Trump Plays Chicken With the Ayatollah

The United States and Iran remain on a collision path. Here’s what President Trump should do.

President Trump applied maximum pressure on North Korea, and it is continuing to produce nuclear weapons.

He applied maximum pressure on China, and we may be facing a trade war.

He applied maximum pressure on Venezuela, exacerbating hunger in the streets but leaving the dictatorship in place.

He applied maximum pressure on Palestinians, who responded by refusing to meet administration officials.

Most worrying of all, Trump applied maximum pressure on Iran, and we may now be on the brink of war.

In each of these cases, Trump pursued aggressive tactics without any obvious strategy. The tactics themselves often proved quite successful at inflicting misery, but this simply led several countries to double down on belligerence in ways that endanger the United States — and that is particularly true of Iran.

Trump says he called off military strikes on Thursday — thank goodness! — but he adheres to a failed policy that has put Iran back on a potential track to nuclear weapons. He is improvising, confusing friend and foe alike, even as he plays a perilous game of chicken with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump seems to inhabit a fantasy world in which his abandonment of the Obama nuclear deal with Iran, along with sanctions and bellicose tweets, will force Iran to roll up its nuclear program. Instead, Trump’s tactics have, quite predictably, led Iran to lash out.

Some Americans speak blithely about “surgical strikes,” and I fear that many Americans, including those in the White House, don’t get how badly these can go awry.

If we kill 150 Iranians in a set of airstrikes, as Trump says had been anticipated, Iranian proxy forces will retaliate by killing Americans in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. Iran or its proxies might strike at Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, while also interrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. We might see Hezbollah strikes on Israel and a new Israel-Lebanon war. The global economy could take a significant hit.

The conflict may start “surgical,” but it’s unlikely to end that way.

It’s essential that we clarify the location of the U.S. drone that Iran shot down, and delay any action until that question is resolved. Trump insists that the drone was in international airspace, while Iran says it had intruded over Iranian territory.

The Times quoted a senior administration official as acknowledging that it may in fact have violated Iranian airspace; if so and the administration is caught lying to the world, this will be an enormous self-inflicted blow. Iran’s decision to shoot down a drone in its own airspace would be understandable; certainly the United States would shoot down an Iranian drone that intruded over our territory.

The national security adviser, John Bolton, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reportedly are pushing for military action. Both are longtime hawks, with Bolton urging in 2015 that “to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.” Bravo to uniformed officers in the Pentagon for pushing back and warning of the dangers of escalation.

I suggest this principle of foreign policy: Hawks who were completely wrong about Iraq should refrain from jingoism about Iran.

What can be done to reduce the risk of war? Here are four steps for Trump to take:

1. Ensure that U.S. forces fire only in clear self-defense or on presidential orders, to reduce the risk of an accident. In 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down what the crew believed was a threatening Iranian military jet. In fact, the airplane was a civilian Iranian airliner, and all 290 people onboard were killed.

2. Try to organize an international force to protect ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This would present a united front against Iranian provocations and reduce the risk of a limpet mine starting a war.

3. Disentangle the United States from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have played a pernicious role (along with Israel) in encouraging belligerence toward Iran (the Senate took a landmark step in the right direction a few days ago by voting to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia). The blundering Saudi efforts to challenge Iran have so far backfired in Qatar, Lebanon and, most tragically, Yemen, so Trump should listen carefully to what the Saudi crown prince says — and then do the opposite.

4. Seek secret talks with Iran to patch back together the nuclear agreement.

These approaches may not succeed, but the stakes are high enough that they are worth trying. War is sometimes necessary; this is not one of those times.

Trump’s maximum pressure has been a failure in country after country, and I fear that his cancellation of airstrikes on Thursday may have simply deferred a military clash with Iran. The two countries remain on a collision path, with few face-saving exit ramps, and with hard-liners on each side escalating and empowering those on the other. Look out.