The Collapse of Deterrence with Iran by Christopher J. Bolan


Earlier this month, the U.S. administration announced its decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).  Just this week, the Trump administration said that it will no longer exempt any country from U.S. sanctions if they continue to buy Iranian oil.  These moves are justifiably sparking renewed debate about U.S. strategy for Iran. 

The White House portrays these steps as a natural progression in its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to deprive Iran of “funds that it has used to destabilize the Middle East for decades.”

The reaction among policy pundits has been mixed but imminently predictable.  Supporters of regime change in Iran, like Mark Dubowitz at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, have long pushed for such moves.  On the opposing side, advocates of rapprochement such as Trita Parsi have sounded alarmist assessments indicating that the IRGC designation alone represents a dangerous escalation that might well lead to war.  Still others see the combination of the IRGC designation and the imposition of crippling new sanctions as part of an orchestrated public information campaign to build a U.S. case for war against Iran. 

Meanwhile, others in the analytical community including Suzanne Maloney at Brookings have characterized the IRGC designation as an action that will ultimately prove to be of little consequence.  Similarly, while the threat of additional U.S. sanctions on countries importing Iranian oil have already predictably led to a short-term increase in oil prices, some oil analysts have suggested that the U.S. drive to get Iranian oil exports to zero will ultimately fail and characterize such policies as more “feel-good rather than strategy-driven.”

Whichever side of this debate you find yourself, it is imperative to recognize that – whether by happenstance or design – these steps are dangerously degrading the pillars of a successful U.S. deterrence strategy against Iran. 

One of the most essential components of a successful U.S. deterrence strategy is clear communications.  As Thomas C. Schelling observes in his classic exposition of deterrence theory, “The victim has to know what is wanted, and may have to be assured of what is not wanted.” Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has failed on both counts.  This continued uncertainty and lack of clarity in terms of U.S. expectations for Iran’s behavior are the anti-thesis of what is required for a coherent and realistic deterrent policy.

In terms of what constitutes unacceptable behavior on Iran’s nuclear activities, President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the meticulously negotiated and internationally sanctioned Iran nuclear deal (formally named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) has unnecessarily and recklessly muddied the waters.  For now Iran continues to adhere to the terms of the JCPOA despite the re-imposition of stringent U.S. unilateral and extraterritorial sanctions.  But the basic terms of the deal which involved Iran agreeing to verifiable restraints on its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief have been clearly violated and upended by the U.S. itself.  In the absence of the JCPOA’s promised rewards, it is only a matter of time before Iranian hardliners begin to test the limits of a severely weakened international agreement. 

The Trump administration has offered no more clarity regarding Iran’s troubling behaviors outside the nuclear file.  U.S. Secretary of State’s purported New Iran Strategy announced in May 2018 contains a grab bag of demands including ending all enrichment activities, guaranteeing unrestricted access to any Iranian facilities whether military or civilian, halting all ballistic missile development, ceasing support to Iran’s regional proxies and militias, a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, and stopping all unspecified “threatening behavior.”  This list of U.S. expectations amounts to a demand for Iran to end efforts to exercise any influence outside its own borders.  In an open letter, more than 50 former senior U.S. government officials have dismissed these U.S. demands as leaving “Iran the option of either capitulation or war.”

Moreover, this U.S. approach fails to give any confidence to leaders in Tehran that any changes in its behavior will actually serve to avoid punishment or result in any measurable benefit.  The U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA despite Iran’s compliance has reinforced perceptions among hardliners in Tehran that nothing short of wholesale regime change will satisfy leaders in Washington.   Indeed, the rhetoric from senior Trump officials has taken an increasingly hostile tone since the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.  In a speech in Cairo early this year, Pompeo cast Iran clearly as an “enemy” while offering U.S. support for the Iranian people to rise up against “the mullahs in Tehran” as they did during the Green Revolution in 2009.  Meanwhile, National Security Advisor John Bolton issued what some have reasonably interpreted as a direct threat to the regime on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution saying, “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries left to enjoy.”

Additionally, the Trump administration’s unilateral approach to Iran has perilously undermined the credibility of its deterrent posture by fracturing the broad international coalition that had imposed a stringent set of multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2015.  Instead of a unified global or Western front focused on challenging Iranian transgressions, we are now witnessing European countries and other U.S. allies devising financial mechanisms to expressly evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.  At the same time, what should be low-hanging fruit in terms of U.S. efforts to forge an anti-Iran coalition among long-time U.S. Arab allies is also collapsing of its own weight as most recently illustrated by Egypt’s withdrawal from the so-called ‘Arab NATO’ plan. 

