In recent weeks, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran have been beset by demonstrations that are, at least in part, opposing Tehran. At home, Iranians are frustrated with an economy that’s sputtering under U.S. sanctions, while protesters in Iraq and Lebanon are objecting, among other things, to Tehran’s sway over their own governments. Iran is known to react violently in such situations — the country’s regime was accused over the summer of sabotaging oil tankers and downing an American drone, and it has more recently been blamed for killing Iranian protesters. If Tehran takes similar steps in Iraq, Lebanon or elsewhere in the Middle East, it could put pressure on Trump to respond militarily, as he almost did after the U.S. drone was taken out in June.
It’s all creating a pivotal moment for U.S. policy towards Iran. But thus far it’s gotten little attention back in the U.S., where foreign policy specialists of all political stripes fear the Trump administration and Congress are too consumed by an impeachment inquiry and the 2020 election.
“There’s a real risk that over the coming months, Iran does something in the Gulf or elsewhere, and you’ve had no routine deliberative process of which the president’s been a part to assess courses of action,” said Brett McGurk, who served until late 2018 as the Trump administration’s special envoy overseeing the coalition to fight ISIS. “That means a unilateral reaction, not considered policy, in moment of crisis.”