Iran, Trump, and 2020
President Donald Trump has been presented with an untimely challenge concerning Iran in recent days with the drone attack on Saudi oil refineries in Abqaiq. Following initial suspicions that the attack came from rebel Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen, U.S. and Saudi officials have asserted that the drones were launched directly from Iran. However, regardless if the attacks came from Iran or Yemen, there is no denying the source of the attacks.
Iran has been escalating tensions between the Saudis and the U.S. ever since President Trump withdrew from the Nuclear Deal (The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), in May of 2018. With minor incidents back and forth, escalations hit a new high in June of this year when Iran downed a U.S. intelligence drone. Subsequently, the following month, U.S. Marines destroyed an Iranian drone in the Strait after the drone came dangerously close to the USS Boxer.
Tensions continue to soar but the U.S. response to these escalations has been relatively cautious. The administration has been engaging the Iranians in economic warfare with mounting sanctions since last year, but official responses have not been as strong as one might have expected, especially from a Trump White House. With the 2020 election right around the corner, can Trump afford a war?
Although Republicans overwhelmingly continue to support the president, a sizable portion of Republicans believe that the U.S. should abstain from intervening in Middle East conflicts. After 17 years of involvement with Afghanistan and Iraq, they feel that the U.S. has not benefitted much and are weary of the long, drawn-out conflicts. This frustration is conjoined with a commonly held view that “we should let the Middle East solve its own problems.” In contrast, the opposing view inside the party is that the U.S. needs to continue to be resilient in its fight against terrorism and protect its national interests in the region, especially when it comes to the defense of Israel. The view here is “if we don’t oppose our enemies there, we will end up opposing them here.”
Donald Trump was elected president promising an end to foreign conflicts and constantly highlighted how much money the U.S. had “wasted” in the Middle East. Three years into his presidency and although his policy may have strategically evolved, I would hardly suggest he has detoured completely from his hope of ending overseas conflicts to focus on U.S. domestic policy. But there are undoubtedly limits to his patience which may be tested.by direct threats to either U.S. assets or to Israeli security.
Going into the election, the president needs to avoid direct engagement with Iran. Initiating a new conflict, adding to the current missions in the region, would definitely harm his favorability to win re-election. Iran will continue to exacerbate current pressure points in the Middle East going into next year. They will avoid targeting the U.S. directly, but will use its extensions and assets to destabilize and test the U.S. response. The benefit is double-edged; if the president responds to provocation, he will be accused of warmongering and pressed on his past campaign promises to end foreign interventions. If he takes a soft approach, he will appear weak and ineffective.
It has been announced that the U.S. will deploy advisory troops to UAE and Saudi Arabia following the drone attack on Saudi oil. As of now, the Pentagon has not expanded on how many U.S. troops will be deployed. You can expect to see a few rounds of deployments for defensive positioning and to deter Iranian aggression. However, as sanctions tighten up around Iran’s Central Bank, the regime may well take some desperate measures. As this occurs over the next year, you will witness further and more frequent incidents between involved parties. Now that the governments of the UK, France, and Germany have officially accused the regime, you can expect action on their parts if Iran’s behavior continues.
Time and patience is what will win here. The memory of faulty intelligence still rings in the public air concerning the WMDs and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated, “Iran can count on public skepticism to afford it some deniability under any circumstances…” Mistakes can’t be made by the regime and although war is not convenient for the president right now, his administration will continue to employ economic sanctions as well as applying pressure to the EU to enact similar constraints on Iranian assets and companies. Given the temperament of the U.S. administration, it will not back down from a fight; however it will employ all of its resources to avoid it.