Finally, any strong deterrent posture runs the risk of provoking retaliatory steps by the targeted state which could set off an unpredictable tit-for-tat retaliatory escalation leading potentially to open conflict.  The U.S. and Iran appear to be engaged in just such a provocative and potentially dangerous exchange.  In responding to the U.S. designation of the IRGC as an FTO, Iran’s Supreme National Council retaliated by designating U.S. CENTCOM and all its forces as terrorists.  In response to U.S. efforts to eliminate Iran’s ability to sell any oil on the international market, senior Iranian military officials have renewed threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz saying “If we are prevented from using it, we will close it.”  The current atmosphere of intensifying tensions could lead to an unintended escalation that neither side is willing to walk away from.

The traditional measures essential to developing a successful deterrence include clear and consistent communications of what specific behaviors are acceptable and which actions will result in credible and punishing reprisals.  Unfortunately, the steps taken thus far by the Trump administration have increased tensions with Iran and U.S. allies alike, weakened international resolve to pose a united front against Iran, and do not present Iranian leaders with a viable path forward to avoid confrontation with the U.S.  Regrettably, this approach is far more likely to result in open conflict than to deter or curb undesirable Iranian behaviors.

This entry was posted in As The Borg Turns, Iran, Middle East, Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

64 Responses to The Collapse of Deterrence with Iran by Christopher J. Bolan

  1. Stuart R Wood says:

    The Trump foreign policy gang, how not to do diplomacy?

  2. opit says:

    Given that I tend to think the US position on Iran has been bullshit from the get go, it takes real talent to make things even more dysfunctional. I agree – that has been accomplished. There is no plausible encouragement to ‘modify behaviour’ where pundits drive conclusions and actual action is ignored.

  3. blue peacock says:

    Since Bibi is in the catbird’s seat, the most important question to ask is what does Bibi want? Is it annihilation of Iran, Lebanon, & Syria? If that is the case can the US military deliver without using nukes?

  4. MP98 says:

    “In an open letter, more than 50 former senior U.S. government officials have dismissed these U.S. demands as leaving Iran the option of either capitulation or war.”
    You insiders in the imperial city still don’t get it.
    Those “former senior US government officials” are likely part and parcel of the continuing FAILURE of US foreign policy.
    These “experts” have royally f***ed up – 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, Libya.
    As for the JCPOA with Iran, these “negotiators” are the dimwits that car salesmen make their money from.
    How many more failures from these pompous, self-important, swamp parasites can we survive?

  5. JamesT says:

    In June 2010 the UN security council placed an embargo on the export of most major conventional weapons to Iran. My understanding is that this embargo is due to be lifted in 2020 (this was one of the things that Iran got as part of the JCPOA). I think Iran is going to play nice until then, and then stock up on all the advanced weaponry she can buy from China and Russia.
    Maybe the Chinese will sell the Persians some DF-21Ds. That could get interesting.

  6. Mr Bolan,
    I agree with your assessment. Unfortunately, I fear that for many in the Trump administration, policies that make open conflict with Iran more likely may be seen as a feature, not a bug.

  7. Mad Max_22 says:

    One is given to wonder whether Trump would have selected the same failed war mongers for his Foreign Policy team that he has demonstrably done if the Hildabeast, her disappointed acolytes in the entrenched deep state, and the lunatic left in its political and media manifestations had not kneecapped him with “Russiagate” even before he took office. Was there any depth at all to his campaign rhetoric that might have survived the tsunami of bad faith accusations that crippled him? As the kids say, ‘whatever.’
    But if a regard for the value of diplomacy in the pursuit of peace, or for that matter, a mere historical awareness, has been playing a role in his conduct of FP, it’s escaped my notice. We’re living in dangerous times: who gives every appearance of being a FP lightweight and a cripple in the presidency; and debased lunatics arrayed against him in everything and anything he says or does. In the words of the immortal Casey Stengel: does anybody down there know how to play this game?

  8. turcopolier says:

    Yes, easily unless Russia wants to go to war with us over this.

  9. seydlitz89 says:

    Nice post from a strategic theory perspective. Well-reasoned argument using Schelling’s concepts regarding suasion within a larger Clausewitzian model . . . applied to current US policy regarding Iran.

