Although we should be used to it by now, the sight of a US president casually lobbing around threats of nuclear war on social media is still remarkable. On 19 May, Donald Trump reverted to the unscripted Twitter diplomacy that causes palpitations among America’s allies and often has officials in his own administration scrambling to keep up. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” he bleated. “Never threaten the United States again!”
As in the case of Trump’s slanging matches with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in 2017, there are those who relish jousting with the putative leader of the free world. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted in response that such “genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran’”, using the hashtag “NeverThreatenAnIranian”.
Much is made of Trump’s recklessness, shooting from the hip even when discussing issues as grave as potential nuclear war. And yet, as tensions between the United States and Iran have been ratcheted up over the past fortnight, there is reason to believe that the president is one of the voices in the White House urging restraint against some his more hawkish lieutenants, including the national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
When it comes to Trump’s foreign policy, for good or bad, some sort of basic calculus does exist, even if the choreography is badly off. One reason why his latest outburst prompted surprise was that it coincided with a comparatively temperate interview he gave to Fox News, playing down the prospects of war with Iran. Indeed, Trump went further than this in revealing a wariness about the advice he was receiving. While he insisted that Iran could not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, he channelled the spirit of one of his predecessors, Dwight Eisenhower, to bemoan the existence of a “military-industrial complex” in Washington, DC. “They do like war,” he went on to observe of the foreign policy establishment, citing the furore that followed his decision to remove the bulk of US troops from Syria after declaring the defeat of Islamic State’s caliphate; some had hoped those same troops might be able to turn their attentions to trimming back Iran’s tentacles in the country.
The Middle East has been steadily reduced in importance to core American interests over the past decade. There are many reasons for this – from imminent energy independence to the rise of China. But as other former empires have discovered, the process of extrication can be deeply vexing, ceding power to those whose agenda is least compatible with one’s own.
It is an inconvenient truth that Iran has been the principal geopolitical winner from the tumults that have convulsed the region since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. It has seen the demise of its principal enemy, in Saddam Hussein, and exerts considerable control over Iraqi national politics. Alongside Russia, Iran has preserved the regime of Bashar al-Assad against a Sunni-led insurgency, raising militias and establishing military installations across Syria. This brings it closer to being able to launch a serious attack on its sworn foe, Israel. Meanwhile, civil war in Yemen has allowed it to bleed and occupy the armies of its principal Sunni Arab opponents, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on their southern flank, by backing a potent Houthi insurgency whose forces have directly threatened Riyadh.
The proof of Iran’s success can be seen in the creation of the unlikeliest of coalitions in the region – bringing together the Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis in their mutual determination to roll back at least some of Tehran’s gains. This grouping despaired at Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, seized on Trump’s campaign promise to get rid of the arrangement and cheered the announcement of a new raft of sanctions in November last year.
The sanctions have already begun to take a toll on Iran’s regional ambitions. Hezbollah, its Lebanese Shia client, has admitted that its funding from Tehran has begun to dry up. Iran’s domestic economy has contracted, with signs that growing social discontent is draining the authority of the regime. There are those in the US administration who believe that this is the time to take the policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran to the next level. But those who see this as a prelude to attempted regime change, circa Iraq 2003, are wide of the mark. In the short term, the more assertive stance entails bringing the pre-existing proxy war between Iran and the US and its allies into the open and threatening greater retribution for tactics that Tehran has used for years. Thus, in response to vague and unspecified threats, the US announced the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Gulf a fortnight ago.
Trump is entirely comfortable with such theatrics – much as he revelled in the sending of an aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula in 2018 – but he is not sanguine about the prospect of a regional war (nor, in fact, are his allies).
One potential danger, when the rules change, is that the chances of miscalculation are heightened, blurring the lines between defence and attack. This increases the likelihood of an accidental slide into war, even if there is little desire for it. Over the longer term another question arises: what effect will this lack of coherence and consistency from the White House on matters of war and peace – with garbled messages and competing agendas – have on American credibility in the world?
This article appears in the 22 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake