Donald Trump’s Greatest Crisis?
Author: Greg Valliere
June 14, 2019
A SERIOUS ESCALATION: Iran has been caught red-handed — on video — attempting to sink ships in the Persian Gulf, a brazen act that demands a response from Donald Trump, whose bombast on foreign threats is negated by his aversion to a new commitment in the Mideast. A confrontation can’t be ruled out, and it could quickly become Trump’s greatest crisis as president.
U.S. ECONOMIC SANCTIONS ON IRAN have crippled the country’s economy and have pushed hard-liners in Tehran to adopt a militant stance; they won’t even negotiate with the U.S. and are now determined to use proxies to destabilize the Mideast, not just the Gulf. This gives hard-liners at the White House — led by John Bolton — the pretext they’ve long sought to confront the Iranians.
WHAT ARE THE U.S. OPTIONS? Two seem to stand out — first, deploy U.S. ships to escort oil tankers in and out of the Strait of Hormuz, risking chances of a confrontation with Iranian vessels which could quickly spin out of control. Second and even more ominously, the U.S. could respond to fresh Iranian aggression by launching targeted air strikes on military installations in southern Iran and against Tehran’s surrogates throughout the region.
A THIRD OPTION — the beginnings of some diplomacy — was stunningly rejected by Iran, which launched these new ship attacks just as Japanese Prime Minster Abe was visiting Tehran; Abe was trying to cool tensions. The ayatollahs crudely rebuked the idea of any negotiations, signaling that the hard-liners are totally in control.
WHAT’S THE END GAME? Trump’s maddening pattern of using threats against adversaries with no clear end-game is once again on display; he may continue to send confusing signals, as he has done recently with North Korea. The good news is that the U.S. is energy self-sufficient — an exporter of oil — and more importantly, Trump instinctively wants to stay out of foreign confrontations — to the point of him publicly mocking Bolton’s stridency.
OUR SENSE IS THAT TENSIONS WILL PERSIST for many weeks, potentially ruining what was looking like a feel-good story: the likelihood of much cheaper gasoline prices as the summer driving season begins. If the Persian Gulf crisis persists, it’s likely that consumers would be deprived of a boost in their real disposable income. Still another reason to worry about a soggy economy . . .
DISTURBINGLY, THE LIKELIHOOD OF A SIMMERING STANDOFF in the region may be the best case scenario. We’re in uncharted waters, with the Revolutionary Guards Corps and U.S. hard-liners itching for a fight. Lurking in the background is Congress, where Trump’s support is at an all-time low; neither Democrats nor Republicans appear likely to grant him speedy authority to confront Iran, which could weaken his hand if hostilities erupt.
THIS COULD QUICKLY BECOME TRUMP’S GREATEST CRISIS, more serious than the Russia probe, which never really threatened conviction by the Senate. The fanatic ayatollahs in Iran, determined to ease U.S.-imposed sanctions, are a far greater negotiating challenge than the North Koreans or the Chinese, and the risk is that this crisis will continue to escalate.
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