President Trump’s last-minute cancellation of an air strike against Iran may have averted a major escalation, but the two nations remain fixed on a dangerous collision course.
This current crisis is largely of U.S. making. Not coincidentally, it began in April 2018 when hard line Iranophobe Mike Pompeo became secretary of state and John Bolton national security adviser. Pompeo has long viewed Iran as a rogue nation, the source of most problems in the Middle East. The uber-hawk Bolton comes from the aggressive nationalist mold that gave us the disastrous 2003 war for regime change in Iraq. Incredibly, he appears now to be promoting an Iranian rerun.
Under Pompeo and Bolton, the Trump administration immediately ramped up the pressure on Iran. In May 2018, the president scrapped the “horrible one-sided” nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, mainly, it seems, because Obama’s name was on it, and re-imposed the sanctions eased by that agreement. A year later, it designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, issued political demands tantamount to unconditional surrender, imposed additional sanctions, dispatched 10,000 troops to the region and threatened “unrelenting force” if they were attacked, all part of a “maximum pressure” campaign to coerce Teheran into negotiating a new agreement that Trump could affix his name to.
Where the president fits into the Iran policy equation is anybody’s guess. He came to office claiming to be tired of foolish and endless wars in the Middle East and promising to bring U.S. troops home. Instead, he has increased force levels across the region. At times, he seems as belligerent as his key advisers, as when he blustered that war would mean “the official end of Iran.” At other times, he appears a moderating force. Earlier this spring, he boasted of cooling down the hotheads he had appointed and invited the Teheran government to phone him.
Then there was the aborted air strike. He may be following a “strategy” based on little more than the self-delusion that he is a masterful negotiator, an approach already tried with North Korea and found wanting. Strategies of coercion require the most sophisticated management, something this administration appears incapable of. That Trump may be the best hope for avoiding war is scarcely comforting given his erratic behavior and his ignorance on many issues.
A potentially explosive process of escalation is now at work. Iran has responded tit-for tat to America’s “maximum pressure” by rebooting its nuclear program and designating the U.S. Central Command a terrorist organization. American officials also charge that it has attacked oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, provoking heated rhetoric from Washington and the dispatch of additional troops, ostensibly to protect those already there. Then came the shooting down of an American spy drone and the canceled air strike.
This sort of escalation can easily take on a life of its own, the so-called “slippery slope,” leaving one side or both to conclude there is no choice but war. An incident on land or sea could provoke armed conflict, or as in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964, be used as a pretext for war by those who seek it. Miscalculation often causes wars. U.S. officials appear to believe that their pressure may empower internal critics of the Iranian government and bring regime change. It seems more likely, and indeed may already be the case, that it has given an edge to the more radical Revolutionary Guard over the “moderates” now in charge.
After watching Trump in action against North Korea, Tehran may well conclude that he is bluffing when he is not. Having come within minutes of war, the two nations would do well to step back and pursue diplomatic options. Leaders on both sides should heed the warning President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed but did not himself follow--it is “damn easy to get into a war” but “awful hard to ever extricate yourself if you get in.”
George C. Herring is the author of The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1893, a volume in Oxford University Press’s History of the United States Series.