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Trump is trapped in an Iran cul-de-sac

Far from undermining the regime, the president has strengthened and emboldened it

June 24, 2019

11:23 AM

24 June 2019

11:23 AM

Donald Trump says he’s open to talks with Iran. He says that his policy of avoiding war is ‘common sense.’ And he says that he is upping sanctions on the regime today (which Russia is condemning as ‘illegal’).

Iran’s response? Rear Adm. Hossein Khanzadi announced on Monday that Tehran can mete out a ‘crushing response … and the enemy knows it.’

Here are the fruits of Trump’s Iran policy. Far from undermining the regime, Trump has strengthened and emboldened it. Tehran is on a roll. It has shot down an American drone and interfered with shipping the Persian Gulf with no real consequences. This week Iran will likely exceed the limits on enriching uranium, a step that it would not be taking if Trump had not withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the nuclear deal that President Obama signed off on in 2015.

Trump confronts a divide — nay, a schism — in the GOP that he has not resolved. Iran has been at the heart of a hawkish Republican foreign policy for decades. Neoconservatives view Tehran as terrorism central — a mortal threat to Israel and the West. Vice President Dick Cheney urged George W. Bush to attack Iran in 2007. Bush refused.

Now hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Liz Cheney are warning that Trump cannot let Iranian effrontery go unchallenged. Sen. Tom Cotton has been talking about demolishing the Iranian navy. Already Iran is acting as though it has triumphed over Trump. More provocations are sure to come at Iran’s time and choosing.

At the same time, Washington realists are lauding Trump for not acting. Trump may talk tough — ‘I’m not looking for war, and if there is, it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before,’ he said this past weekend — but he is clearly averse to conflict, whether at home or abroad. He hasn’t invaded Venezuela. He flinched on the ICE raids. And, of course, he doesn’t want to become embroiled in a new Middle East war, which is a mark of sanity that his critics are seldom willing to accord him.

Those who are sympathetic to the president’s America First pronouncements, though, see his moves on Iran as a signal moment in his presidency. According to W. James Antle III of the American Conservative, this past Thursday was the ‘night Donald Trump became president.’ But as Antle lucidly notes, ‘the “maximum pressure” campaign that brought us to the brink is at least partially a product of his own unrealistic approach to diplomacy.’ The hosannas being showered on Trump bring to mind the old adage about not praising a man who no longer beats his wife.

The problem is that Trump’s advisers remain transfixed with the notion that he can break with the Obama-era policy of containing Iran. They want rollback, not containment. But this shibboleth from the 1950s is simply guaranteed to acerbate relations with Iran, leading not to the talks that Trump clearly desires but confrontation.

Will the Europeans or Japan be able to broker talks between the Trump administration and Iran? Maybe. But an off-ramp would require more diplomatic dexterity than Trump possesses. Anyway, Trump may discover that the greatest obstacle to avoiding hostilities emanates from inside his own administration. national security adviser John Bolton warned, ‘Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness.’ As long as the likes of Bolton and Mike Pompeo are steering American foreign policy, Trump will be trapped in a cul-de-sac of his own making.

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