A crisis with Iran need not lead to a war

A crisis with Iran need not lead to a war
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It is often pointed out that President TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE’s foreign policy team shouldn’t be judged until it has managed a full-blown international crisis. That crisis may have arrived in the form of Iran and concern that we may be heading to military confrontation. In assessing the Trump team’s crisis management and diplomacy, however, it might be necessary to note that the administration seems to have created the crisis in the first place.

During the campaign, President Trump took a principled and politically expedient position to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA). Calling it “the worst deal ever,” Trump hinted that he would take it up with Iranian authorities at some point and extract a better deal from them. The president pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018, and began to impose sanctions on Iran, while warning Iran against reneging on any of its commitments under the agreement, such as the processing of fissile material.


With the other signatories still on board, Iran refrained from processing, provided the quid pro quo of sanctions relief was in place. All this began to change when the U.S. took steps to void any waivers on Iran oil deliveries and to force foreign companies to stay away from trade or investment with Iran. With the global supply chain thus called into service as a sanctions enforcer, the U.S. had begun to impose its will on others, including friends and allies alike.  

This invocation of economic reach was not enough for the Trump foreign policy team, and in a May 2018 speech, just days after the withdrawal from the JCPOA, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoPompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates Dozens of scientists call for deeper investigation into origins of COVID-19, including the lab theory MORE made 12 demands on Iran, adding that Iran’s failure to comply with these non-negotiable demands would result in the “strongest sanctions in history.” These are not targeted, “smart sanctions”; they are designed to impoverish the Iranian people so that they become the foot soldiers who ultimately will change Iran’s regime, provided they don’t starve first. Apart from being morally reprehensible, no serious Iran-watcher believes this strategy has much of a chance of working.   

More recently, the administration has added a purposeful set of actions aimed at threatening military conflict with Iran, including repositioning of naval vessels and signaling U.S. willingness to dispatch troops to the region.  

On May 7, Pompeo abruptly cancelled a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to fly to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Pompeo’s statement to journalists following the meeting with Mahdi — that the U.S. supports Iraqi independence (at least for now) — did little to convey what precisely is the gathering crisis with Iran and what are our options for dealing with it, apart from demanding unconditional surrender.

Last week, Pompeo again adjusted his chaotic travel schedule to skip Moscow and stop instead in Brussels, where the European Union foreign ministers were meeting, to talk about our increasing concerns about Iran.


During his early days as secretary, Pompeo assumed the positive role of rebuilding the State Department, filling positions, visiting offices around the building, and tweeting about how he would put “swagger” into a notoriously swaggerless and sometimes rudderless place.

More importantly, Pompeo made clear that he has a relationship with the president others have so sorely lacked. As if to prove the point, he assumed leadership on North Korean negotiations — a quixotic adventure to be sure, but one that requires adult supervision if it is to have any chance.

But Pompeo now seems more interested in keeping up with national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonRepublicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process Trump pushes back on Bolton poll Hillicon Valley: Facebook Oversight board to rule on Trump ban in 'coming weeks' | Russia blocks Biden Cabinet officials in retaliation for sanctions MORE’s apparent rush to war, even as the president must be wondering how good an idea it was to hire Bolton (and maybe Pompeo) in the first place.

Pompeo also has recruited the U.S. Embassy Baghdad staff to the project, ordering the departure of most of the embassy staff and the consulate staff in Erbil, just as he did weeks ago with the staff of the consulate in Basra. Given that embassy and consular staff were not evacuated even when hit by rocket fire during the war, and given the dearth of information about any new threats, the staff may wonder whether they are being treated as props in a poorly directed theater production.

There is no question that threats to American personnel and installations must be taken with utmost seriousness. But especially in the area of intelligence, that sense of seriousness must be accompanied by a clear and prudent mind, with great care not to allow one’s opinions to color the conclusions. Sometimes threats are the result of conspiracies, but anyone with a tendency toward conspiracy theories might want to check that at the door.

If these threats indeed are credible, Pompeo should have started by consulting with the German chancellor. Iranian-inspired terrorism has never had the global reach of Sunni Islamic terrorism, but Iran has engaged in assassinations in Europe and elsewhere, and certainly Germany is no stranger to that threat.

Given the uncertainty inherent in the information being developed — including whether Iranian moves are causing U.S. moves or are in reaction — a prudent diplomatic strategy would include some kind of communication channel with Iran. That idea seems not to have even occurred to Bolton and Pompeo.

If war with Iran comes out of all this, the United States will have taken on an undertaking far more extensive than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pompeo may want to consider his legacy of managing America’s place in the world and its credibility more carefully, and ponder whether he is bringing the necessary care and wisdom to the job.

Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05 and ambassador to Iraq, 2009-2010. He served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, 2005-2009, and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-2008. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver, and is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Institute. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.