Trump’s week of dithering over Iran makes America look weak and foolish

Simon Tisdall
Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

They must be laughing their socks off in Tehran. The days following last weekend’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities, blamed by the US on Iran, have seen an almost comical display of indecision, confusion and bluster by the leader of the world’s most powerful country. As a result, Iran looks stronger … and Donald Trump looks like a clown.

If Iranian leaders intended to call Trump’s bluff, they have succeeded – for now at least. The president’s immediate reaction to the attacks was to declare the US “locked and loaded” for retaliatory strikes. Then he remembered he’s opposed to fighting wars in the Middle East and hopes to be re-elected next year.

Trump switched tack, saying the attacks were no big deal, even as global oil prices rocketed, because the US no longer needed Middle East energy. That’s not strictly true. Official figures show the US imported 48 million barrels of oil and petroleum products a month from the Gulf in 2018. Still dodging and weaving, he said what happened next was up to the Saudis – an extraordinary outsourcing of national security policy.

Trump ended the week still trying to have it both ways. He imposed additional sanctions on Iran and ordered a limited number of troops to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for defensive purposes. But he did not rule out talks with Iran’s president at the UN this week – despite the US denial of visas to many of his officials.

It had become painfully clear Trump simply had no idea what to do. With his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran backfiring and his bellicose threats ringing hollow, he is the emperor with no clothes, the president who speaks loudly and fears to wield the big stick. Trump, plainly, has no strategy, no back-up plan – and no clue.

Related: How did oil attack breach Saudi defences and what will happen next?

This White House farce, which included the appointment of uber-hawk Robert O’Brien to replace uber-hawk John Bolton as national security adviser, is of course no laughing matter. Trump could start firing off missiles at any moment. His unpredictability is part of the problem. The Iranians, emboldened, could overplay their hand. Another perceived provocation could jerk the meter back towards war.

Yet this latest phase of the Iran crisis does have an upside. By supplying a much-needed reality check, it has driven home to all concerned the disastrous consequences a new, multi-dimensional Gulf war could have for international security and the global economy. And it has exposed Trump’s failure to think through his bid to force Iran to its political and economic knees.

Another hard truth is that Iran is proving a tougher nut to crack than hawks such as Bolton ever imagined

One such newly illuminated hard truth is the very limited nature of US military options. Military analysts say missile strikes, or a naval blockade of Iranian ports, would invite devastating retaliation. After the Iraq experience, ground troops are out of the question. And attacks on Iranian allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah would risk drawing Israel into an expanding regional conflict. Although it has drawn up a target list, the Pentagon cautioned Trump last week against taking precipitate action.

Another hard truth is that Iran is proving a tougher nut to crack than hawks such as Bolton ever imagined. The oilfield attacks, using drones and cruise missiles, demonstrated considerable military daring and technical expertise. Embarrassingly, they bamboozled the Saudis’ expensive US-supplied Patriot missile defences and early-warning systems.

Abandoning its policy of “strategic patience” after enduring a year of punitive oil and financial sanctions, Iran has shifted to a twin-track strategy, slowly resuming prohibited nuclear activities while disrupting global energy supplies, for example by targeting Gulf tankers. So far, despite all Trump’s ranting, Tehran has paid zero military price. Meanwhile, it has flatly denied responsibility for the Saudi attacks in a formal note sent to Washington.

Diplomatically speaking, too, Iran is ahead. European governments supportive of the nuclear agreement rejected by Trump last year blame aggressive US policy for the current escalation. Britain does not say so in public, but Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, is not so timid. “The deal to stop Iran acquiring military nuclear capabilities is a building block we need to get back to,” she said last week.

This lack of a united front is damaging, as Trump may belatedly be realising. Inverting “America first” unilateralist rhetoric, he has ordered his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to try to assemble an anti-Iran “international coalition”. Suddenly Trump’s problem was the “world’s problem”. Pompeo is now saying the US seeks a “peaceful resolution” and is stressing non-military means to “mitigate” the crisis.

Like the US plan for joint Gulf naval patrols, the idea of an American-led coalition has few takers – partly because US policy is so obviously wrong-headed. But doubts about Trump’s trustworthiness are also a factor. US claims in 2003 about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false. Many Europeans will question the credibility of accusations made against Iran by a proven serial liar.

These doubts are shared by Saudi leaders, who reportedly do not wholly trust Trump to back them if war breaks out. Another uncomfortable truth is that Saudi princes and military chiefs, authors of the Yemen catastrophe, appear to be no match for an angry, cornered Iran. For the US, the Saudis are again proving to be problematic and needy partners.

All told, Trump’s misconceived Iran policy has suffered a comprehensive, very public drubbing. So will the US take a deep breath and think again? Perhaps. The harshest reality laid bare by Trump’s week of dither is that the age-old fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not necessarily America’s fight – and few Americans believe that murderous Saudi royal despots are worth dying for.