Iran's decision to stand down after casualty-free strikes on Iraqi bases housing US troops and the US's decision not to respond to those strikes were both positive steps amid rising tensions.
But averting a shooting war doesn't put US-Iran relations back on the right path, and there's more the US could do to avoid escalation and more needless violence, writes Defense Priorities fellow Bonnie Kristian.
"The American people should be extremely grateful and happy no Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime," President Trump said in his Wednesday speech from the White House. "Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world."
It is indeed, and so was Trump's decision to take the out offered by Iran's casualty-free retaliation for the US assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The worst scenario — a shooting war — has been averted, at least for now.
But that does not mean US-Iran relations are on the right track. Far from it.
In the same address, Trump announced "the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime," recommitting his administration to the very "maximum pressure" policy that produced months of escalation culminating in the recent crisis.
The president's choice to join Iran in backing away from war was prudent, but his larger Iran strategy remains in desperate need of overhaul. Here are three ways to start.
First, back off maximum pressure, which is a path toward war with Iran.
Instead of adding more sanctions, return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) status quo of sanctions relief as a gesture of goodwill to bring Iran to the negotiating table, as Trump said he wants to do. Lessening pressure on Iran will also decrease the regime's incentive to engage in regional provocations, like the strike on Saudi oil facilities or the oil tanker detention, and it will strengthen the political hand of moderates in Tehran, who are drowned out by extremist voices when maximum pressure is applied. This de-escalation would help prevent a repeat of recent days' rush toward war while lowering Mideast tensions more generally.
Second, the administration must drop its wildly unconstitutional claims of unilateral war-making power.
After Trump's speech Wednesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley gave closed-door briefings in both houses of Congress to answer legislators' questions about Iran. As Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Kentucky) revealed, the briefing saw the administration's representatives arguing that strikes against Iran are legal under the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iraq. This is absurd.
Even more remarkably, per Lee, the officials "were unable or unwilling to identify any point" at which the executive branch would seek congressional authorization for military intervention against Iran, including a hypothetical strike on Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As a matter of procedure, this is a blatant violation of the Constitution. As a matter of strategy, it is sure to make Iran doubtful of Trump's professed interest in peace.
Lastly, if Trump is serious about the diplomatic overture he made Wednesday, he must make himself a more reliable negotiating partner.
It is not difficult to understand why Iran would be skittish about talks after Trump withdrew from the JCPOA despite Iran's independently verified compliance—to say nothing of his October bungling of a four-point deal painstakingly brokered by Paris between Washington and Tehran.
ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images
Backing away from maximum pressure and abiding by constitutional strictures on presidential war powers would both be useful in assuring Tehran of this administration's intent to negotiate in good faith.
So too would replacing Pompeo, who is reportedly considering resigning. The secretary of state has long shown himself a poor diplomat, reckless and unrealistic, and the Iranian regime clearly doesn't respect him.
Pledging to make any future Iran deal a proper treaty with Senate consent — which is to say, something future presidents cannot singlehandedly revoke — is also a wise move.
Most urgent, however, is the immediate and complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's neighbors and both sites of floundering military interventions overdue for conclusion, and a drawdown from the region more generally, especially in Syria and Yemen, where moving from proxy fighting to direct conflict with Iran is a real risk.
These departures would serve US strategic interests and keep American soldiers out of harm's way even if no diplomatic progress is made.
In policy, actions are more important than words, and a withdrawal of US forces would show Iran that Trump is sincere in his talk about diplomacy, ending "endless wars," and — crucially — not starting new ones.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
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