PARIS—Does Donald Trump really want irrefutable, iron-clad proof that Iran staged a devastating attack on Saudi Arabia last Saturday? Probably not. At least not to talk about publicly. Empirical truth is not his thing. And in this case that might be for the best. Indeed, lies could make the difference between war and peace.
Looked at the Middle Eastern way, Iran’s thin veil of denial offers an opening for Trump: a way to avoid a full-scale conflagration or complete humiliation. All week long, Trump has taken it, and Tehran has even praised his restraint.
Asked by CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh if he thought Trump is “gun-shy,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said no, that he believed Trump has been the subject of many attempts to drag him into a war with Iran, but has resisted.
“It doesn’t mean somebody is gun-shy in order to avoid starting a war based on a lie,” Zarif said, rather archly. He meant the “lie” that Iran blew up the biggest petroleum processing plant in the world and cut off 5 percent of global supply, which is by all indications the truth.
The Saudis, too, despite fairly damning physical evidence, have been careful to say Iran was behind the attack but not that Iran launched it. Meanwhile, Trump, clearly signaling he has no taste for a third Middle Eastern war going into the election year, tells the Saudis he’ll be happy to stand back and watch them fight it, which he probably knows they are not about to do.
When armies in the Middle East square off against each other and Armageddon approaches, which is fairly often, the traditional language of statecraft is not that of Sun Tzu but of the suq: a marketplace of deception, overbidding, and denials where victories rarely are complete, defeats even more rarely acknowledged.
And Donald Trump, God knows, is comfortable in the twilight zone of truth, where fact exists on a spectrum of the believable, the sellable, the convenient. Which is to say that, even without any intellectual background in the arid hills of the Holy Land or the viscous waters of the Gulf, Trump has an instinct for the importance of face-saving deception, especially when the face being saved is his own.
As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote a couple of years ago in rueful wonderment, for Trump “plausible deniability is a way of life. The ability to pretend he didn’t actually say what he seems to have just said is something Trump has weaponized and exploited,” and he “is actually pretty good at this.”
“Throughout the course of his presidency,” Blake wrote, Trump “has repeatedly gone right up to the line of doing something he cannot possibly explain, while always leaving himself an out—enough plausible deniability for the people who think he’s great to go right on thinking that.”
Some buttoned-up Pentagon official told CBS News this week that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the attack on the Saudis’ Abqaiq facility “but only on the condition that it be carried out in a way that made it possible to deny Iranian involvement.” Probably the official thought that was a damning indictment.
Not so. If Iran wanted a full-scale war, it would have attacked directly. And if it had wanted complete anonymity, it would have used better frontmen than the increasingly clientized Houthi rebels in Yemen. What it wanted in fact was to operate in the shadowland of deniability that everybody in the region understands.
Spectacular as it was, with flames shooting into the Saudi sky and devastating economic damage, the Abqaiq and Khurais oil field attacks were calibrated carefully. As far as we know, and as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pointed out, nobody was killed.
There was no blood. In any consideration of a casus belli that counts for a lot. And the Iranians certainly remember that when they openly shot down an American drone, killing no one, Trump decided not to hit back in order to avoid human casualties.
The “I know you know I know you know” game is as old as the Middle East, and all the players, including Israel, know how to play it. Messages are sent through proxies with limited attacks, including terrorism and assassinations, and messages are received but responsibility is not officially acknowledged. “Deniability” allows those who’ve been hit to respond short of all-out war or abject surrender.
When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Iran-basher from way back, tries to point the finger more directly at Tehran, using language that might make war unavoidable, Trump pulls him back. (Trump fired National Security Adviser John Bolton for his unrestrained bellicosity, as it happens, just days before the Abqaiq attack.)
When South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham opines, as if over a glass of sweet tea on a sweaty day, that Trump’s measured reaction so far is seen by the Iranian regime as “a sign of weakness,” Trump responds that he has lots of options, a powerful army, and could do things he calls “dastardly”—a word that suggest he doesn’t like those things and doesn’t want to do them, which probably is true at a minimum for political reasons.
For the factual record, however, it has to be said the current explosive situation threatening a vast war, a massive surge in oil prices, and a global recession is Trump’s own towering fuck-up. His campaign rhetoric in 2016, well adapted to audiences he learned to cultivate as a patron of professional wrestling, dubbed the Obama administration’s hard-won agreement with Iran “the worst deal ever” in the world. Never mind that it stopped for years Tehran’s chances of developing nuclear weapons, Trump vowed to throw it out.
Once in office, Trump discovered the co-signatories—Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China—thought the deal worth keeping, contending that if there were other issues, like Iran‘s proxy forces all over the Middle East and its missile development, they could be negotiated separately.
It galled Trump that the Iranians observed the nuclear agreement to the letter, and he finally decided in May 2018 the only way to keep his promise to get a new deal was to crash the old one by pulling out of it and ratcheting up economic pressure on Tehran. (Privately, allies were told the U.S. expected, or more likely hoped, Iran would nevertheless continue to abide by the agreement’s terms, a situation that lasted more than a year, in fact.)
Trump’s foreign-policy trademark is the use of the weaponized dollar, forcing other countries to bend to his will through tariffs or sanctions, not military action. He figures if you take away their butter you don’t need to use your guns. But it was always obvious that some of his targets, unable to fight back on financial turf, would turn to what the military calls kinetic action, which is what we saw last Saturday.
Can deniability restore the peace that Trump’s sanctions, Saudi impetuousness and Iranian drones have torn asunder. That isn’t clear. But Trump already has shown on many fronts that his willingness to accept the implausible denials of his adversaries goes way beyond anything we’ve seen in modern American history. Trump has been willing to accept the denials of Vladimir Putin about Russia’s well-documented efforts to subvert American democracy. He has accepted the denials of Kim Jong Un when the North Korean is accused of bad faith in the nuclear deal that Trump touted highly but has failed to deliver.
Why would Trump not accept the denials of Iran about the Saudi attack? He might even go ahead and meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, if such an encounter can be arranged. It would be great theater, just the kind Trump loves.
Indeed, as he tries to extract the United States from the disaster he precipitated, maybe Trump thinks all of this passes for smart statecraft. And maybe it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.