Donald Trump's plan to bomb Iran shows strategy gap
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Donald Trump's plan to bomb Iran shows strategy gap

Originally published on ABC Online

When US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) he derided the agreement, saying "It didn't bring calm, it didn't bring peace and it never will".

A year later, we have seen attacks against four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in May, another two this month and last week the downing of a $100 million US drone by an Iranian missile in the same area.

A Saudi oil pipeline has been attacked along with several civilian airports, and short-range rockets have been fired into facilities in Iraq that host US personnel.

The White House also claimed that Mr Trump was close to authorising strikes against Iranian military targets in response to the downing of the American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

It is fair to say then, that Washington's unilateral withdrawal from an agreement with which Tehran was complying has brought neither the calm nor the peacefulness that Mr Trump claimed was missing.

What is the US strategy?

The problem with Mr Trump's slogan of 'maximum pressure' is that it appears to be a series of tactics not supporting any coherent strategic outcome.

The obvious question is where to from here?

The Iranian leadership has been quite unequivocal in refusing to renegotiate the JCPOA and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made it pretty clear during his meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan that he didn't believe Mr Trump was serious in his willingness to talk.

It has incrementally calibrated its responses to US moves from the targeting of empty vessels in May to attacking laden vessels above the waterline in June, then the downing of the UAV the same month.

It has also tried to place pressure on the Europeans by threatening to stop complying with certain aspects of the JCPOA after July 7 unless the European signatories were able to come up with a financial mechanism that would allow Tehran to continue to trade with European firms without those companies becoming subject to US sanctions.

It isn't certain whether Iran breaching some of the conditions of the JCPOA would automatically render the agreement itself invalid.

Tehran could argue that the agreement allows them to cease adhering to some of the JCPOA's provisions if the US re-imposed sanctions, or that the imposition of those unilateral sanctions was the very reason why it was unable to sell its low-enriched uranium and were therefore technically in breach.

Giving inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continued access could provide incentives for other signatories to continuing to engage with Iran.

Does Iran have a plan?

In the medium term, Tehran would be eyeing the US presidential election campaign and has likely concluded that a Democrat win at the end of next year is their best chance to gain relief from the US sanctions.

In the event Mr Trump was to win a second term however, they would have to re-evaluate their approach but they would factor in a new administration, with the likely absence of an ultra-hawkish John Bolton.

To further complicate the issue, there is also the possibility that in 18 months' time there may be a new Supreme Leader at the helm in Tehran, given (admittedly long-standing) reports about his ill health.

But 18 months is a long time in politics and much could happen, particularly as the US administration appears to lack a coherent Iran strategy.

They claim they are not seeking regime change at the same time as the President appointed John Bolton, a noted Iran hawk who has accepted tens of thousands of dollars to speak at conferences organised by Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a group that calls for the overthrow of the Iranian regime and was until a few years ago a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year issued a set of 12 demands for Iran to comply with if it wanted to avoid renewed unilateral sanctions, while on Friday Mr Trump said that he was willing to talk with Iran with no preconditions.

Iran believes that it stills retains the diplomatic advantage and is likely to continue with its policy of trying to incrementally respond to US pressure with non-attributable or potentially deniable actions.

Second-guessing Trump is risky

Their calculation is that Mr Trump lacks broad support from his traditional allies and has been so critical of US military commitments in the Middle East for so long that he is loathe to enter another conflict unless a threshold is reached.

The problem for Tehran though, is that no-one is quite sure what that threshold is, or how firm his commitment to avoid another regional conflict is.

Given the personality traits that Mr Trump has exhibited to date, Iran continuing to base their actions on what they believe Mr Trump will tolerate is a policy fraught with danger.

When he announced his withdrawal from the JCPOA, Mr Trump exhibited a good understanding of the likely response from Tehran to his action: "Iran's leaders will naturally say that they refuse to negotiate a new deal; they refuse. And that's fine. I'd probably say the same thing if I was in their position," he said.

Unfortunately for Washington, after more than a year of "maximum pressure", Tehran is still saying the same thing.

Areas of expertise: Middle East security issues; Political Islam; Shi’a Islam