer the Iranians a broad, multilateral arena — like the Helsinki Process (and its successor, the OSCE) that allowed the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) to discuss issues like arms control and human rights even at the height of the Cold War.

The array of U.S. options in the Gulf standoff becomes clear when we step back from alarmism and focus on the immediate challenge: not to defeat Iran militarily, or stop it from every bellicose act, but simply to sustain the status quo. As President Obama suggested, there are alternatives to force — if we retain perspective, work with allies and consider our bedrock aims.

Edward P. Joseph is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute and an adjunct professor of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He served a dozen years on various missions during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Macedonia, as well as in Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq and Pakistan.