While we wait for Trump to sort all this out and, hopefully, find advisers who will prevent future impasses of this sort, here are a few articles/blogs that lay out some of the issues involved.
Pat Buchanan asks, Can Trump Still Avoid War With Iran? and sets forth some of the strategic misunderstandings in Trump's policy of "maximum pressure."
[I]f neither America nor Iran wants war, what has brought us to the brink?
Answer: The policy imposed by Trump, Pompeo and John Bolton after our unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Our course was fixed by the policy we chose to pursue.
Imposing on Iran the most severe sanctions ever by one modern nation on another, short of war, the U.S., through "maximum pressure," sought to break the Iranian regime and bend it to America’s will.
Submit to US demands, we told Tehran, or watch your economy crumble and collapse and your people rise up in revolt and overthrow your regime.
The demands Pompeo made were those that victorious nations impose upon the defeated or defenseless. Pompeo’s problem: Iran was neither.
Hence Tehran’s defiant answer to Pompeo’s 12 demands:
We will not capitulate, and if your sanctions prevent our oil from reaching our traditional buyers, we will prevent the oil of your Sunni allies from getting out of the Persian Gulf.
America might emerge victorious in such a war, but the cost could be calamitous, imperiling that fifth of the world’s oil that traverses the Strait of Hormuz, and causing a global recession.
Many readers will be familiar with former CIA analyst, Larry Johnson, from his work on the Russia "hacking" hoax. Today he has a blog on the Iran situation: Iran, We Got to Do Something? Like Buchanan, Johnson is by no means hostile towards Trump, but he sees that Trump's policies have led to the current unpalatable impasse. Moreover, he describes some of the complexities and uncertainties that Trump faces if he should allow himself to be talked into military action:
Colonel Lang's earlier piece warned the President that war with Iran will ensure he is only a one term President. He knows what he is talking about. Unless we are committed to a full war with Iran and defeating the Islamic Republic on the battlefield (set aside a trillion dollars and send 500,000 troops for that effort) we should not launch any kind of air strike--e.g., fixed wing, drones or cruise missiles. The amount of force we would deliver would not cripple Iran's capabilities.
This much is certain. Iran has the weaponry to strike decisively against Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies of the Saudis and could severely damage Saudi Arabia's ability to pump oil and purify water. Taking out the Saudi water supply would be more deadly and damaging than anything Iran could do to the Saudi oil infrastructure.
Then what? The political pressure in the United States to really hit back at Iran would escalate. Are you ready to pay that price? A military strike on Iran also raises the specter of the war spinning out of control and dragging in other countries. It is highly likely that oil exports from the Persian Gulf would be shutdown. That would likely touch off a global economic collapse.
We need to step back and try to define what it is that we are trying to do. Regime change in Iran? Destroy their nuclear program? Weaken Iran's influence in the Middle East? I do not see how U.S.or Saudi airstrikes on a limited number of sensitive Iranian targets would advance any U.S. interest or objective. I am open to your suggestions and analysis.
I have said nothing about cyberwarfare. I have heard some pundits suggest we should hit Iran on that front. Ok. Answer me this--whose economic system is more vulnerable to a cyber attack? The U.S. or Iran? I believe the U.S. has more to lose in such an encounter. Our economic sanctions on Iran have not made them more dependent on computer networks.
And how will Russia, China, Japan, Western Europe and India react. All but Russia rely on oil coming out of the Persian Gulf. What is the worst case for oil disruption? A responsible planner must take that into account in order to ensure the President understands the potential and long lasting ramifications of any "feel" good military strike.
Ever since the Korean War the United States public has been sold the lie that we can fight foreign wars and not have to make any sacrifices or incur any costs at home. What did our 1991 war to oust Iraq from Kuwait accomplish? We got the Iraqis back across the border and then became bogged down in trying to police Iraq for the next decade. How about the 2003 invasion of Iraq? We got rid of Saddam, ignited the ISIS threat and installed Iraqi Shias, who are beholden to Iran, in positions of power. And now we wonder how Iranian influence was able to spread throughout the region. We did that, not the mullahs.
Angelo Codevilla--from whom much more in a moment--offers this interesting observation:
The German government, strongly backed by public opinion, is the United States’ chief opponent with regard to Iran.
I hope I've made my views on the German government clear in the past. I'd much rather see Trump dealing with Germany than with Iran at this point. There really is such a thing as having too much on your plate.
Nearly a year ago Angelo Codevilla wrote an article titled: What Is Saudi Arabia to Us? The article was written in the context of the Saudis butchering someone they didn't like in the embassy in Turkey--isn't that what embassies are for? However, if you suspect that Codevilla can't possibly talk about US-Saudi relations without getting into the whole business about Iran, you won't be disappointed. The main point of Codevilla's article is to address the question of: When we protect the Saudis, what are we really protecting? If we think protecting such a loathsome society as Saudi Arabia is really in our interests, then we had better be very clear in our own minds about exactly what interests are being served, and be sure that there is no other way to accomplish those interests. And that leads to some very sobering considerations.
