Longer term perspectives on the Iran crisis

Longer term perspectives on the Iran crisis
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We can, for the moment, exhale. President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE has chosen not to respond militarily to Iran’s retaliation for the assassination of its leading general, Qassem Suleimani. In effect, both states have decided to stand down. 

The president has, however, indicated a further ratcheting up of the “maximum pressure campaign.” If one believes, as I do, that the current crisis began with Trump’s withdrawal from JCPOA nuclear agreement and the imposition of crippling economic sanctions against Iran, then the incentives for further Iranian actions against U.S. interests have been strengthened,. The march toward war is merely paused. 

In the meantime, the balance of short-term gains and losses is decidedly negative. 

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Iran has announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA and resumption of its nuclear program, presenting the gravest of the various Iranian threats to the U.S. and its allies, and the reason Trump began his address with a pledge to prevent such a development (despite his contribution to it). Iran is newly unified politically.

The U.S. position in Iraq is imperiled. The fight against the remnants of ISIS is suspended, and ISIS’s reconstitution enabled. More Americans have been placed in harm’s way. Our allies — with no interest in becoming collateral damage in a U.S.-Iran conflict — are distancing themselves from the Suleimani hit (notably including Israel). 

On the positive side is the death of Suleimani, a powerful and effective leader but, over the longer term, replaceable. Attacks being planned by Suleimani may have been deflected, but new attacks have been provoked, only the first of which was Tuesday’s missile strikes against three Iraqi-American bases. 

Whether this act of war was justified may become apparent as the intelligence basis for the U.S. attack is revealed. The unanswered question is whether U.S. intelligence observed an uptick in the threat level, indicating an imminent, damaging attack, or whether the Suleimani hit represented a deliberate escalation of the maximum pressure campaign that had failed to bring about either collapse of the regime or a positive change in behavior. 

The ultimate judgment must await a clearer picture of the consequences: A deterred Iran, or an encouraged one? An Iran coaxed back into a strengthened JCPOA, or an Iran achieving and leveraging a nuclear capability to promote its regional ambitions — or a preventive strike by the U.S. and Israel against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, which would spark a wider war? Improved stability in the region, or a reemergence of ISIS and additional sectarian turmoil, particularly in Iraq? An America able to turn its attention to higher-priority issues, as advocated by Trump’s national security strategy, or one sucked back into the power-squandering maelstrom of Middle East strife?

The answers to these questions will be shaped by the administration’s capacity to make the right choices in a now more complex, dangerous, and fast-moving environment. 

How will Trump manage this crisis towards the satisfaction of American interests, without incurring high costs? In a word, badly.  

The problem is Trump himself. He already has demonstrated an inability to understand the intentions and capabilities of America’s principal enemies: Russia’s Putin is a good guy, means well and can be trusted not to interfere in U.S. elections; North Korea’s Kim is more concerned about his economy than his nuclear program, can be intimidated — by threats of annihilation, or enticed by promises of American investment and Trumpian charm — into de-nuclearization; China’s Xi can be leveraged through American tariffs to reform his trade and internal economic practices; the Iranian regime will succumb to economic sanctions, either by losing power or by agreeing to curb its destabilizing regional activities and negotiating a more favorable JCPOA. 

This latest miscalculation has led directly to the current crisis. These are evident, consequential errors of assessment. They have led to diplomatic dead-ends, squandered time and resources, real damage to regional stability and global economic growth, and diminished American influence. They have produced sound and fury, to no useful end. They reveal a narcissist’s inability to understand the motivations, interests, and responsibility of other leaders to defend their countries’ security, and a bloated assessment of his and his country’s powers of intimidation and persuasion.

These errors also indicate a president who has emptied his administration of anyone with the disposition and standing to effectively challenge his inclinations and the absence of the policy process. The administration is a strategy-free zone, its priorities defined by the latest impulsive decision. 

Thus, as the crisis with Iran unfolds, we can expect more of the same: exaggerated estimates of our leverage over Iranian behavior, and an underestimation of our far-flung vulnerabilities; refusal to assess the evolving balance of gains and losses from U.S. policy; willful ignorance of the potential for further escalation towards all-out war, characterized by asymmetric means, against vulnerable targets and locations, at times of Iran’s choosing.

Michael Oppenheimer leads the International Relations Futures concentration at the New York University School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs (CGA), teaching courses on the future of international relations and U.S. foreign policy. He oversees research and consulting project for the UN Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, and performs analysis and consulting for the U.S. intelligence community, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.