President Donald Trump set out to pick a fight with Iran from the early days of his administration. But a set of astonishing developments has pulled the rug out from under his feet, and the next three months will determine whether Trump will opt to escalate his provocations or find a face-saving exit from his bravado.
Only a few months ago, Trump was oozing with confidence, having pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, worked with the Saudis to squeeze oil exports and announced the reimposition of sanctions to the pleasure of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As a result, the Iranian currency, the rial, was tanking and a noticeable sense of nervousness permeated Iran. The country had weathered sanctions before, but something felt different this time around.
Trump certainly thought there was: "I know they're having a lot of problems and their economy is collapsing,” he told reporters on July 12. “[A]t a certain point, they're going to call me and they're going to say, 'Let's make a deal'.”
Fast forward five months, though, and all three pillars of Trump’s policy of strangulating Iran are at risk.
First, Saudi-US relations now arguably face the greatest crisis in history following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The US has long turned a blind eye to the Saudis involvement in the spread of terrorism, but Trump’s shameless protection of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman — who the CIA believes, with high confidence, ordered the murder — may be considered egregious.
Republican Senators who were briefed on the matter by CIA Director Gina Haspel this week left with little doubt of Salman’s guilt. "You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organized by people under the command of MBS and that he was intrinsically involved in the demise of Mr. Khashoggi," Trump ally Lindsey Graham said after the briefing.
Even if the Republicans end up siding with Trump on continuing relations with Saudi Arabia on the current terms, the Democrats are unlikely to simply allow the relationship to return to business-as-usual.
This is partly because the Saudi-U.S. relationship embodies everything progressives oppose: A cozy relationship with a brutal authoritarian ruler driven by the greed of arms manufacturers, all while the U.S. is complicit in a Saudi-engineered famine in Yemen and the House of Saud’s human rights and women’s rights abuses.
Second, Israel has played a critical behind-the-scenes role in Trump’s Iran policy. Netanyahu, in particular, has been a central conduit for the relationship between Salman and Trump's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, which in turn helped pave the way for the close coordination between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and for the U.S. to turn against Iran.
But Netanyahu is now facing an existential fight for his political future. Israeli prosecutors have recommended indicting him again this week and he may soon face early elections as his government collapses. Though the next Israeli government is not likely to pursue a different Iran policy, it may not unconditionally embrace Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince as Netanyahu has.This could create a dangerous crack in the U.S.-Israel-Saudi front against Iran.
Third, Trump’s own political maneuverability is at risk: Trump will face far greater political obstacles going forward from the midterm elections, with the House likely investigating everything from his taxes, to his relationship with Saudi Arabia to his policy of picking a fight with Iran. Forced to play defense at home, Trump may not be able to continue to make Iran a priority.
But the most important indicator of the eventual failure of Trump’s Iran policy lies not with the health of the pillars, but what the current sanctions policy failed to produce before it was at risk.
Trump promised that the Iranian currency would continue to fall and that Tehran’s oil exports would go down to zero. Yet, though the Iranian economy certainly is hurting, the currency has stabilized and Trump was himself forced to issue eight sanctions waivers to European and Asian countries, undermining the policy from the get-go.
And the whole plan was predicated on the idea that an economic collapse would compel Iranians to rise up against their government. According to the New York Times, Trump was presented with a $2 billion plan to destabilize the Iranian economy and manipulate social media to foment unrest in Iran by causing the Iranian public to lose confidence in the regime’s ability to survive. Much indicates that the plan was adopted by Trump, yet it failed. The rial has stabilized andfew are today willing to bank on the regime’s demise, even though the public’s discontent with the country's theocracy remains very high.
Today, if you’re sitting in Tehran, you’re probably more confident in the future than if you're in Riyadh or Washington. Trump has thrown everything he has at Iran, and it hasn’t worked. And once the European “Special Purpose Vehicle” — an alternative payment system that will enable companies to defy Trump’s sanctions — is up and running next year, the Trump’s Iran strategy may face yet another crippling blow.
The question is what Salman and Netanyahu will push Trump to do once the failure of the current policy is evident. If past is prologue, they will press him to go to war. But, at that point, even Trump may grow tired of being treated as the junior partner in this relationship.