When Barack Obama was preparing his fight for a second term as US president in 2012, his administration was preoccupied with two big foreign policy crises.
The first was the potential unravelling of the euro zone, which his team worried could cause an economic shock and cost him the White House. The second was the possibility that Israel would launch a military strike against Iran over its nuclear programme and trigger a regional conflict with politically damaging consequences for Obama.
It was, in many respects, an uninspiring, managerial approach, a criticism that has been levelled at his administration’s overall foreign policy. But unlike Donald Trump’s presidency, Obama’s administration unambiguously tried to keep the United States at the heart of broad, consensus-based coalitions – and nowhere was that more clear than in its dealings with Iran. Under Trump, and particularly since the appointment of long-term hawk John Bolton as National Security Advisor, the United States has been taking a tough line with Tehran. Washington has withdrawn from the agreement between six world powers and Iran on curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme, has listed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation and made high profile military moves in the Middle East.
What is less clear, including to Tehran, is what the current administration truly means to do, or what effect it means to have when it comes to Iran.
There is little doubt that Bolton and many of those around him would like to oust the government in Tehran. Conducting an Iraq-style invasion and “regime change”, however, is not a reasonable prospect. The United States is simply stretched too thin, Iran is too large and the record of the Iraq and Libya interventions means few believe it would make the region a better and more stable place.
US forces remain the most powerful military in the region and several of America’s regional allies, notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, would like to see Iran receive a bloody nose. This might even extend to them encouraging the United States to conduct a limited military strike – perhaps against Iranian nuclear facilities as Tehran resumes uranium enrichment, or coastal bases that are deemed to be connected to attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in recent weeks.
What such action would achieve, however, is hard to say. Any loss of Iran’s military or nuclear capability would be limited, and such action would almost certainly do more to boost hardliners in Tehran and sideline more moderate voices.
The May tanker attacks also serve as a potent reminder of the likely costs of any such action. Tehran has spent much of the past decade building the capability, with missiles and small boat attacks, to close the Gulf to shipping during any major conflict, a move that would bring chaos to global markets, dealing a potentially devastating blow to Trump’s re-election hopes.
For now, the signs are that Tehran intends to counter, and retaliate for, any punitive move by Washington, especially any designed to freeze Iranian oil exports. The announcement of resumed uranium processing is a clear indication that Tehran no longer feels bound by the nuclear deal it concluded with world powers now that the United States has withdrawn from it. The tanker attacks appear to fit in with that strategy though it is striking how sceptical much of the rest of the world has been about US attempts to paint Tehran as responsible for them.
Burned by the example of military intervention in Iraq, and with their electorates highly distrustful of Trump, governments in continental Europe clearly wish to avoid entanglement. Most are still committed to the nuclear deal and view the face-off as one largely of Washington’s own making.
European governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity about what the United States really wants. In contrast to during the face-off with North Korea two years ago, there seems no immediate strategy of bringing Iran to the table for a new, amended deal. Indeed, if that was the hope, recent US actions have almost certainly made it more distant.
Clearly, the United States would like Iran to scale back its interventions across the Middle East, where Tehran has become increasingly powerful, particularly in the conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. But if that is the message, the approach seems too reliant on brute force to achieve its aims.
It is likely that the more threatening the United States becomes, the more set Iran will be on programmes such as missile development.
The Trump administration’s actions on Iran could be largely about demonstrating that it is taking action, helping shore up Republican votes for the 2020 US presidential election. But escalating tensions without a strategy would be dangerous, particularly if Iran chose to do the same.
Therein lies perhaps the greatest risk of miscalculation. As Iran believes the United States lacks the stomach for a fight, Tehran will almost certainly take much greater risks – at worst igniting the war all sides have been so desperate to avoid.
Like Obama seven years ago, Trump may be just realising that conflict with Iran could cost him a second term. To handle the current situation, however, America will need both a plan and range of global friends. Right now, it is unclear whether it has either.