Opinion | National Security

We're all on the tarmac, waiting for an Iran policy

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

On an undisclosed U.S. base or carrier somewhere close to the Arabian Gulf, U.S. fighter planes were on the tarmac or the flight deck loaded with precision weapons, ready to fly to Iran. Ten minutes before takeoff, President Donald Trump ordered them to stand down. I will not criticize the president's decision to call off the strike, as I do not have the information he had about the specific targets or likely collateral damage that worried him so much. I also would not have criticized him had he gone ahead with a strike, provided it was proportional to Iran's recent use of force. What does deserve scrutiny, however, is what this tells us about how divided his administration is on Iran and how little progress it has made toward a coherent policy. 

Last month, I wrote that the administration needed to conduct an immediate review of its Iran policy and that it should "agree on where it plans to draw the line which, if crossed, will cause it to use military force against Iran." The indecision over last week's airstrike tells us that has not happened.

As we continue to drift toward a possible war with Iran that has not been well-planned, President Trump needs to do two things urgently. First, he must get his national security team aligned on policy. Second, he needs to shore up a coalition of allies who can assist him in his approach to Iran, particularly a coalition that includes our largest European allies, UK, France and Germany. Trump is going to need them backing him up, whether he ultimately decides to confront Iran militarily, or to pursue a new deal to end hostilities through diplomacy. Neither option can be achieved effectively without them.

The President's advisors seem bitterly divided on what to do about Iran, and that may be making it difficult for coherence to emerge. On one side, there are Iran hawks like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo was in the White House Situation Room on Thursday reportedly "pressing the case" for a strike on Iran. News articles suggest Bolton has been publicly advocating for the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran for more than 15 years. Even as Bolton was supposedly defending Trump's decision not to do the airstrikes during a joint appearance Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he laced his speech with an awkwardly phrased reminder to Iran: "No one has granted them a hunting license in the Middle East." And, then he asked everyone to "stay tuned."

On the other side are Trump supporters, advisors and people who have his ear who regard dilemmas abroad, no matter the gravity of the situation, as not worth risking lives or wasting taxpayer money. On Wednesday, during a nomination hearing, Sen. Rand Paul sought to pin down Trump's nominee to be the new U.S. Ambassador to the UN on foreign interventions:

"All through the Middle East it has been run by ironfisted men and no diplomats, no democrats, no people who believe in constitutional republics. No Jeffersonians, but they have stability and when we topple them we have gotten instability. In Syria, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people fled and hundreds of thousands of people died because of this noble notion that we will get rid of this dictator Assad, but it hasn't worked and that's my whole point. And the only point I would like to leave you with is that the president feels like the Iraq war was a mistake. He has probably said it 200 times or more and it instructs what we think about the other wars."

Leaving aside Senator Paul's confusion over whether we intervened in Syria to try to topple Assad (we didn't), he articulates a far different vision of the world than the Iran hawks. Trump seems to waiver in between. He frequently criticizes interventions by Bush and Obama, in Iraq and Libya for instance, but rattles a saber at Iran and acquiesces in discussion of an intervention there.

The consequence is a muddled policy in which regime change might be the goal for Iran, but the administration is not doing anything at all actually to support or advance a regime change - or diplomacy might be the goal, but there are no diplomatic channels open. Iran is left feeling backed into a corner with few options to express its discontent other than acting through violence. The president must align these different views in his national security team into a cohesive approach and then articulate it in a policy speech or directive. Most importantly, he must then stay disciplined in following it and communicating it to Iran.

If the president can get his own team unified, he may find it easier to bring our European allies on board for a common approach. 

The UK, France and Germany participated with us in the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, and they are still smarting over Trump's unilateral withdrawal last year. However, they are also now realizing they cannot keep the deal intact without the U.S. Their effort to convince European companies to continue to do business in Iran, even in the face of U.S. sanctions, have failed. Moreover, Iran has announced its intention in just a few days from now to exceed enriched uranium stockpile levels permitted by the deal. 

Thus, our European allies may now be willing to draw closer to the U.S. on its approach to Iran, provided they believe the U.S. will be an honest broker if they help re-open negotiations with Iran. In return, the Europeans can add additional heft to the U.S. campaign to use sanctions to impose maximum pressure on Iran.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration seems not to have noticed the opportunity. As Pompeo prepared for an overseas trip this weekend, he scheduled emergency stops in Saudi Arabia and UAE to work on "the strategy of coalition building" on Iran with those two countries. We already know those two countries will be part of our coalition against Iran. He ought to be concentrating on bringing our skeptical allies in Europe into the coalition instead.

President Trump needs to get his national security team working toward one plan on Iran, and he needs to get our closest allies signed on to that effort to help us achieve it. Until he does, we are all like those fighter pilots last week, waiting tensely on the flight deck or on the tarmac.

David Tafuri is an international lawyer who served as the U.S. Department of State's Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He also was an outside foreign policy advisor to President Obama's 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, FOX News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.

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