President Donald Trump’s public response to Iranian missile strikes on two US airbases in Iraq suggests that he and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have reached a mutual ‘no war’ agreement. Barring any miscalculation by either side that triggers military escalation, the confrontation will continue to be played out politically, with the US maintaining its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign that seeks to force regime change through severe economic sanctions. There will be a lot of bruising ahead for Iran, but Trump will not win politically.
President Donald Trump has upended American policy in Syria, and possibly in the entire Middle East, in one stroke. His unilateral decision to withdraw American troops from the Kurdish region of northern Syria, and thus give a green light for the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish enclave, has put all American goals in Syria in grave jeopardy. These included protecting the autonomous Kurdish enclave as a quid pro quo for the Kurdish militia’s singular military contribution in liquidating Islamic State and capturing its capital Raqqa at the cost of thousands of lives. They also included preventing the regime of Bashar al-Assad from reasserting control in northern Syria (a very important US objective in Syria was to circumscribe Russia’s and Iran’s reach and influence in the country). Finally, one of the principal aims of American policy in both Syria and Iraq has been to prevent the resurgence of the IS.
Increasing political and economic pressure on Iran, exacerbated by the renewed economic sanctions resulting from the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has led Tehran to seek support from the two major Eurasian political and economic powers Russia and China. Iran has also increasingly turned its attention toward its neighbors in Central Asia, which remain closely integrated into the political, economic and military projects of Moscow and Beijing. Central Asian leaders are well aware that a possible armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran would adversely affect Eurasian security.
In the field of international relations, a nation’s credibility is often thought to be calculated by evaluating its historical record of following through on threats of punishment issued to adversaries. In contrast, today, the larger challenge to U.S. global credibility arises not from questions about its ability to inflict pain on rivals, but rather from the demonstrated failure of U.S. policymakers to make good on incentives promised to rivals in exchange for constructive changes in their behaviors.