President Trump may have made the right decision in pulling back from a military response to the Iranian shooting down of a US drone, but he may come to regret it.
The US administration, now, have to review their current strategy of requiring a ‘Change of Behaviour’ and instead move to a ‘Regime Change’ policy.
Consider the example of a mid-size restaurant where 20-30 people work, including owners, managers, chef, wait staff, etc. The staff are pleasant, prices are reasonable, the atmosphere is lovely, and patrons can expect a pleasing experience…except that someone, working in the restaurant, is poisoning the food and guests are becoming ill and dying.
As a customer, you will not visit this restaurant. In fact, you would make sure to tell all your friends and loved ones to avoid this restaurant until the problem is fixed and the food is safe. As a customer, you are interested in the outcome: for the food to become safe. In other words, you are interested in a change of behaviour. You don’t care about replacing owners or management; if the food is safe, there is no need for a change of ownership, or, regime change.
This has been the US approach thus far. The US insist their goal is for Iran to change its behaviour, and has nothing to do with a regime change. Iran “has a chance to be a great country with the same leadership," Trump said at a joint press conference in Tokyo. To return to our analogy, were our restaurant to consistently serve food that was not poisoned, it would not matter to anyone who owns the restaurant. In other words, the question of regime change is not a relevant question in the first place.
However, by shooting down a US drone, Iran has changed the dynamics of the complex Middle East equation entirely. This action can be likened to instigating a ‘Hostile Queen Exchange’ in a game of chess.
In chess, a player creates a queen exchange situation by moving their queen in such a way as to force their opponent to capture her, allowing the opponent’s queen to be captured in the next turn so that neither side has their most powerful pieces in the game.
In reality, Iran’s current destabilising behaviour in the region including shooting a US drone, is driving the US into a position similar to an exchange of queens. Iran is forcing the US into pre-emptive military action against Iran – an action with unknown consequences.
President Trump’s decision to pull back from a military response must have been a difficult and complex decision with no easy answer – ‘the move’. It was the right move, however a move that will not advance US position on the chess board immediately. Rather, it is a move to set the US up to gain strategic advantage towards the end-game play.
From one side any military action, even a limited measured one, would have human losses which is disproportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. This makes sense logically, however the Iranians may take this lack of a military response as a sign of weakness and choose to undertake more hostile actions. For example, their recent intention to stockpile more enriched uranium than is allowed under the nuclear deal. Continuing to force the hand of the US by increasing their threat is not a logical choice by the Iranians as they may only succeed in plunging the entire region into war. President Trump is dealing with a very emotional, very reactive regime.
Donald Trump’s effective use of the Time Factor so far has given him an upper hand in negotiations including his dealings with North Korea and other governments. He knows what move is effective at the right time, whilst disallowing the other side to use time in their favour. This simple understanding of how to use time is perhaps the most lethal weapon in President Trump’s arsenal – the Time Factor.
From now on, however, the Time Factor may work against US interest. With the next US presidential election approaching in November 2020, the Iranians may gain an upper hand if they choose to use time to their advantage.
The political cost of any military action against Iran, resulting in destabilising the region, could become very high for the US administration as they approach the election. Iranians could potentially exploit this by increasing their hostile behaviour in the region, understanding that the likelihood of any military retaliation by the US decreases as the election draws nearer. This tactical move would create economic insecurity and would definitely influence in US election. With that in mind, the windows for any military strike by the US on Iran is closing fast!
This is a potential problem for the US, particularly since Trump has pulled back on a strike now. He may be reluctantly setting the pieces for strategic advantage later, but that outcome could become very costly indeed, and involve the surrounding region. For example, the restaurant’s food is still being poisoned and now nearly restaurants are selling poisoned food too! The US may look at their policy of aiming for a ‘Change of Behaviour’ and decide that, as the current policy is not working, they should opt for a ‘Regime Change’ after all.
The ‘Change of Behaviour’ policy is President Trump continuing with President Obama’s approach in which the US can negotiate an agreement with Iran. The belief in this approach is that a negotiated outcome is possible, as long as the deal is a good one! However, the US may soon realise that any negotiations with Mullahs will be a mistake regardless of any agreement, due to the nature of the regime that has resulted in conflicts such as the drone shooting, and instigating the hostile queen exchange. A policy change may very well be imminent to avoid a costly war, in a political sense, and the solution may be for the US to implement changes at the root of the Iranian regime.
The recent imposition of sanctions on the Supreme Leader as part of the maximum pressure campaign, may just have been the turning point in this shift in policy. The board is set and the outcomes loom: Trump has made his move that may cost the US greatly, but Iranian leadership may have inadvertently made one of their biggest tactical blunders by shooting a US drone, thereby forcing the US to consider regime change. Whether Trump will regret his decision to halt a military response or not, he was accurate in his statement that Iran is ‘playing with fire’. The future cannot be known but the Iranian regime has most definitely made a very big mistake!
Mehran Mossadegh is an expert negotiator and strategic thinker, the founder of NegotiationWise and has written further on the P5+1 and Iran negotiations below. He holds a masters in commercial law from Monash University and a bachelor of Engineering from University of Technology, Sydney.