Trump Deserves Credit for Avoiding War with Iran, But the Sanctions Aren't Working | Opinion

Last week, the world dodged a bullet—after reportedly ordering a strike on three separate Iranian targets in retaliation for Tehran's downing of an RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone, President Donald Trump pulled back. Citing the possibility of disproportionate casualties, the president decided to hold fire for another day.

Trump ultimately made the right decision. As Gen. Michael Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs presciently observed this past weekend, "The last thing in the world we need right now is a war with Iran." The problem, unfortunately, is that Trump may very well have to make a similar decision in the near future if the fundamentals of his Iran policy don't markedly change.

At its core, the White House continues to operate on the assumption that with enough economic and military pressure, the Iranian government will eventually reach a point where it has no choice but to come back to the negotiating table in a weakened position. The Trump administration has slapped economic punishments on roughly 1,000 Iranian firms, individuals, banks, ships, and aircraft. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, 80 percent of Iran's economy is now sanctioned. As one would expect, Washington's maximum pressure policy is having a devastating impact on Tehran's economic outlook, which the International Monetary Fund assesses could decline by 6 percent this year.

Weakening the Iranian economy in perpetuity, however, was never the ultimate U.S. policy objective. Sanctions are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. While a year of escalatory sanctions is squeezing Tehran's finances and making the sale of Iranian crude oil incredibly difficult, they have yet to force the regime to capitulate to American demands -demands that have a tendency to fluctuate depending on who in the administration is speaking.

Indeed, pressure begets pressure. Rather than the appeasement so many in Washington expected, the Iranian regime is responding to the administration's policy with steadfast aggression and resistance. Six tankers have been damaged in the waters of the Persian Gulf in the last month; Iranian proxies in Yemen and Iraq are launching missiles and projectiles to send a message to the U.S. and its partners that they can also dial up the temperature. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is no closer to sitting down with the United States than he was a week, month, or even a year ago. Last week's drama with Iran is the culmination of an unproductive and dangerous cycle of tension that has resulted in nothing but extraordinary hostility, unpredictability, and name-calling.

The first rule of thumb when you are in a deep hole is to put down the shovel and stop digging. Rather than continuing to bank on the fallacy that sanction on top of sanction will compel the Iranians to wave the white flag in surrender—even Iran's foreign minister is now on Washington's "hard-hitting" sanctions list—the White House needs to seriously contemplate what the current strategy has accomplished, and what it possibly could accomplish in the near future.

President Trump should be commended for stressing that he doesn't court a military conflict with Iran, but rather a negotiation. There is no military solution to the underlying problems that have defined U.S./Iran relations over the previous four decades. Diplomacy is a prerequisite to getting out of the testy situation we find ourselves in.

While it's highly unlikely Tehran will be interested in talking with Washington about any of these issues anytime soon, that doesn't mean Iranian officials aren't open to measures to deescalate the current situation. A shooting war doesn't serve the interests of either the United States or Iran. Tehran understands that it would be on the losing end of a direct confrontation with the United States. The United States, too, recognizes that a conflict with Iran wouldn't be cost free. Indeed, such a contingency would make the eight year-long war in Iraq look like a relatively minor affair.

To get out of the current impasse, Trump must engage in courageous, common-sense measures. He needs to task his inter-agency subordinates to establish direct lines of communication with their respective Iranian counterparts at the senior and/or working levels in order to ensure messages, warnings, and avenues for detente are transmitted quickly, clearly and reliably. More communication means less misunderstanding and a smaller chance of allowing a minor accident to turn into a major catastrophe. If there was ever a time when a dialogue channel was absolutely necessary, it's today.

Of course, avoiding problems is not the same as solving them. Washington and Tehran are a long way from holding hands and singing kumbaya. The mistrust and animosity is too deep.

But the least both countries can do is prevent themselves from bumbling into a war nobody wants. Now is the time for statesmanship and prudence, not more chest-puffing and bellicosity.

Brigadier General (ret) Donald D. Harvel is a former Deputy Commander of the Texas Air National Guard and a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​