Will Trump’s bluster force his hand on Iran?

The New York Times – The only solace in the current American standoff with Iran is that President Trump seems not to want to risk a war. That is of some comfort in a crisis that has left the United States looking weak and untrustworthy. But the crisis could still descend into armed conflict, and that is largely attributable to Mr. Trump’s poorly considered strategy.

The nuclear deal President Barack Obama and five other nations struck with Iran in 2015 was a model of diplomacy and coalition-building. It forestalled Iran’s nuclear arms program in exchange for lifting economic sanctions against Tehran.

It was not a perfect deal. But then no bargain between enemies with a history as deep-rooted as America’s with Iran could be. And it was not the imperfections that propelled Mr. Trump to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the treaty. Indeed, early in his campaign to put greater pressure on Iran, he created an opening to strengthen the deal and score a real diplomatic achievement. But he sabotaged that potential victory through a self-defeating fixation on undoing anything Mr. Obama accomplished and the vain illusion that his purported mastery of business negotiation would allow him to attain his maximalist vision of a deal.

The withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018 was not accompanied by any strategy save Mr. Trump’s baseless belief that “maximum pressure” — sanctions on top of sanctions — would leave Iran begging for any deal. The president even began to fantasize about a tête-à-tête with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, at the annual United Nations General Assembly session, along the lines of the useless photo ops with the North Korean tyrant, Kim Jong-un, or the mooted Camp David get-together with the Taliban. The other signers of the agreement — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union — strongly opposed Mr. Trump’s move but eventually were unable to defy Washington’s sanctions against Iran.

So Iran counterattacked. Not right away — for a year, Iran continued to abide by the nuclear agreement, apparently hoping that Europeans would rescue the pact. But then Iran began to gradually discard the nuclear-production restrictions, and to strike out, hitting tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz, a Saudi pipeline, an American drone. Then, two weeks ago, came the cruise-missile attack on key oil facilities inside Saudi Arabia. Iran has said it was not behind that attack, but there is little question that it would have to at least have permitted it, if not instigated it. From the American response to these escalations, Iran has learned that Mr. Trump is anxious not to back up his bullying language with force.

And so the Trump administration has been left isolated and with no good options. Iran is back in the nuclear weapons business and more desperate than before as its economy crumbles under the sanctions. If the United States does respond militarily, Iran will most likely escalate further; if the United States does nothing, hard-liners in Iran will be emboldened to try new and more outrageous provocations while other global provocateurs — North Korea, Russia, China — watch and learn. America’s allies, holding Mr. Trump responsible for the quandary, are in no mood to bail him out. And Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states have been left wondering whether they can count on the Americans for support.

In short, Mr. Trump has boxed himself in. He may not want war, but he has helped raise tensions to such a level that a misstep or deliberate provocation by any one of a number of players in the region could drag the United States into one. To avoid things getting worse, the administration needs first to restore a modicum of credibility with its allies and the international community. That will become far more difficult in the rising tumult of impeachment proceedings, but a call on the United Nations Security Council to investigate the attack on Saudi oil fields, along with a full disclosure of whatever evidence the government has of Iran’s involvement, would broaden the pressure on Tehran. As The Times’s David E. Sanger and Farnaz Fassihi wrote this week, Iran is not finding the support it hoped for in Europe and could be susceptible to broad censure.

At the same time, Mr. Trump should keep the door open to negotiations and to make clear to Iran that while further aggression will not go unanswered, resuming compliance with the 2015 agreement would be met with concrete benefits, like the $15 billion bailout package France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has proposed.

That would amount to a painful climbdown for Mr. Trump. But a military confrontation would be far worse. And it was Mr. Trump who wrote in “The Art of the Deal” that “the worst of times often create the best opportunities to make good deals.”