WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is facing a dilemma in Iraq. A day after the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was stormed by pro-Iranian demonstrators, the White House needs to decide how to respond to the attack – which U.S. officials have no doubt was planned and orchestrated with Iranian approval. Trump has promised to punish Iran for its actions, but how far is he willing to go in this confrontation with the Islamic Republic?
The attack on the embassy was preceded by a week of violence in Iraq, during which an Iraqi Shi’ite militia – operating as a proxy for Iran – attacked an Iraqi military base, killing a U.S. civilian contractor and wounding several U.S. troops. In retaliation, the United States carried out three airstrikes on the same Iraqi militia, killing at least 25 fighters.
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These events, which took place during the last week of 2019, represent a violent end to a year of constant tensions between the Americans and Iranians. They are the continuation of a series of escalatory steps taken by Iran during the course of the year – including an attack on two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia last September, and the downing of an American military drone over the Persian Gulf last June. But while the United States refrained from using military force in response to Iran’s provocations then, things were different this time. That is why several leading Democratic politicians warned Tuesday that Trump is risking an all-out war with Iran.
“Iran is ‘acting out’ because it is under a lot of pressure from American sanctions,” says Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department Middle East director who is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The Iranians have been slowly and deliberately escalating their attacks, basically telling the United States: If you put us under pressure, we will put you under pressure as well.” She believes the Iranian regime will likely continue this behavior in 2020.
“The Iranians saw that there was no military response to their previous attacks, so they reached a conclusion that America doesn’t want a military confrontation,” Cofman Wittes says. “The Iranians also don’t want a military confrontation with the U.S. – and that’s certainly not what they’re trying to achieve with these provocations in Iraq. They have a different goal: Getting Trump to enter negotiations.”
In May 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, which had been signed by his predecessor Barack Obama. The U.S. administration has since placed tough sanctions on Tehran, triggering a financial crisis there that has led to massive street protests across Iran. However, at the same time as imposing these tough sanctions, Trump has also frequently expressed interest in negotiating a new deal with Iran.
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Earlier this month, after Iran and America completed a prisoner swap, he tweeted: “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”
Over the summer, direct negotiations between the two countries seemed imminent. Trump said he was willing to meet Iranian President Hassan Rohani with “no preconditions.” But the Iranian side had a clear demand: The Americans had to lift some of the sanctions placed on Tehran in order for a meeting to occur. Trump refused, and an opportunity for the two leaders to meet on the sidelines of September’s UN General Assembly was lost.
Now, Cofman Wittes says, Iran is trying to escalate the situation in the hope that this will somehow lead to renewed diplomatic engagement. “They want to pull in diplomatic attention from other countries – such as France, Russia, China, Japan and others – to somehow get America to the table. Their moves are risky, but they’re designed to bring about a diplomatic engagement,” she says. “This is what Iran needs more than anything at the moment: new talks that could perhaps lead to sanctions relief.”
Haaretz reported last month that Israeli officials were still alarmed by the prospect of new negotiations between the United States and Iran. The Israeli perspective is that even if no sanctions are lifted, the mere spectacle of a meeting between Trump and Rohani would by itself lift some of the pressure from Tehran. Trump has rejected that point of view and sees no harm in holding a meeting.
“The Iranians are going to keep going and going with these attacks if they don’t get what they want, unless they become convinced that this could lead to a larger military escalation,” Cofman Wittes says. “Neither side wants that kind of escalation.”
Last June, after the Iranian attack on the U.S. military drone, Trump approved a military strike in retaliation – but then canceled it, fearing that a war with Iran could hurt his 2020 reelection campaign.
“The attack on the embassy in Baghdad is part of a larger chess match between the U.S. and Iran,” says Michael Doran, a former Middle East director at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, and currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Doran shares Cofman Wittes’ assessment of Tehran’s objective: “The goal of the Iranians is to increase the pressure on Trump during the election season, in the hope that they can rope him into a negotiation.”