Saudi Arabia’s rulers are a subspecies of the desert rats endemic in the region. The ones on the cheese now are of the clan of seven sons out of old king Saud’s favorite wife, Suda, and hence are known as Sudaris. The previous ruler, Abdullah was the only son of another wife. When Abdullah’s birth-order turn came, in 2005, he took the throne thanks only to having mobilized the national guard of Bedouins for war against the national army (and everything else) controlled by the Sudaris. Today, when you read about Mohammed bin Salman’s “anti-corruption reforms,” you should know that they target primarily Abdullah’s son and other relatives. In other words, what is going on, including murder, is a purely dynastic power play. But that is Saudi Arabia’s nice side.
The fundamental reality is that this is a slave society, (the Arabic word for black man is the word for slave) which considers work something that inferiors do for superiors, prizes idleness, and practices cruelty as a means of asserting superiority. ...
Saudi Arabia is marvelously well-connected in America—and especially in Washington D.C.—thanks to countless millions of dollars spread in all manner of ways to any and all who might be useful to the Kingdom over decades. ... The Saudis have been able to get away with whatever they wanted.
In the aftermath of 9/11, not only did the U.S. government fly Osama bin Laden’s family out of the country forthwith, it also flew out the Saudi consular officials who had helped the hijackers. Sections of the 9/11 commission report dealing with Saudi Arabia remain classified. Since the security camera photos of the 19 Saudi hijackers do not match the names on their passports, to this day, we still do not know their real identities. Nor has anyone investigated whence came the money for the operation.
Saudi foreign policy has been far from U.S.-friendly. Until around 1990, it might well have been described in one word: “pay.” Who? Anybody, to keep them from making trouble for the Kingdom. Thus the Saudis were the Syrian Assad regime’s main financiers. The money went to buy Soviet weapons. The same was true for Egypt prior to 1979, after which the money went to buy U.S. weapons. The Saudis paid most of the bill for Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran. And yes, they financed the PLO until, in 1990, both the PLO and Saddam turned against them—which led to firming up connections with the United States.
But those connections did not prevent the Saudis from playing a double game during the Iraq war—entirely understandable from the Saudi standpoint, but the acceptance of which by the U.S. establishment proved its abysmal incompetence. In short, the Saudis wanted above all to protect Iraq’s formerly ruling Sunni minority. That is why they lobbied hard and successfully to turn the successful U.S. invasion of March-April 2003 into the disastrous 2003-2010 U.S. occupation. Worse, during that occupation, the Saudis were the principal financiers of the Sunni war against U.S. forces, and the suppliers of most suicide bombers.
Today, the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran—effectively between the Muslim world’s Sunni and Shia blocs, is the great issue in the Middle East.
The Saudis rightly fear Iran. Make no mistake: Much as Iran rails against the Great Satan, (America) and the Little Satan (Israel), Saudi Arabia is its chief enemy. Whatever faults Iranian forces may have, whatever equipment they lack, they are still superior to the Saudis. Most important, the Saudis and their Sunni allies in the Gulf lord it over Shia minorities (in Bahrain they are the majority) who look to Iran for relief. The Shia in Saudi inhabit the oil-producing regions. The Saudis know how vulnerable they are. The United States does not have to convince them to be anti-Iran. Since Iran is far more a danger to them than to us, they will always be more anti-Iran than we.
Nor do we have to treat them gingerly because they are the principal part of OPEC. In fact, the world oil price is now set largely by American production. Much as the Saudis would love to raise the price by cutting production, they know that maximizing their income requires pumping as much as they can at whatever the world price happens to be.
In short, we owe them nothing.
Our relationship with Saudi Arabia should flow from our own needs—not theirs—based on the realities of the region.
... we should now draw a bright line between our way of life and that of the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now as then, this is primarily for the American people’s benefit. Now as then, we cannot change others, but must deal with them. We don’t have to like them, and they don’t have to like us. ...
Above all, we realize that Saudi Arabia is even less a permanent fixture of the international scene than the Soviet Union was. It is even more unstable. Stabilizing it, saving it from the consequences of its congenital dynastic wars, is beyond our capacities, as John Quincy Adams might have said. That is why now, as in 1823, the essence of good American foreign policy is to be very clear about our very few interests, to commit to those, and to let the rest of the world fight their own battles.
UPDATE: The National Interest offers 5 Reasons Why the Saudi Oil Attacks Won’t Lead to War with Iran. I'll just comment that #2 is a clear defeat for Trump. I doubt that he wanted to show his hand. Being placed in that position has to be frustrating for him:
1. Americans don’t want war with Iran.
2. Trump has shown his hand. He prefers negotiation to conflict with Iran.
3. The “devil incarnate” has left the building.
Until last week, John Bolton—who former Secretary of Defense James Mattis joked was the “devil incarnate”—was Trump’s National Security Advisor. Bolton’s dismissal has significantly weakened the influence of the so-called “B-Team” consisting of Bolton, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
4. The U.S. military is opposed to fighting Iran.
5. Iran doesn’t really want a war with the United States.