  10. walrus says:

    C. J. Nolan doesn’t seem to understand the policy objective; war with Iran is a feature, not a bug.

  11. Norbert M Salamon says:

    It is possible that Russia would take a dim view, and attempt to stop this US adventure. At present Russia believes that Syria and Iran with a reluctant wavering Turkey is the safety defense area from the jihadist hordes against Russia’s vulnerable south Muslim are.

  12. jdledell says:

    Mad Max – Are you trying to say that it is the Democrats fault that Trump hired John Bolton and other neo-cons for his Foreign Policy team? Good Grief, Trump is the most powerful person on Earth and it is ridiculous to excuse his poor hiring practices on other people. Trump is either the Man, or he is not. Hiring John Bolton is 100% on Trump’s shoulders – no one else.

  13. turcopolier says:

    Once again, how would Russia stop this possible air campaign? By shooting down US aircraft? You think so? The US is a thermonuclear power. I think not.

  14. Jackrabbit says:

    Wonder no more.
    Meet the Press, August 16, 2016 (condensed slightly for readability):
    Who do you talk to for military advice right now? … is there a go-to for you?
    Yeah, probably there are two or three. I mean, I like Bolton. I think he’s, you know, a tough cookie, knows what he’s talking about… I think he’s terrific.

  15. I agree that Russia will not stop a massive US air attack or shoot at US aircraft unless we started taking out Russian assets. I do believe Russia will use all surveillance and REC assets to give Lebanon and Syria as much early warning as possible and to muffle the effect of a US assault. I would not be surprised if Syria shot at US aircraft over Lebanon. As far as US forces hesitating about attacking Lebanon, they will not. Our Navy and Air Force will carry out these orders, if they come, immediately and with all the force they can muster.

  16. ex-PFC Chuck says:

    I agree it’s unlikely the Russians would attempt to counter a massive USAF raid on south Lebanon. However isn’t it likely they have sufficient visibility from satellites and assets in Syria, etc., that they could prevent Hezbollah and Lebanon from being tactically surprised? If not, why?

  17. Fred says:

    If only Trump and Co. cared about the US border the way he cares about Israel’s.

  18. turcopolier says:

    No. these attacks would be launched from a great distance and would not be visible to the Russians until they were inbound.

  19. saywhat says:

    From further down the transcript:
    You wrote this in 2011 about Saudi Arabia. “It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petro dollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.” What are U.S.-Saudi relations going to look like under a Trump administration?
    I wonder where that Donald Trump guy disappeared to.

  20. Ingolf Eide says:

    PL, are you willing to provide an overview of how such an attack might unfold?

  21. turcopolier says:

    Sure, targeting, which is complete by now, followed by issuance of warning orders to commanders who would provide the forces, followed by an “Air Targeting Order” listing all the sorties and their targets. execution order staggered in time so that air and missile units arrive at their targets in a coherent pattern, BDA followed by re-strikes.

  22. Justin Glyn says:

    If I remember rightly, that is exactly the sort of help the USSR (as was) gave Viet Nam to prevent a Chinese victory in 1979….

  23. Pete says:

    He was clear on some issues, definitively: Iran, Israel the one true ally, US military power more generally spoken.
    The US military was very much one basic anchor of his campaign. Maybe with a difference as far as the Bush admin is concerned: countries have to pay for the help US military can provide too, and not simply for their own reconstruction after:
    “Iraq is a very wealthy country. Enormous oil reserves. They can finance, largely finance the reconstruction of their own country. And I have no doubt that they will.”
    Richard Perle, chair
    The Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board
    July 11, 2002

