Donald Trump is many things but he is not, it must be acknowledged, the knee-jerk warmonger that many feared he might be before he took office. On 20 June, by his own account, the president ordered a “cocked and loaded” US military to stand down from taking punitive measures on three Iranian military targets, two hours before the mission was due to begin. This was in response to the downing of an unmanned US drone in the Persian Gulf that Tehran claimed, to denials from the White House, had entered Iranian airspace.
By the president’s own account, he judged that the plan for a counter-strike presented to him by his generals – supplemented, at his insistence, by an estimate that such a response could lead to as many as 150 casualties – was disproportionate to the offence. None of the major protagonists in this feud really wants a war. Nevertheless, should the US-Iran relationship continue on its current trajectory, we will remain alarmingly close to a major confrontation.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been building since Trump – eager to burnish his anti-Obama credentials – junked the nuclear deal that his predecessor had brokered in 2015, to the despair of his European allies. He has tilted decisively towards Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have all declared their intention to roll back recent Iranian gains in the region. The promotion of figures known to be particularly hawkish on Iran, from Mike Pompeo as secretary of state to John Bolton as national security adviser, in April last year, has given impetus to the idea that some sort of military clash is inevitable.
The Iranian regime, as ever, should share culpability in playing a calculated but nonetheless high-stakes game against the world’s foremost military power. As a standalone incident, the attack on the drone could be presented as a legitimate act of self-defence; Trump mused that it may have been a miscalculation by a commander on the ground, without official sanction. But the regime has been deliberately provocative in orchestrating a series of attacks on six oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz since May (while denying responsibility).
Iran is suffering economically under sanctions but eager to show that it retains potent military capabilities. Its recent actions are designed to aggravate the US-led coalition ranged against it, without quite giving its enemies the pretext for a full-scale war. But these are the finest of margins. The US strike was called off at the 11th hour, after a volte-face from a commander-in-chief who, earlier the same day, had seemed intent on action.
In fairness, foreign policy is one subject on which Trump is not easy to caricature. On several occasions since he took office, he has expressed disquiet about the apparent determination of some of his advisers to push the United States into another war in the Middle East. The counsel provided by the mega-hawk Bolton, in particular, is taken with a pinch of salt. This wariness is shared by his base and bolstered by an influential portion of the “anti-globalists” among the American conservative commentariat.
Thus, Trump was lauded for pulling the US military back from the brink over Iran by Tucker Carlson, the Fox News anchor, who personally called him to warn that such a move could damage his hopes in the 2020 presidential election. Notably, Republican leaders in the House asked for a “measured response” as well, which may also have caused Trump to reconsider.
To some, the president is reassuringly free of the pathologies of the American national security establishment – sometimes referred to as the “deep state” or the “blob”. Yet the lack of coherence or consistency of approach, in which he swings from bellicose threats to offers of direct negotiations in the space of 150 characters, leaves considerable room for miscalculation on all sides. The general picture of dysfunction in the White House is illustrated by the fact that Trump has been without a confirmed secretary of defence since Jim Mattis announced six months ago that he was stepping down.
Donald Trump can quick-march the United States up to the top of a hill – on issues ranging from China to North Korea to Iran – but it is not yet clear that he can guide it back down safely or with anything to show for the endeavour.
Bolton and Pompeo have rushed to the region for a bout of shuttle diplomacy to ensure “strategic coherence” over Iran among America’s allies. But they will find the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis similarly divided over the details on what the next steps should be. For all the war gaming and scenario planning, no one really knows what form this conflict would take. Notably, Pompeo has toned down the rhetoric on regime change in recent months, although he has made a series of demands that Tehran must meet if it is to have sanctions lifted.
Meanwhile, Trump will now be anxious to establish that Iran, in Bolton’s words, should not mistake “prudence and discretion for weakness”. The domestic audience in the United States will also be a significant consideration as the 2020 presidential election approaches. One probable consequence of the way that the latest incident in the Middle East has played out is that the president’s personal tolerance level for Iran’s next move is likely to be lowered a few notches.
Whatever that is – from another oil tanker attack to a decision by the regime to begin enriching uranium again (it is already being stockpiled) – the likelihood that this could provide the spark for war has, in the short term, increased.
John Bew is professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London and a New Statesman contributing writer
This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order