After his election, adversaries and allies alike feared a loose cannon had arrived on the international stage. If President Trump lashed out militarily at every turn, he would escalate and inflame conflicts from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East.
But that did not happen. Over three years, the absence of restraint that Trump has shown in so many aspects of his presidency has not been evident when it comes to the use of America’s military power, at least until last Friday morning when US forces killed Qasem Soleimani, one of the most senior figures in the Iranian regime.
Examples of this restraint are plentiful. Trump had been urged to pro-actively topple the teetering Maduro regime in Venezuela. He refused to give the green light for military intervention.
Rather than throwing America’s weight around in the Syrian conflict, Trump has pulled troops out of the northern part of that benighted country, a decision that was criticised by both Democrats and Republicans.
And on numerous occasions in recent years, the US might have retaliated against Iranian attacks on American citizens, soldiers, interests and allies. Until last Friday, Trump held fire, often earning criticism from a range of voices in Washington’s foreign policy community who warned that Tehran would be emboldened if it faced no consequences for its actions against the US. For all his faults and foreign policy miscalculations, of which there have been many, Trump could not have been accused of being a warmonger – at least until last week.
The killing by US forces of such a senior figure in the Iranian regime, whether or not it was justified or proportionate, was a dramatic escalation. It makes a wider conflict more likely, with implications not only for the immediate region, but also for Ireland and the rest of Europe.
The nature of such a conflict was pithily described within hours of the killing by Richard Haass, a former US diplomat who is well known in this part of the world for his chairing of talks in Northern Ireland in 2013. He tweeted “Make no mistake: any war with Iran will not look like the 1990 Gulf war or the 2003 Iraq wars. It will be fought throughout the region [with] a wide range of tools [against] a wide range of civilian, economic, & military targets. The region (and possibly the world) will be the battlefield”.
Tensions between the US and Iran have been high and rising for years. As the region’s most populous and militarily powerful country and one which has played a central role in the Middle East since ancient times, Iran sees itself as a regional superpower.
One element of the theocratic state’s ambitions has been its effort to develop a nuclear capability over four decades. One of the reasons that relations with the US have deteriorated recently was Trump’s decision in May 2018 to pull out of an international deal designed to prevent Tehran from acquiring the bomb.
The replacement strategy the US put in place – known as “maximum pressure” – is mostly focused on throttling the Iranian economy by squeezing the country’s biggest export earners – oil and gas. While the strategy has worked as intended economically, causing a deep recession in Iran, it has not led the regime to offer more complete and transparent denuclearisation or to rein in its proxies across the region.
The original deal, signed in 2015, was painstakingly negotiated by six of the world’s big powers, including Britain, France and Germany. Officially, none of these countries were informed of Washington’s decision to strike last Friday morning.
Of all the actions Trump has taken since becoming president, few have angered European allies as much as his pulling out of the nuclear deal. Europeans were furious for numerous reasons, quite apart from the fact that years of work had gone into agreeing it.
In order for Trump’s tougher stance to be effective economically, other countries would have to stop doing business with Iran. Though European countries did not want this, the threat of US sanctions against European companies left corporate executives with little choice but to comply. That European politicians and diplomats were so impotent in the face of Trump’s action, even when it came to their own companies, only heightened their anger.
The Iran nuclear deal was far from perfect, but it was probably the best achievable framework to prevent nuclear proliferation while maintaining some engagement and influence with Iran. The US’s unilateral sundering of the deal has made transatlantic co-operation on Iran and the wider Middle East much more difficult.
At a time when relations between Europe and the US are already beset by a series of Trump-related uncertainties, having this issue added to the mix will make the yearning in European capitals for anyone but Trump to be elected in November only all the more intense.
The extent of the transatlantic divisions on dealing with Iran was highlighted by the calls for calm from European capitals in the aftermath of the killing. Even the British government, which desperately needs good relations with the US as it cuts ties with Europe, was frosty. “We urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests,” said the British foreign minister. This was very different from Tony Blair’s whole-hearted support for his US counterpart over the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Another driver of divergent US and European interests in the Middle East is energy. While Europe still depends on oil coming out of the Gulf, the fracking revolution in the US has meant that America’s dependence on imported energy has declined dramatically. Indeed, toward the end of 2019 the US became effectively self-sufficient, exporting as much oil as it imported for the first time since the 1950s.
Europe is very different, with almost all the oil (and gas) consumed across the continent coming from less stable regions. In 2018, one in seven barrels of oil used in the EU came from either Iraq or Saudi Arabia. If the narrow strait in the Gulf through which this oil is shipped were to be closed in any conflict, Europe could face petrol shortages. The fact that the US is no longer dependent on foreign oil, an objective of all administrations since the 1970s, means that a disruptive conflict in the Middle East would have less impact on American businesses and consumers than in the past. That is likely to affect the calculus in Washington on whether to escalate further when Iran’s inevitable retaliation comes.
Another element in that calculus is whether Trump believes that it is in his electoral interests to bring about a confrontation with Iran. As the outbreak of war in the past has tended to cause Americans to rally to the incumbent in the White House, there has been no little speculation in recent days that the motivation for Friday’s strike was political, not geopolitical.
Trump has been a disruptive force in the world in many ways, but until now his use of America’s military might has not been out of keeping with his predecessors. If that changes, his presidency could become much more globally disruptive than it has been to date. After the events of recent days, there is even more at stake for the world at next November’s presidential election than before.
After his election, adversaries and allies alike feared a loose cannon had arrived on the international stage. If President Trump lashed out militarily at every turn, he would escalate and inflame conflicts from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East. But that did not happen.