It is hard to view US President Donald Trump’s Iran policy as anything but an own goal. His decision to unliterally withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and embark on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, cheered on by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, was meant to inflict enough pain and humiliation to force the Islamic Republic back to the negotiating table. Saying that events haven’t turned out exactly the way Trump intended would be an understatement.
Instead, in abandoning his European allies, not to mention Russia and China, in pursuit of a policy that had little support outside the inner circle of neocon hawks like his former security advisor John Bolton and three of the more reactionary forces in the Middle East, Trump has plunged the region into a series of crises that escalated to the attack on Saudi oil facilities two weeks ago. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo duly called this an “act of war”.
It’s highly unlikely that Trump and his acolytes intended such an escalation, least of all Saudi Arabia. As the world’s largest exporter of oil, any attack on the Kingdom’s oil facilities and a loss of global confidence over its ability to meet the demands of major oil consumers such as China and India, is likely to prove disastrous. Riyadh, which found itself in the embarrassing position of having to import oil for its domestic needs following the attack, needs stability in the region, more than ever before, in order to drive through its modernisation plan.
Trump has completely miscalculated the possible consequences of his action. The nuclear deal signed by the previous US President, Barack Obama, was seen as a landmark moment. Coming on the back of decades of hostilities with Tehran, the carrot approach adopted by the major world powers to curtail Iran’s behaviour, was proving to be a success. Single-handedly, Trump undid years of negotiations and went back to the tried and failed stick approach, only this time he was left to embark on this dangerous policy without the backing of the international community. More significantly, as in any strategy that relies on the stick approach, there is a diminished resolve to follow through with threats. He has also tied his own hands with his “America first” policy, which includes a commitment to his shrinking voter base not to start another war in the Middle East. The vast majority of Americans do not want war with Iran, and embarking on a military offensive that only serves the interests of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is likely to prove disastrous for the US President’s re-election bid.
As for the Iranians, the geo-political deadlock brought about in part by the failure of the Europeans to defray the cost of new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, despite their expressed desire to honour the nuclear deal, has become an intolerable situation. Altering the win-lose political calculation, where Iran found itself on the losing end, to one where all parties were faced with a lose-lose scenario unless sanctions were lifted, became, as far as the Iranians were concerned, their only way out. If Iran is indeed directly responsible for the drone strikes, which is still a big if, it’s possible that the government in Tehran viewed an escalation of tensions to the brink of war as its only possible course of action, one that was needed to shock all parties concerned to pull back from the dangerous course that they were on.
Other reasons may also have prompted Iran to pursue such a high-risk policy, the most significant of which is the support from China. Trump’s belligerence towards Beijing and Tehran has moved the two governments closer. Not only has China — the world’s largest oil importer and one of the countries that stands to lose the most from hikes in oil prices — defied Trump by not cancelling oil imports from Iran, but Beijing has also gone further and signed contracts amounting to $400 billion; it’s a decision that looks like an open challenge to Washington. The deal, which threatens to derail Trump’s policy of putting “maximum pressure” on Iran, is a consequence of the paralysis within western companies, cowed by the threat of sanctions from the US. Their reluctance to work with the Iranians — a decision that no doubt hinders their growth prospects — has been a great boost for Chinese companies. In return, Beijing is expected to get discounts of between 20 to 30 per cent on purchases of Iranian oil.
The Trump administration has reacted fiercely and is looking for ways to punish China. Yesterday, the US Treasury moved to impose sanctions on several Chinese companies and their top officials for allegedly shipping Iranian oil, putting dozens of super-tankers off limits to western energy traders. Tankers belonging to Cosco, a leading Chinese shipping and logistics company, have been blacklisted by the US, and it is reported that as many as 50 tankers, about half of which are said to be very large crude oil carriers, will be affected. China denounced the decision, saying, “We always oppose long-arm jurisdiction, unilateral sanctions and the bullying practices of the US.”
Iran’s confidence in being able to withstand US efforts to isolate the country has been boosted further by reports that Russia and China will take part in joint naval exercises in the Gulf with the Iranians. Such a move is guaranteed to project an anti-American show of strength that will force the US to consider how far it is willing to go in its effort to isolate the Islamic Republic. For all his bluster, under such conditions Trump is unlikely to move militarily against Iran, despite announcing that US troops are being sent to the Gulf to help protect Saudi oil facilities.
Donald Trump is nothing if not a businessman. He must know that there is no economic or military benefit in going to war with Iran, least of all now. Unlike 1991, when the US imported most of its oil and feared a hit to its energy supplies and so went to war with Saddam Hussain following his invasion of Kuwait, shale energy has reduced America’s need for Gulf oil. The Middle East is just not that important to the US any more. With no vital US interests to protect, going to war with Iran will make American troops look like nothing more than a bunch of mercenaries going to war for the benefit of Washington’s Gulf allies and Israel, which has been hankering more than any other country for a full military confrontation with Tehran. Trump’s misfortune may indeed see Iran dodging a bullet on this occasion.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.