  24. E Publius says:

    Hello PL
    I’d appreciate it if you could comment on the following:
    It seems that multifaceted escalation directly and unilaterally imposed on behalf of US-Israel-KSA/UAE troika is intensifying to the point that it could unfortunately lead to open conflict in the Middle East (ME). In rhetoric, the U.S. admin is denying that it wants to go to war with Iran and this seems to be in-line with Donald Trump’s personal approach toward isolationism and his campaign promises of non-intervention abroad. In my opinion it is in part, due to the fear of losing voters who have strong opposition toward any U.S. military boots on the ground.
    Additionally, there are other factors that may-in theory at-least- constrain the U.S.’will to go to war, these include congressional approval, convincing the public, media complacency, overall U.S. military readiness, plausible negative reaction regarding the already unstable fossil fuel market, ambiguity on behalf of KSA/UAE to increase their production and take over Iran’s oil market share and stabilize the market which if pursued would violate their prior commitments to not hiking production that was reached in the context of OPEC+. Merely doing nothing in short term, e.g. not producing more and abiding by the OPEC+ commitments until June when the new OPEC+ session is set to convene, would lead to more oil income for the increasingly cash-strapped KSA, however by doing that it would anger Trump and torpedoes its plan to zero-out Iran’s oil market and increases gas prices in the U.S. which is essential to Trump and especially as we are nearing the 2020 race… the U.S may counter it by introducing the bipartisan NOPEC bill that aims to break up OPEC and is not something that the KSA takes lightly (remember how KSA reacted when the U.S. Congress started talking about bringing NOPEC to the floor? the threat of dumping U.S. treasuries and the replacement of Dollar comes to mind).
    I think sinister politicians such as Bolton, Pompeo, Brian Hook and others in the NSC should not be confused with the previous generation of warmongers in the Bush admin. Despite sharing strong wormongering features, they are not neoconservative per se, because they do not pursue nation-building around the world and they do not play the obsolete tune of democracy promotion (which provided PR optics to U.S.’ aggressive imperialism); rather these people seem to be pursuing policies that reflect those of the 19th and early 20th century, that is great power politics that brought about two World Wars and other smaller scale conflicts. These Hard Neocons (for the lack of better term) seek total collapse or capitulation, which is not going to happen. It seems that the U.S. and its client Israel are in a state of hurry and every policy that they are pursuing are contractionary in nature, e.g. isolationism, unilateralism, returning to nation-state (more like ethno-state) model, disbanding multilateral structures, etc.
    In practice the Trump admin., whose ME policies according to Col. Wilkerson is made in Tel Aviv not the U.S. and is seeking constant escalation in multiple fronts, is arguably the most belligerent in the history of the country and contrary to what many thought of him at the beginning of the 2016 elections, is not a libertarian, nor a traditional conservative or paleoconservative, but rather a zionist-conservative, and I do not think there is even the slightest doubt about it. One could even argue that the Trump admin. is only acting against the interests of its own citizens, and to the benefits and the interests of other powerful ominous forces. Nonetheless, as someone who admires pundits such as Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, Gore Vidal, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Scheuer, and similar non-interventionists, why can’t just the U.S. Do the Right Thing and stop its destructive policies? If the U.S. according to those who believe in the Constitution is a small-(r) Republic, then why not acting like one?

  25. Could I ask about the situation within Syria as it concerns operations against the Jihadis there?
    There seem to be two views on the increased pressure being exerted on Syria itself. 1, that these are merely spoiling tactics and will not affect the security situation much, 2, that it is the prelude to further military action against Syria. There do seem to be suggestions that further PR gas attacks are on the cards.
    Might I also ask whether statements that Jihadis are using Al-Tanf as a secure base for operations against the SAA are accurate? If so, is this related to the increased pressure elsewhere?
    You state ” – unless we started taking out Russian assets.” Presumably these are still performing, among their other functions, a tripwire function?

  26. Ingolf Eide says:

    Much appreciated, PL.
    Let me acknowledge my ignorance up front and hope these few questions aren’t entirely ridiculous:
    – I get the impression you think that if this happens it won’t be half-hearted. Unlike earlier episodes of “shock and awe”, it’ll be for real. Yes?
    – If that’s so, this would presumably be an existential event for Hezbollah and maybe for Iran, Lebanon (and Syria?).
    – I accept Russia would prefer to not get dragged in. Is it reasonable to think this might be difficult for them? It seems to me there would be an awful lot at stake, not just immediately but in the larger strategic picture. Perhaps leading to an “If not now, when” moment?
    – As for Iran and Syria, ditto squared? Would I be right in assuming that if it came to it, both would fight back with everything they’ve got, whatever that might mean?
    Any thoughts you’re willing to share on these issues, and anything else flowing from them, would be greatly appreciated.

