There’s a big question the Trump administration does not want to talk about: Why has the United States escalated its conflict with Iran?
Donald Trump and his supporters would prefer to focus on the smaller and more convenient question of direct culpability for the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752.
By now, it seems near-certain that the Iranian authorities shot down the Ukrainian airliner and 176 people because they mistook the civilian airliner for a U.S. warplane. The Iranians were in a jumpy state because of a cycle of retaliation over the past 10 days. They themselves had started the most recent cycle when their proxies attacked U.S. bases in northern Iraq, killing an American contractor and wounding four U.S. service members. They had fired the most recent round of retaliation too, a barrage of missiles from Iranian territory against bases in Iraq. That barrage took no lives, but the Iranians might not have immediately appreciated that fact. They had cause to fear that the U.S. might well hit them back hard.
The Iranian authorities fired; the Iranian authorities killed. Iran behaved recklessly in many ways, including allowing the airliner to take off into airspace ripped by missiles. Civilians died in consequence.
But the chain of causation did not begin on the night of the shoot-down, or even on the night of December 27, when the Iranians set the latest spasm of U.S.-Iran violence into motion. The chain of causation began when President Trump, at the very beginning of his administration, pushed the two countries toward more intense conflict.
Related: Iran’s Smart Strategy
The Trump administration and its supporters want to focus on direct culpability. Are you saying it’s President Trump’s fault that Iran shot down a civilian aircraft? How dare you! When I pointed to the wider context yesterday, my article was seized upon by Fox News as Exhibit A in the case for pro-Trump self-pity. Focusing on the smaller question of direct culpability allows Trump supporters to pivot from something they hate doing—asking the president to provide rational and truthful explanations of his actions—to something they love doing: complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. But that wider context matters.
Trump inherited an Iran problem. The Obama administration’s Iran deal released significant resources to the Iranian state. It lifted many international sanctions on Iranian trade. Economically empowered by the deal, the Iranian regime acted more aggressively in the region from Lebanon to Afghanistan.
The Trump administration’s solution was to cancel the Iran deal and retighten the economic squeeze on Iran, this time using U.S.-only sanctions. Because the U.S. is rich and strong—and Iran poor and weak—the new Trump sanctions did real damage.
But Trump and the people around him never seem to have considered: And then what?
Sanctions are typically tied to a desired goal. Most of the U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia, for example, reply to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. If Russia leaves Ukraine, those sanctions end. Obama-era sanctions on Iran were tied to nuclear cessation. Once Iran signed a nuclear deal that satisfied the Obama administration and its European allies, most of the sanctions on Iran were dropped.
What does the Trump administration want?
That has never been an easy mystery to decode. In a speech to the Heritage Foundation in May 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded radical changes in Iranian behavior in a dozen different domains, from ceasing development of ballistic missiles to severing links to Hezbollah and other Iranian clients across the region: “That list is pretty long, but if you take a look at it, these are 12 very basic requirements. The length of the list is simply a scope of the malign behavior of Iran. We didn’t create the list; they did.” Even if Iran did somehow meet all 12 demands, Pompeo hinted at a 13th: the overhaul and maybe overthrow of the Iranian clerical regime itself. “Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic—Revolution in Iran. At this milestone, we have to ask: What has the Iranian Revolution given to the Iranian people?” Pompeo’s Heritage speech committed the Trump administration to a strategy of seeking to impose total defeat on Iran: a 2003 strategy in a 2018 world.
But Trump himself seemed to be guided by a very different agenda. Again and again, he sought a personal meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He repeated his hope for a meeting to reporters as recently as September. While Pompeo pursued a regime-change strategy, Trump seemed to want to replay his Korea diplomacy: a personal meeting he could claim as a win, without much regard for the outcome the meeting might produce.
Trump flinches from costly foreign confrontations. In June, the Trump administration seemed fixed on collision with Iran after the shoot-down of a U.S. drone. At the last minute, though, Trump vetoed military retaliation. Only a few weeks later, Trump ousted his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton. “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions,” the president tweeted. Bolton maintains that he resigned of his own accord.
Whatever happened in that instance, the Trump administration has followed two Iran tracks. Iran hawks such as Pompeo, Bolton, and Vice President Mike Pence have urged a maximal strategy: reorient regime behavior, maybe bring the regime down altogether. Trump, meanwhile, has largely heeded the advice of one of his favorite Fox News hosts, Tucker Carlson, and allowed only minimal means. Trump wants out of the region. He can read—or at least intuit—the findings of the pollsshowing that three-quarters of Americans (and more than 60 percent of Republicans) oppose war with Iran. As with the North American Free Trade Agreement, he would be content with the pre-2017 status quo, if only it could be rebranded with his name on it.
Together, Trump and his team have sent a confusing message to the Iranian authorities: We want you dead—but not if it costs anything.
The logical reaction by those authorities is: Let’s make it cost something.
And so, instead of imposing better behavior on the regime, Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” has been followed by ever more aggressive behavior by the regime—culminating in the round of attacks and reprisals that the Iranians launched after Christmas and that ended in the destruction of a civilian airliner.
The policy is not working. Yet recurring failure is taken by Pompeo and other Iran hawks as an invitation to keep pressing. Meanwhile, Trump continues to regard Iran policy as an opportunity to extract political and personal advantages for himself, as The Wall Street Journal reported today:
Mr. Trump, after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate, associates said.
So yes, Trump and the Trump administration can be acquitted of direct responsibility for the destruction of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. But they bear responsibility for choosing a self-contradictory path of conflict against Iran that was doomed from the start to lead to disaster of some kind, if not predictably this kind.
A comparison to Iraq may be instructive here. The majority of the people to die violently in Iraq after 2003 were killed by other Iraqis, not by U.S. or coalition forces. Those Iraqis died not because of something the U.S. did, but because of something the U.S. failed to do: restore civil order after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. “You break it, you own it,” in the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
So, too, with Iran. Trump broke the Iran deal that he inherited from Obama. That deal was deformed by many flaws, but it had one great merit: It existed. Trump had no alternative to that agreement to offer at any price that the American people were willing to pay—or that he was ever willing to ask them to pay. As a result, the United States has been pushed and pulled into an escalating conflict without any strategy for success, whatever success might mean. The downing of a Ukrainian airliner and 176 civilian deaths are the latest casualties of that conflict. If the United States does not change course to seek to bring the conflict to an end, those poor unfortunates will not be the last casualties.