Analysis |

Something Stopped Trump From Striking Iran, and It Wasn't 150 Lives

U.S. president says he aborted an attack on Iran out of concern for civilians, but his real fear is what one attack could spiral into

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A woman walks past a mural painting showing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini along the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, June 22, 2019.
A woman walks past a mural painting showing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini along the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, June 22, 2019. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

U.S. President Donald Trump’s flip-flopping over the past three days may be the most important calming signal that the Middle East has received recently. It was said that all the major ingredients that could justify an American military offensive against Iran had come together.

Things had come to a boil in the Persian Gulf when Saudi, Japanese and other tanker ships were damaged in naval attacks. Without decisive proof, Iran was suggested as the culprit. And Yemini Houthis fired missiles into Saudi Arabia – into Jizan province and at an airfield in Abha – prompting battle cries against Iran.

Haaretz Weekly Episode 32Credit: Haaretz

Iran has shortened the period in which it will step up its enrichment of uranium and thereby violate the nuclear deal. The heads of the Iranian army and Revolutionary Guards have threatened that, despite their desire to avoid a violent confrontation, they wouldn’t hesitate to hit American targets if Iran were attacked. Tensions peaked with Iran’s downing of an American drone last week.

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The legitimization for an attack was now ripe, a bank of Iranian targets was assembled and the order to deploy American forces was given. But all of a sudden, nothing. It was back to square one.

On a closer look, the two justifications for carrying out a U.S. attack were flimsy. “Circumstantial proof” is insufficient to launch a strike that in the blink of an eye could spiral into a regional war. The downing of the drone got caught up between American claims that the aircraft had been over international waters and the Iranians’ assertions that the drone had violated their airspace.

Such proof is often used by Israel to justify attacks on Hamas on a scale that doesn’t affect the Middle East as a whole. But this isn’t sufficient for a world power that has to take into account the possibility that its close allies could be hit. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, at least publicly, said they didn’t want a war in the Gulf.

Protesters hold signs spelling out, "No War," outside the White House, June 20, 2019Credit: Jacquelyn Martin,AP

Israeli defense officials have said Iran could employ its branches in Lebanon and Syria, either in response to an attack on it or to put pressure on Washington. Only the Israeli government, which should have adopted the Saudi stance because Israeli targets are also on the Iranians’ list, remained silent.

Trump explained his decision not to attack was a desire to avoid killing 150 Iranians. Such a humanitarian explanation would have been heartwarming if it hadn’t come from the president still arming the Saudi military that’s killing thousands in Yemen. This is also the president who wasn’t upset that thousands of Syrian and Iranian civilians were hit in American attacks during the war against the Islamic State. It’s also the president who’s incapable of showing concern for the masses of migrants seeking to enter the United States from Mexico.

In any event, hadn’t the estimate of 150 dead in a U.S. strike been known before the decision to attack was made? The American intelligence services should be given credit for being able to estimate the number of fatalities in such an attack, but it would be interesting to know when such casualties stopped being unavoidable collateral damage and became a humanitarian disaster that Washington couldn’t tolerate.

The important thing, however, isn’t simply Trump’s decision-making process, if the way he tosses around orders can be deemed a process. It’s the consequences of his most recent decision on the confrontation zone in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

The U.S. administration has a vision and aspirations vis-à-vis Iran, but it lacks a strategy to bring them about. The sanctions that Trump has imposed are among the harshest that the country has known, but eight months after being put in place, they still haven’t made Iran succumb.

In their regular interpretations, analysts have been able to point out the huge losses that the Iranians have been sustaining, the exodus of companies that could invest in the country and the fact that most of Iran’s oil customers have stopped buying from the Islamic Republic. But what’s lacking is information or an estimate on how long Iran can survive under such harsh conditions.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein continued to function for more than a decade under a sanctions regime that was harsher than that currently imposed on Iran, and Saddam’s regime was ultimately only defeated on the battlefield. There is no proof that the Iranian regime will act any differently, but the Trump administration has presented no practical strategy for a situation in which Iran sticks to its policy and refuses to negotiate a new nuclear agreement. Is the United States prepared to resort to all-out war to bring down the Iranian regime?

Iran’s decision to exceed the limitations of the current nuclear agreement appear to give the United States and the Western signatories to the agreement grounds to attack Iran. But such concerted action would require a consensus among these countries.

Iran's Head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division looks at debris from a downed U.S. drone, Tehran, June 21, 2019. Credit: AFP

It doesn’t exist at the moment and it’s doubtful that it could be achieved. Some European Union countries are making major efforts, albeit without major success, to create a path to bypass the U.S. sanctions. And Russia and China certainly wouldn’t lend a hand to a war against Iran.

The United States could therefore find itself alone facing both Iran and international antagonism. Granted that the anti-American international coalition that arose following the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord hasn’t impressed Trump, but there’s a fundamental difference between diplomacy and war. In any case, even when it comes to such circumstances, Washington doesn’t appear to have a convincing road map.

The dilemma that should guide any military confrontation is whether it should be broken down into a series of attacks designed to “send a message” or whether an assault should be reserved for a last resort that would be applied with full force. In other circumstances, the response to the attacks in the Gulf could have sufficed with surgical, one-time strikes that would send a message.

But the Gulf region could react poorly to narrowly targeted attacks and spiral quickly into a battlefield involving many countries. It appears that this consideration rather than a loss of life among Iranian civilians is what stopped Trump from carrying out his earlier decision.

Israel will certainly tell him that in the process he has raised the threshold for a response and that Iran will interpret the decision as weakness on the part of the United States, because that’s how things are in the Middle East. From Jerusalem’s standpoint, a twofold opportunity has been missed – Sending Iran a message, and it’s the United States, not Israel, that would send the message. But sending messages isn’t a linear process that assures a desired result. Israel learned that well on other fronts, just as the United States learned its lesson in its own confrontations.

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