  27. Christian J Chuba says:

    Replying to this thread in general. It looks like Russia sees that it is in their vital national interest to oppose externally imposed regime change anywhere in the world.
    If they let the U.S. run amok, then it’s only a matter of time before the sharp knives are again at (or inside) their door. The weaker countries see a need to assist each other to avoid being picked off one at a time.
    Is it worth Russia going to war? No. Today’s Russia would never do that without a security agreement. Giving military aid, I think so.
    To people like Fareed Zakaria and other Neocons, Russia opposes regime change just to insult the U.S. In his view, we better take out a country they like to prove that we can. The idea that countries only consider how much they can get away with insulting us rather than their own survival needs sounds rather narcissistic but this is popular among Neocons.
    [BTW I miss the disquis like feature as a non-noisy way to acknowledge someone’s post but Col. I am fine with however you want to manage your site.]

  28. turcopolier says:

    Zakariah is an interesting example of the immigrant neocon class. Khalilzad is another. Sebastian Gorka and Varney are others. They like the US, but, if only it were more aggressive, less federal, Khalizad told me onc that you WASP types have no idea of the real uses of power.etc.

  29. divadab says:

    What is gained for US interests to start a war that puts the entire middle east in flames? That causes oil prices to spike to over $200 a barrel? That kills probably hundreds of thousands and immiserates millions?
    DO these guys see a massive depression coming and think the only way out is to go to war as in WW2? Is it population control? Surely there is a better way to get rid of surplus male population than total war – can’t they figure out a way to game it so that warriors fight warriors and total populations are not destroyed?
    This thing looks so wrong and counter-productive to me, stupid and evil and needing massive amounts of lies and propaganda to get people onboard. WHo benefits? I say no one but obviously I am wrong – the people who are prosecuting this thing seem to think that they and their sponsors will benefit mightily…..

  30. turcopolier says:

    Russia would have to choose between acceptance and the risk of utter destruction. The US neocons would have already chosen for us if they were able to persuade Trump.

  31. turcopolier says:

    IMO this is all about Russian efforts to create a stable situation in the ME. To that end they are trying to balance their Turkish, Syrian, Israeli and Iranian interests.

  32. turcopolier says:

    Nothing would be gained for US interests in such a thing. It would merely be an example of the domination of the US by Zionist fantasies.

  33. turcopolier says:

    W Publius
    IMO you are right in thinking that the present inhabitants of the leadership of the BORG are a sub-species of the classic Straussian ideology driven race. The Old Ones were driven by their madcap exotericism and were entertaining. These are merely imperialists.

  34. Islanders 2019 says:

    I believe this is Trump’s re-election strategy to ensure he win’s a second term. A U.S. president always has sky-high poll numbers during a war or military action. Bush 41 was above 90% in the Gulf War in spite of the economic downturn. And a war against Israel’s enemies would mean zero real criticism from major media and the other organs of control. The only criticism might be if Trump doesn’t go as genocidal as possible in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. I’m sure at the same time as this U.S. attack many neocons (which now has every person speaking on major media) will implore Trump to confront Russia.
    Related or not, I think we will see a nuclear war sometime in the next 10 years. The nuclear war I envision will be more like the movie ‘The Day After’ ( than anything else.

  35. Mad Max_22 says:

    What I said was clearly said: one wonders whether President Trump who campaigned on one set of FP principles might have picked people more attuned to carrying through policy based on those principles if he had not been beset upon by a pack of howling dogs to remove him or cripple him before he made it to the Oval Office; their object was to destroy Trump before he took office; the Russian nonsense was only a convenient means.
    The office of the President is one of the most powerful offices on earth; we don’t really know whether Trump is the most powerful person on earth, do we? His sudden reversals gives reason to think that he is not. Hence one wonders whether the demented behavior of his hysterical democrat opposition had some role in his decision to make himself out the tough guy as opposed to carrying through a coherent FP. A pity!
    I said nothing about relieving Trump of accountability for his terrible staffing choices.

  36. Jackrabbit says:

    Correction: Date of the transcript is August 16, 2015
    (it’s part of the link, actually)

  37. Fred says:

    Please turn italics off the next time you use them.

