WASHINGTON — President Trump loves a cliffhanger, both on his old reality TV show, “The Apprentice,” and apparently when conducting high-stakes global nuclear diplomacy.
Case in point: 10 minutes before ordering an airstrike Thursday night that he claims would have killed 150 Iranians and put the U.S. on a path toward another war in the Middle East, Trump called it all off, deciding such an attack was “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate,” he tweeted.
Trump reportedly relished flaunting total control over the decision between war and peace, but in reality the brinkmanship showed just how quickly tough talk with Iran could spiral out of control into a conflict neither side really wants.
Just 10 minutes “is perilously close to bombs away,” retired U.S. General and former CIA director Davis Petreaus told VICE News, adding that Iran may well have chosen to strike back had the president followed through on his initial orders. “It's difficult to predict what the response would be, except that it would have to be quite substantial from Iran if indeed 150 Iranians were killed or seriously wounded.”
As both sides continue to escalate tensions in what regional experts called an apparent attempt to restart negotiations over Iran’s nukes, the red lines between war and peace only get blurrier.
“It strikes me that we’ve got two leaders who really don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” said Robert Deitz, who held senior roles in both the CIA and National Security Agency under former president George W. Bush.
Trump’s stand-off with Iran is directly at odds with his oft-repeated pledge to keep the U.S. from diving into yet another war in the Middle East.
At his kick-off rally for his 2020 re-election last weekend Trump said: “Great nations do not want to fight endless wars.”
Yet his plan to get Iran to return to the negotiating table so far appears to be sending Iran the opposite message: that he’s willing to throw down.
Much of the current tensions stem from the maximum pressure Trump has placed on Iran’s economy since abandoning President Barack Obama’s landmark 2015 nuclear deal. But rather than encourage the country to renegotiate, Trump’s policy appears to have only stiffened Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s spine, and prompted Iran to search for its own points of leverage against the United States — including through military action.
Last week, U.S. officials blamed Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf that analysts said appeared to be aimed at demonstrating Iran’s ability to choke off a vital shipping lane that accounts for roughly a fifth of world oil supplies.
On Monday, Iran announced that its stockpiles of low-enriched uranium would soon exceed the levels set under the Obama-era deal, which involved limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. In response, Trump ordered 1,000 more troops to the Middle East.
On Wednesday, Iran shot down an American drone that it said had crossed over into Iranian territory, a claim U.S. officials disputed.
It takes one mistake
Both Trump and Iran’s leaders have insisted they don’t want to go to war, and yet there’s little telling where the spiral of escalation will stop.
“The decision not to strike [Thursday night] is the decision of someone who clearly does not want a conflict,” said Ambassador Dennis Ross, who advised both former presidents Barack Obama and George H. W. Bush on the Middle East. “The danger is the potential for miscalculation, and it takes just one mistake. You can easily see the tit-for-tat and how it gets out of hand pretty quickly.”
Trump’s White House is short of top advisors who might counsel restraint during these high-stakes moments, such as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Instead, he’s welcomed one of the most notorious hawks in American politics, John Bolton, into his inner circle as his new national security advisor — a man who has long argued in favor of overthrowing the Iranian regime. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, no peace-loving dove, has reportedly been put in the position of acting as the “triangulator” in the debate between Trump and Bolton over how to proceed, according to a recent report in CNN.
Both men, along with, CIA director Gina Haspel, were reportedly in favor of the strikes. That left the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the cooler heads in the room, raising doubts about what might happen next time.
“The danger is the potential for miscalculation, and it takes just one mistake”
Trump’s unpredictability may be hard for his own administration to understand, but it’s even more cryptic for his Iranian counterparts to read. Especially when it comes to knowing where the limits really are.
“The worst part is that sooner or later, the gap between Trump’s words and action will become highlighted, and then the likelihood of getting tested by a foreign adversary will go up, not down,” said Dennis. Trump may eventually find himself in a position where he has to back up his tough talk.
For now, Trump appears to have provided some clarity about his own current red line. By opting against Thursday night's strikes, Trump indicated that he wouldn’t launch a lethal attack if Iran doesn’t launch one first.
Iran, too, seems to sense that boundary. On Friday morning, Iranian officials said they had also considered shooting down an American recon plane with dozens of people in it, but decided not to.
“With the U.S. drone in the region there was also an American P-8 plane with 35 people on board,” Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guards aerospace division, was quoted as telling the country’s Tasnim news agency. “This plane also entered our airspace and we could have shot it down, but we did not.”
Now, what remains to be seen is whether both sides will show the same level of restraint the next time tensions approach the boiling point.
“The bottom line is, as long as the maximum pressure campaign continues, Iran will gradually continue to push back,” said Eric Brewer, deputy director of the project on nuclear issues at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Despite this near-miss today, we’re by no means out of the woods yet in terms of escalation with Iran.”
Cover: US President Donald J. Trump (R) meets with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (not pictured) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 20 June 2019. (Jim LoScalzo/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)