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What we’re seeing unfold in the Persian Gulf is a confrontation between a U.S. president who doesn’t know when he’s winning, and a Supreme Leader who doesn’t know when he’s losing. If Donald Trump changes his mind again and orders an attack on Iranian targets, he will have played into Ali Khamenei’s hands.
It’s too early to exhale after Trump’s decision to cancel a military strike last night. If he could order the jets scrambled once – without giving Congress or American allies much time to consult and advise – he can do so again. The next time, he may not call it off.
But that would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Trump seems to have lost sight of the fact that his “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against the Islamic Republic is working: Iran’s economy is feeling great pain, and its isolation is deepening. For all of its proclamations of resistance and resilience, the regime in Tehran is plainly alarmed.
In its panic, it has started to lash out in ways that hurt its own interests, and erode the sympathy it has enjoyed in international circles since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal last year. The threat to resume uranium enrichment, and to exceed agreed limits, is already losing Iran the support of the Europeans, as are the attacks on neutral shipping near the Persian Gulf. Khamenei’s humiliation of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who made a good-faith effort to mediate an end to the confrontation, has cost Iran more goodwill. The shooting down of an American drone was yet another demonstration of the regime’s capacity for self-harm.
And Trump was, for once, playing his cards reasonably well. He stated his openness to negotiations and his desire to avoid war. He dismissed the tanker attacks as “very minor” and attributed the downing of the drone as the work of a “loose and stupid” individual. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also let the Iranians know that if their future actions caused the death of an American service member, it would trigger reprisals.
This is exactly the right response to Iran’s provocations: To brush them off and allow the regime to damage itself in the court of world opinion, even as it is continually weakened by sanctions. For the first time since Trump torched the nuclear deal, it was just conceivable that he would be able to show the Iranian regime up for what it is: A danger to its neighbors and the wider world.
An American military strike now, even if it avoided civilian targets, would risk undoing all that. It will be hard to justify to the international community – and indeed, to Americans – that the shooting down of an unmanned aircraft merits such a response. This would be true even if the Trump administration were to supply incontrovertible proof that the drone hadn’t crossed into Iranian airspace.
Worse, there’s no reason to believe that a military strike would alter the behavior of the Iranian regime. Much more likely, Khamenei would use any American aggression as a way to rally public opinion among his countrymen, even among those who despise him. A disproportionate U.S. response would also let his regime reclaim the sympathy he has lost because of his recent recklessness. Khamenei might be tempted to keep provoking U.S. military strikes for just these reasons.
While it goes without saying that a military strike would panic oil markets and threaten world trade, this would take a greater toll on the U.S. than on Iran. Khamenei might conclude that his economy is in a shambles anyway so what’s to lose? To paraphrase the old saying about wrestling with a pig, a military exchange with the Islamic Republic would hurt both the U.S. and Iran – but Khamenei would enjoy it.
What should Trump do instead? Hold his nerve, keep his patience and let Iran dig itself into a deeper hole. Allow Khamenei to drain the pool of international sympathy for Iran. And allow the “maximum pressure” campaign to keep weakening the regime. Khamenei may never recognize that he is losing. But it’s time for Trump to see that he’s winning.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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