  38. Norbert M Salamon says:

    My only concern with the present discussion is there does not seem to be any analysis of the probable Iranian reply while being bombed:
    possibilities are all of major significance for the world economy:
    1., distructio0n of major part of water works on both sides of the Persian Gulf, making all gulf countries unlivable for the present populations,
    2., curtailing/reducing Saudi oil production which needs one barrel of water for production of 2 barrels of oil.
    3., closing of the Strait for all shipping.
    As the US follows Tel Aviv diktat the world economy is destroyed, whether Russia and or China forewarn The US to cease and desist with this adventure

  39. If I might try to knock those italics off?
    That Perle quote is as evil as I have seen.

  40. Colonel – thank you.
    (I hope I have not spoilt your site with an attempt in passing to get rid of the italics.)

  41. Eugene Owens says:

    “As far as US forces hesitating about attacking Lebanon, they will not. Our Navy and Air Force will carry out these orders, if they come, immediately and with all the force they can muster.”
    Of course they will. Although before the course of action was decided on and orders passed, there would be some serious discussion on other, perhaps softer options. If not, their leadership would be derelict in their duty.

  42. However isn’t it likely they have sufficient visibility from satellites and assets in Syria, etc., that they could prevent Hezbollah and Lebanon from being tactically surprised? If not, why?
    Russia is not going to “defend” Lebanon. Syria, is a completely different issue here. It is a vastly different dynamics. Per CISR–Russia deploys currently enough assets in the area (well, globally, really) to be fully situationally aware. From Liana, to other space and airborne, and ground based systems. Iran, is altogether a different story here. Per Hezbollah, I am not sure Russia is that deeply involved with it, plus Iran is not exactly a convenient ally for Russia in Syria.

  43. Cotlin says:

    Col. Lang,
    Do you believe a war with Iran is going to happen soon? And can Iran withstand United States’ air campaign? Can they hurt the US interest in the middle East?

  44. I would not be surprised if Syria shot at US aircraft over Lebanon.
    That is an unlikely scenario methinks. But then again…

  45. Russia would have to choose between acceptance and the risk of utter destruction. The US neocons would have already chosen for us if they were able to persuade Trump.
    Russia is preparing for war and I know the mood there. If it starts, it will start conventionally with strikes on US forces in Europe, especially naval assets in Med. Russia has a control of escalation there. US military knows this and already calculated the “weight” of the first salvo from Russian side on US Navy assets.

  46. turcopolier says:

    “Tactical” warning us useless to something like Hizbullah. They could not move fast enough to get out of the target area. The bombers would drop their loads from 20,000 feet at least.

  47. turcopolier says:

    EO Yes but in the end if the NCA persists you do it.

  48. catherine says:

    ”Given that I tend to think the US position on Iran has been bullshit from the get go,””
    I agree. In my political day dreams I am Madame President and the first thing I do is ally with Russia, sort out our individual interest, station aircraft carriers off the ME coast and announce that any country flying military a/c or moving out of its own play pen will be shot down.
    Then I would have Viagra prescriptions ready for the US Neos who would assail my office to help them redirect their frustration aggressions and one way tickets to Israel for the Fifth Columnist screaming outside my door.
    Alas, its only a day dream.

  49. E Publius says:

    To be perfectly honest with you PL, when Trump was elected I thought to myself, WoW! for the first time since JFK or LBJ (possibly as far back as Truman) someone “new” has become president of the U.S. who does not come from the Washington elite circle/Borg/Blob. I remember watching the debates and the way he politically neutralized the likes of Bush, Rubio, and Ted Cruz and on top of that, Hilary Clinton. I thought he was going to be the first non-neoconservative president, possibly a crude 2016 resurgence of paleoconservatism, hence his intense focus on immigration, culture wars and identity politics mixed with authentic economic nationalism and non-interventionism (hence his lively attacks on the very ideology of neoconservatism) but obviously his admin is significantly more hawkish than the old Vulcans(!) back in the Bush days. One could even argue that from 2006 to 2008, Bush somewhat learned the ropes and distanced itself from the crazy Vulcans and more toward Realism, hence Condi Rice’s handling of the 33-day war between Israel and Lebanon, as well dismissing the like of Perle, Wolfowitz, and others later on. But with Trump, given his knack for indifference to what is right and wrong and his method of shilling for whoever is willing to chip in the most, any progression toward common sense inside Donald Trump is highly unlikely to happen.
    In terms of the admin’s policy in the ME, I think the immediate focus of the U.S-Israel policy in the region is “Lebanon” and Trump’s ME policies among other things is deeply attached to Lebanon and that specific patch of land. Even Hassan Nasrallah has sounded the alarm and in his recent TV speech during which he warned the Lebanese people of a possible incoming war in the Summer with Israel that would be devastating to the people in the region.
    Regarding Russia, in the past 1+ years it has become clear that Russia is going to play a stronger role in the ME, possibly even replacing the U.S. there, especially given the warm relations between Putin and Netanyahu where the former has not raised any objection against the latter’s constant illegal bombings in Syria and Iraq among other things. The false impression was that Putin is going to stand up to Netanyahu and form some sort of diplomatic and even military resistance to its aggression in the ME, but that is clearly not the case. Andrew Korybko of Eurasiafuture has written extensively on this interesting and unfolding new dynamic between the two. All in all I hope a shred of common sense prevails inside the head of these Hard Neocons and Trump himself and stop its belligerence against Iran and other ME countries. Nobody wants war and nobody needs war
    P.S. I am an avid reader of your valuable analyses and I would like to offer my deepest thanks to you for this great website.

