Expect more desperate Iranian efforts to prompt a U.S. military response in the Persian Gulf. Trump’s sanctions have cut off 90 percent of Iran’s oil revenues. Soon Tehran’s shattered economy will be followed by more pent-up domestic unrest of the sort that Barack Obama ignored in 2009, when he felt that the continued viability of the murderous theocracy fed his bizarre dreams of enhancing a new Shiite, Persian hegemony to counterbalance the Sunni Arabs.
In contrast, America’s newfound role as the largest gas and oil producer in the world has not only lessened the importance of imported oil, whether from enemies such as Iran and Venezuela, or purported friends like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. In a weird way, it has also turned the last half-century of oil politics upside down.
Tensions in the Gulf now help as much as hurt the United States. America is soon slated also to become the world’s largest exporter of gas and oil. Any increased costs for importing overseas oil will be offset by greater profits from American exports.
There are five general principles that should guide Trump in isolating Iran.
First, Iran desperately needs a military confrontation of some sort — preferably short of an all-out war. Their rationale behind missile and drone attacks is to get Trump out of office by 2021, to unite a factionalizing Iranian public around heroic resistance to the Great Satan or a lesser Satan in Tel Aviv, and to create enough chaos that some outside party might step in to save Iran from what otherwise would probably be an inevitable death spiral. They yearn for a return of Kerry-ism, or the chance that America’s naïve coastal elites will return to power and virtue-signal away whatever Tehran wants.
In sum, for one of the rare times in modern memory, a Middle East exporting power wants a disruptive war in the oil lanes of the Middle East, given that the current “peace” is destroying its economy, while its usually interventionist Western enemy prefers to let others enter that quagmire. Time and money are on President Trump’s side.
Second, the current status quo will only improve the position of the United States, given that the American economy is booming, it can survive increased oil prices, and Iran is getting weaker day by day. The key for the Trump administration is to keep steady and ignore the bait of Iran’s desperate provocations, to ratchet up the sanctions, and to remind both domestic and foreign zealots for military invention that the current maximum pressure by the U.S. is doing more damage to Iran than any “precision” air strike. Even European appeasers are now joining the U.S., not because they’ve recovered lost principles, but because they wish to join the winning side and they fear losing America’s military support in case of chaos in the Persian Gulf.
The Iranian public will remember how this impoverishing showdown with the U.S. started — not just with the America’s walking away from the Iran deal but earlier, with its own government’s foolish decision to waste Iranian natural treasure on a nuclear program while entering a disastrous Syrian quagmire and subsidizing a cash-hungry Hezbollah. The current ostracism and isolation of Iran are more or less on schedule. In contrast, the atmospherics and politics of getting into a shooting war with Iran and its terrorist appendages are not so predictable. Sanctions can hurt the theocracy more than military strikes can.
Third, all third parties are in a weirdly ironic position. Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11, is desperate to see America take up its cause by attacking Iran. Usually Saudi Arabia, in its traditional Sphinx-like role, plays hard to get as American envoys fly to Riyadh to beg Saudi to keep pumping oil and to obtain a tacit blessing for some sort of U.S. intervention in Iraq, Syria, or Libya. America has usually feared that getting of the wrong side of the House of Saud would mean higher gas prices at home, and, mirabile dictu, an uptick in Sunni-inspired terrorism in the West.
China is the now the main importer of Middle Eastern oil and the largest commercial profiteer in the region. Remember, we are currently in a trade war with a mercantilist Beijing and in theory should care less whether oil tankers make it to China, and container ships laden with Chinese electronics arrive back in the Gulf.
No one wishes a world economic collapse due to the destruction of the commercial sea lanes, but Iran has no such power. Rather it is a nuisance whose pyrotechnics will hurt China far more than the U.S.
As for Europe and our NATO allies, of course we wish to see prompt oil deliveries to the West. But again, irony abounds. The U.S. is recently damned by Europe as being anti-green, pilloried for fracking in a way unimaginable in Europe, shorted by stingy NATO partners who refused to meet their promised military contributions, and still caricatured as a bellicose reactionary superpower. The new truth is that our oil-damning allies need oil from the Middle East far more than we do, and they should hardly expect a vilified American military to ensure that trillions of dollars of carbon-based fuels safely reach European shores. And so now Germany and France are finally making the necessary political adjustments.
The restraint of the U.S. bothers third parties more than America’s prior readiness to use force. The common denominator is that whatever we are for, our envious friends and enemies are usually against.
Fourth, we should remember the fate of the last major U.S. intervention into the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein’s statue fell, 70 percent of America deified George W. Bush for apparently doing to the hated genocidal Baathists what he had just done to the murderous Taliban — destroying such monsters in a matter of weeks.
What followed, however, was not just years of unrest and spiraling costs in blood and treasure, but a strange attitude from many of those who had been the most pro-war, some dating back to the 1990s and the founding of the Project for the New American Century, which had called for a preemptive removal of Saddam Hussein during the Clinton administration.
Summed up best, the Iraq 2.0 take was “my brilliant victory, your screwed-up occupation” — best seen in the 2006 Vanity Fair article “Neo Culpa,” in which many of the architects of the preemptive war blamed the very administration they had once lobbied to go to war.
Critics of the “occupation” forgot that the U.S. Congress, in bipartisan fashion, had voted to authorize the war on 23 writs, few of them having anything to do with WMD, and that thousands of American soldiers were abroad at war while its promoters were blame-gaming one another at home. Nor did the critics see that an impending surge, undertaken against much of their advice, would eventually restore stability to Iraq.
I supported the war to remove Saddam Hussein and went to Iraq twice in 2006 and 2007 to write about U.S. deployments. And what was apparent was that those in the thick of it wanted support back home, not pronouncements from its promoters that all was lost and futile. Apparently, most of those who were fighting thought that the only thing worse than a bad war was losing it.
The idea that Trump is weak and blustering for not bombing Iran is nuts. He took a courageous step in canceling an asymmetrical Iran deal that guaranteed a bellicose enemy would receive billions in cash now and, later, a nuclear weapon. That he does not wish to abort such progress is a sign of strength, not timidity. A strapped Iran hates the sanctions far more than it would hate losing an air base or a refinery as the price of destroying the Trump presidency.
In short, Americans should expect that half of those now calling for a preemptive war would not support the military asked to carry it out, if causalities and costs mounted. Certainly, we can defeat Iran militarily or at least reduce its commerce and industry to premodern levels. But we cannot predict what will happen in Lebanon, Syria, or the wider Middle East from our use of military force, or which current allies will soon be enemies, or which loud advocates will soon become louder critics. It is insane to abandon what is currently working for what may not work at all.
Fifth, Trump ran on four main issues: stopping illegal immigration, restoring the hollowed-out American interior, reckoning with China for its 40 years of commercial banditry — and avoiding optional military engagements that are not in the direct interest of the U.S. The advice to let Iran stew applies equally well to North Korea, where time is also on our side as sanctions will slowly persuade it to return to negotiations.
Currently Trump can convince his base on illegal immigration that he went so far as to shut down the government, redistributed federal funds for a wall, and fought a flurry of lawsuits, all to secure the border. And lately he has made progress in reducing illegal border crossings. Trump can also claim nearly record-low peacetime unemployment and improved workers’ wages, which support his campaign promises to the Midwest. Trump certainly in high-stakes fashion risked his presidency to call China to account.
The best thing that America can do for the world is to ratchet up the sanctions; reply only if directly attacked by Iran; sit back and remain patient; and allow aggrieved allies, friends, and neutrals to go ahead and respond to Iran if they wish — and to pump as much gas and oil as it can.