Doran, who has advocated a hawkish line against the Iranian regime and was a strong critic of the 2015 nuclear deal, adds that Iran hopes new negotiations will “distract the United States from Iran’s problems at home, and in Iraq and Lebanon” – where there have been massive street demonstrations in recent weeks against political parties connected to Iran.
In addition, he says, Iran wants negotiations to lead to sanctions relief and to “forestall further actions by the United States that would delegitimate Iran’s supposedly civil nuclear program.”
In Doran’s view, it would a “grave mistake” if Trump agreed to such negotiations. “The protests that swept Iran, Iraq and Lebanon in November have changed the balance of power. Iran is experiencing unprecedented difficulty at home and abroad. If Trump were to sit with Iran now, he would look weak in the region, demoralize allies and give breathing room to Tehran.”
If Trump doesn’t opt for negotiations and doesn’t want a direct military confrontation with Iran, what are his options?
“The administration doesn’t have really good options to choose from,” says Ariane Tabatabai, an analyst at the Rand Corp. and an expert on Iran. “The administration keeps saying that its policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran is succeeding, but what exactly have they achieved?” she asks. “They wanted to either lead to the collapse of the regime or to a significant shift in Iran’s behavior. So far, both have not happened.”
Tabatabai says the “only option for de-escalation right now is a diplomatic off-ramp that would allow both sides to get out of this cycle. But it doesn’t look very likely to happen at the moment. The Iranians view Trump as reluctant to take military action, but they consider ‘maximum pressure’ a form of war. From their point of view, this is already a war and they are being attacked through economic pressure. So they are going to continue testing the Trump administration.”
Wanted: A strategy
All of the Iran experts who spoke with Haaretz agreed on one thing: The attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was an Iranian initiative and not a local protest, as some news reports described it.
“This is telegraphed from Iran, straight out of the regime’s playbook,” says Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – a think tank that has advocated for tough sanctions on Iran.
“The regime wants to spook America,” he says. “They hope to either get Trump to agree to negotiations, or, even better, to get America to withdraw forces and send a message of retreat. They would be happy to solidify the impression that America is getting out of the Middle East, whether it’s in Syria or Iraq. They are willing to take risks to make that happen.”
Ben Taleblu says last Sunday’s U.S. airstrikes were “very important,” because they sent the opposite message: That the United States would not ignore Iran’s actions. But he warned that the administration “needs to have an Iraq policy, not just a policy to fight ISIS in Iraq. It’s clear to everyone what Iran wants to have in Iraq: control. They want to control Baghdad through their proxies. But what does America want in Iraq? That’s more difficult to answer.”
Cofman Wittes also says the Trump administration “doesn’t have a strategy, or even clear objectives. They placed sanctions on Iran and have now responded for the first time with military force to one of Iran’s provocations. But what is the long-term goal they are trying to achieve? And what is their strategy for getting there?”
The Iranian conundrum is further complicated by the political schedule in the United States. The Iranians, as Haaretz reported in August 2018, are betting that they can “wait out” Trump, who is up for reelection in November. So far, most of the Democratic presidential candidates have promised to return to the nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from. For Iran, this would mean the lifting of many sanctions and a return to the pre-2018 reality that was created by the nuclear deal.
But the Iranians also believe the presidential election will make it more difficult for Trump to take stronger military action. Trump campaigned in 2016 on a pledge to end “stupid wars” in the Middle East, and criticized his then rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for her support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which Trump himself also supported at the time).
Trump has been warned by some of his most influential supporters, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, that a war with Iran would harm his standing with voters who oppose U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and could cost him the election.
The Democrats have already adopted a line of criticism against Trump, warning that he is leading the country to war through “reckless” policies in the Middle East. This could deter Trump from further military escalation. But he is also facing political pressure from right-wingers, especially his evangelical Christian supporters, who want to see a tough policy against Iran.
At the moment, it seems, Trump is taking political risks no matter what he chooses to do.