  50. EO,
    The jihadis, including IS, are still there and have not given up. I’ve seen comments that they want to retake Palmyra. Some regional paper claimed the jihadis trained by the US at Tanf were planning to go for Bukamal to cut the highway. I think that is more of a wild rumor, but who knows. And then there’s the Idlib jihadis. They still have to be dealt with. Sounds like the Russians are lending a strong aerospace hand with that lot.
    I don’t think the Russians want to be a tripwire. It’s more like they are maintaining a cop on the corner status, hoping to dissuade a US attack on Lebanon or Syria. They’re conducting naval exercises in the Med just as we’re steaming two carrier groups into the same sea.

  51. Amir says:

    Maybe a difficult question to answer from your perspective but what are the Iranian options to deter an attack? With more chutzpah, I expand on this question by asking from a retired US colonel, what would be their best grand strategy, campaign and tactic to ensure minimal damage to itself, considering it’s weak defensive posture?

  52. turcopolier says:

    amir – I am not at liberty nor do I wish to advise Iran.

  53. Eugene Owens says:

    Agreed. Bolan is a smart cookie. We need more like him.

  54. Turcopolier says:

    He was my student at West Point and was a star man.

  55. Agree. Moreover, I don’t think Russia will provide any, realistically. I think Russia is not against Iran getting its wings slightly clipped in Syria. As per Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz–it is a completely different game. If to believe news, I don’t have 100% assurance on that, that Iran does have P-800 Onyx (apart from Iran’s indigenous systems–how good they are I don’t know), Iran can make both areas a shooting gallery which will make naval operations extremely dangerous.

  56. O'Shawnessey says:

    Hmm. Seems like Shoigu and Co. flat-out defeated the FUKUS hybrid war on Syria without downing a single “coalition” plane, and now the FUKUS folks and Li’l Jeff at UN are pulling every dirty trick in the psychopath playbook to prevent the rebuilding of Syria.

  57. Amir says:

    To follow up on your remark, Iran seems to have no answers:
    “Iran left with few choices as Trump steps up pressure
    US president’s decision to revoke oil sanctions waivers could push Tehran to war”

  58. Artemesia says:

    Gorka may be in the “immigrant neocon class,” but as harmful to USA foreign policy as is Khalilzad, Gorka is not in his league: Gorka is a mediocre-talent, blowhard Wannabe.

    re Mr. Bolan’s critique of US “diplomacy” with Iran: a threshold question I ask is, By what right?
    What right has USA to demand that Iran “change its behavior.”
    The response from the neocon community was voiced most recently in a discussion titled, Countering Violent Extremism moderated by David Ignatius and including such stellar ‘diplomats’ as Bushites Madeleine Albright, Michael Singh and Stephen Hadley: USA created the “international order” post-WWII and the institutions and values of that “international order” have maintained “peace, stability and prosperity” in the world ever since. The proof: “there have been no major wars between European powers since WWII.” Democracy and stability are the keys to defeating “violent extremism” and maintaining the international order.
    To maintain that Pax Americana, the US is entitled undermine the sovereignty of-; destabilize – , and impoverish any and all nations that resist its stabilizing efforts.

  59. Fred says:

    Destroy the waterworks of all the gulf states? with what? Saudi oil production declines? The US is the largest oil exporter right now. The World economy is destroyed? Really? Does that include Israel’s? Somebody better tell Bibi and Jared. On a bright note I guess that means no more migration into the US.

