WASHINGTON, D.C. – Blunt, ignorant and confused are some of the criticisms voiced by allies on U.S. policy toward Iran. But none sees the Trump administration preparing for war.
Governments worldwide are alarmed at the tension between Washington and Tehran, concerned about the risk of escalation or military miscalculation and frustrated at a lack of communication about U.S. goals. What keeps the anxiety in check from Berlin to Moscow to Ankara is President Donald Trump’s oft-stated aversion to starting fresh wars.
Many allies share U.S. concerns about Iran’s meddling in places like Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and the prospect of it one day acquiring nuclear weapons. But Washington faces opposition – at times the exasperation has spilled into public view – for ripping up the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran, for its heavy sanctions on the regime and for a ratcheting up of military activity in the Gulf.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s trip to Brussels last week yielded little support for the U.S. position, with Europe doubling down on its commitment to the deal that Trump abandoned last year.
Pompeo also got nothing new on Iran from President Vladimir Putin during a subsequent visit to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, according to a senior Russian official with knowledge of the discussions. Distrust between Moscow and Washington is so great that no separate deal is possible on Iran, said another person close to the Kremlin.
Still, Russia is counting on Trump to rein in both the hawks in the U.S. administration and regional allies, led by Israel.
“We’ve studied Trump’s approach and tactics pretty well over the past two and a half years; he’s not a military man, he doesn’t like to fight,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “He likes to make a show of strength and use economic levers. His idea is that sanctions will force Tehran in the end to negotiate.”
In Berlin, officials view Trump as the main force to halt the spiral toward conflict, primarily due to his well-known resistance to foreign interventions, said a senior lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition.
Indeed, a U.S. official said late last week that Trump isn’t seeking conflict – though he’d consider using the military if needed. And the president, when asked about war with Iran, said “I hope not.”
Trump has spoken frequently of his desire to reduce what the U.S. spends on security support for others, be it NATO or troops in places like South Korea. He’s said for too long other countries have taken advantage of the U.S., without boosting their own military capacity. The U.S. has been a significant presence globally since World War II, and is seen as a buffer against China as a rising global power. A particular red line for Trump appears to be boots on the ground in a fresh conflict.
Still, the overall U.S. strategy on Iran causes concern. One French government official said Trump and senior aides such as National Security Adviser John Bolton are wrong to think that tightening the screws on Iran’s economy would convince its leaders to bend.
Germany, too, has no choice but to maintain a certain level of cooperation with Iran, the lawmaker in Berlin said. Europe is pressing ahead with a trade clearinghouse, known as Instex, to circumvent around U.S. sanctions and is eager to settle its first transaction with Iran, another official said.
At the same time, there’s frustration in Germany at the opacity of Washington’s motives.
That’s also a complaint from U.S. allies elsewhere. Each day brings only more confusion, one Asian government official said. An official familiar with Turkey’s thinking said the actions of those within the U.S. administration do however appear coordinated.
“Usually the Americans and Trump are very clear — you could say almost brutal,” said Jacques Maire, a former diplomat who’s a member of parliament for President Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party. “This time, I have to say I’m not always clear what is the end game, what is the goal.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif undertook his own Asian tour to seek renewed commitments to deliver the economic benefits that were supposed to derive from the 2015 nuclear deal. He went to New Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing, where he won a pledge from China on Friday to support Iran’s efforts to safeguard its interests.
Japan is worried that Iran, a country with which it has had good ties for decades, will be forced out of the nuclear deal by hawks in the Trump administration. But Tokyo also has no intention of breaking away from the path set by its longtime ally Washington.
“Iran is asking the Japanese to do anything and everything that they can to persuade the United States to be a little more rational, but I don’t know whether Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can really convince Trump,” said Kazuo Takahashi, emeritus professor of international politics at Open University in Japan.
In the Middle East, key U.S. ally Israel is keeping its head down. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered cabinet ministers to avoid making public statements on the possibility of a U.S.-Iran war, according to three Israeli officials familiar with the matter.
Israel views Trump’s goal as getting an improved nuclear deal that covers Iran’s ballistic-missile development and sponsorship of regional militias such as Hezbollah. That said, if Iran miscalculates and strikes U.S. bases or other interests, triggering retaliation, Israel wouldn’t worry, the officials said. They don’t regard Iran as having the capability to strike Israel.
It’s Iran that is encouraging “false narratives” of war, said Firas Maksad, director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank that’s close to the Saudi Arabian government.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have an interest in Washington and Tehran reaching a new understanding, he said. Trump, “while averse to another Middle Eastern war not unlike his predecessor, understands the need for a deal with Iran that goes beyond an arms control agreement to include other aspects of destabilizing behavior,” he said.
“All involved understand that the path to such an understanding will have to go through a difficult period of brinkmanship.”
Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir told reporters on Sunday that Saudi Arabia does not want war with Iran “in any way, but at the same time we won’t allow Iran to continue its hostile policies toward the kingdom.”
A senior European diplomat said that while governments don’t see conflict as likely, that doesn’t mean they aren’t nervous. Leaving the nuclear deal was a mistake that increases risks on multiple fronts, the diplomat said.
It’s a broad concern that’s surfaced elsewhere over the gamut of Trump’s policy beyond Washington, from Venezuela to North Korea, trade tariffs, China’s Huawei and now Iran.
Turkey, for example, “is very much worried over Trump’s roller-coaster global foreign policy,” said Muhittin Ataman, director of foreign policy studies at the Ankara-based SETA think tank. It “injects more uncertainty rather than predictability to challenging problems around the world.”
By Alan Crawford
Contributors, Ilya Arkhipov and Gregory Viscusi