  60. tjfxh says:

    In my view this is part of a larger picture that Bolan doesn’t consider. There are reasons that the Trump team has not been more specific about desirable behavior: The desired behavior is for the regime to leave. The alternative to voluntary departure is overthrow. Actually, it can be argued that the US powers that be have been quite clear about this.
    1. Regime change is the US major objective toward Iran, Russia, China, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. The rest is subterfuge. (Europe, Japan and South Korea are already occupied and controlled, and most of the rest of Latin America is controlled, too.)
    2. a. The ultimate goal is to break up China and Russia into smaller countries that can never threaten the us.
    2. b. The US also has to control the development of India to maintain hegemony, but that is now is mostly on the table economically.
    2. c. Longer terms the US also has to control Africa, which is going to be a significant player later in this century. The US is already committing significant special operations forces there. (Regime change in China and Russia would go a long way to securing Africa with minimal effort.)
    3. Islamic militancy is here to stay. It will continue to be a thorn, but probably won’t be able to become a spear. However, thorns can do significant damage, like putting out an eye. This is an issue not only in MENA but also in most of Africa.
    4. The strategy is based on hybrid warfare, employing information warfare, economic warfare, cyber-warfare to the extent possible and to folllow with special operations, proxy war.
    5. Kinetic warfare using the US military will only be applied if absolutely necessary unless the objective can be accomplished quickly, since the US public has little tolerance for protracted warfare that results in more than minimal US casualties.The specter of Vietnam still hovers, and 17 years in Afghanistan are still a reminder.
    6. China and Russia know this, and so do smaller countries that are on the hit list. The smaller countries are stepping stonds toward China and Russia and no one is in the dark about this.
    This is basically the Wolfowitz doctrine, the Bush doctrine, and the grand chessboard as set forth by Zbig, based on Halford Mackinder’s analysis and modifications by Nicholas Sykper. All one has to do is look at the China plan for the BRI to see that what is happening. The US leadership is now convinced that US hegemony is under direct attack by China, and the other countries slated for remine change are all part of the bigger picture in this regard.
    7. This is a red line for the US. What are the red lines for China, Russia, and Iran. The US is probing to determine that.

  61. Procopius says:

    The article is bases on a false premise. U.S. policy is not deterrence. U.S. policy is total capitulation. “This continued uncertainty and lack of clarity in terms of U.S. expectations for Iran’s behavior are the anti-thesis of what is required for a coherent and realistic deterrent policy.” The only thing the Iranians could do would be to dissolve their current government, repeal their constitution, and, I suppose, reinstate the Shah This has been U.S. policy since October 2001. See the letter Project for a New American Century (which was actually published in 1998). There is no excuse for any knowledgeable person to pretend otherwise. Therefore the current activities are well understood on both sides. I think the next step for the Iranians is to announce that they are prepared at any time to close the Straits of Hormuz, which I would expect to raise insurance rates, reducing the flow of oil without actually initiating combat. The U.S. cannot counter this move without actually invading Iran, which will be a disaster for them, given the strained condition of the All Volunteer Army.

  62. DC Steve says:

    Procopius is absolutely right. The only thing the ayatollahs could do for the US is die. They nurse an salvable humiliation over the hostage crisis of 39 years ago. Iran must be punished and humiliated. Trump, Pompeo and Bolton are supreme narcissists who have to have an axe to grind. The only thing is that if they did ultimately beat Iran, they wouldn’t know what to do with it. They’d be like the dog that caught the car.

  63. Norbert M Salamon says:

    US Energy Information Administration for January 2019
    Total oil products 20452K barrels per day
    of which imports 9693K barrels per day
    export 8104K barrels per day
    from the above it follows that the USA has not reached self sufficiency in crude production; therefore can not be the greatest net exporter
    All those missiles Iran has are for local [eg Gulf/Israel limit] quite capable of reaching most desalination places[check the map of the Gulf]
    The USA can not balance lost Persian Gulf production if the Strait is closed, thus world economy greatly constrained….

  64. Chris Bolan says:

    President Obama expressly eschewed a policy objective of regime change and instead sought limited accommodation that would minimize the prospect of Iran developing a functional nuclear weapons program. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that even if the Trump administration’s ultimate goal is ‘capitulation’ or ‘regime change’, it would nonetheless benefit from an effective deterrence strategy aimed at preventing Iran from striking out in dangerous ways that would seriously damage US and allied interests. Sec State Baker’s warnings to Saddam against employing WMD in advance of Desert Shield/Desert Storm are a classic case of employing deterrence even on the verge of war. Perhaps the Trump administration can muster such diplomatic competence and sophistication….but perhaps not.

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