Amid risk of US-Iran war, why presidential signaling is key

Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/AP
In Tehran, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, looks at debris Friday from what the division describes as the U.S. drone that was shot down on Thursday.

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President Donald Trump’s Iran strategy seems to be a policy of two approaches running at full tilt in opposite directions. In canceling an armed attack on Iranian military sites Thursday night, Mr. Trump appeared to show restraint and a desire to keep American actions proportional to Iranian provocations. In the jargon of international relations theory, he was being de-escalatory, in the sort of way that just might open a window to diplomacy.

But of course it was Mr. Trump himself who had ordered the launching of the attack he pulled back. In the nonwake of an action that he decided should not happen after all, the president continued to talk in a bellicose manner. On Friday he tweeted that the U.S. military remained “ready to go.”

Why We Wrote This

Caught between a desire to punish Iran for downing a U.S. drone and a desire not to become entangled once again in the Middle East, the Trump administration faces a pivotal moment.

“It still leaves us in a very tense situation that could rapidly escalate,” says Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. 

Hard-liners on both sides may want further confrontation for their own purposes. If Mr. Trump truly does not want to involve the U.S. in another Middle East conflict that produces another failed or tottering state, now is the time for negotiators to start talking, Ms. Slavin says. 

President Donald Trump’s extraordinary Thursday evening approval and cancellation of an attack on Iran has not de-escalated a very tense situation so much as paused it, while wrapping American intentions in yet another layer of mystery.

But a pause could be better than a continued upward spiral. By refraining from a kinetic response to Iran’s shoot-down of a Global Hawk surveillance drone, Mr. Trump, purposefully or not, could allow Iran the opportunity to come to the negotiating table as a comparative equal. The Iranians would not appear to be compelled to bargain by the weight of U.S. bombs, according to Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and a former Middle East adviser in the Obama administration.

“Perhaps his decision (so far) not to strike Iran opens up [a] small window for diplomacy,” tweeted Mr. Malley on Friday.

Why We Wrote This

Caught between a desire to punish Iran for downing a U.S. drone and a desire not to become entangled once again in the Middle East, the Trump administration faces a pivotal moment.

In a larger sense, U.S. strategy on Iran now appears to be the equivalent of two trains on different tracks, proceeding full speed in opposite directions.

In canceling a military strike reportedly after planes were airborne and ships moving into position, Mr. Trump appeared eager to publicly show restraint and a desire to respond proportionately to Iranian provocations. This would be consistent with his “America First” promise as a candidate to keep the U.S. out of endless Middle Eastern wars.

But of course it was Mr. Trump himself who had ordered the launching of the attack he pulled back, following bellicose language such as a tweet that Iran had made “a very bad mistake” in shooting down the U.S. drone.

In the nonwake of an action that he decided should not happen after all, the president continued to talk in a combative manner. On Friday he tweeted that the U.S. military remained “ready to go.”

“It still leaves us in a very tense situation that could rapidly escalate,” says Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. 

Hard-liners on both sides may want further confrontation for their own purposes.

In Iran, some leaders might see conflict as a way to rally a population demoralized by the bite of U.S. economic sanctions. In the U.S., National Security Adviser John Bolton, and to some extent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have pushed for out-and-out regime change as a means to curb Iran’s regional ambitions and abuses.

If Mr. Trump truly does not want to involve the United States in another Middle East conflict that produces another failed or tottering state, now is the time for negotiators to start talking, says Ms. Slavin.

“I’m really waiting to see the Trump administration name perhaps a special envoy of demonstrated success ... to begin talks,” she says.

The opacity of the U.S. approach to Iran remains a problem going forward. What are the Trump administration’s specific goals?

Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran because, he said, it was a “bad deal” that did not curb Iranian nuclear capability in perpetuity, nor address other issues such as Iran’s support of militant groups in Syria and elsewhere. But how might that be accomplished? Via a new nuclear pact, or a destabilized Iranian government, or full-on regime replacement? The administration’s answer to this seems to be to apply crippling economic sanctions and see what develops.

Plus, what happened on Thursday? Was the last-minute wave-off of the U.S. attack truly caused by a change of heart on the part of Mr. Trump, as he described? Were aides who wanted him to change his mind behind quick leaks to the media? Or was it a pre-planned action and leak to try to present the president as both tough and restrained?

In any case, the Friday reaction to the whole affair broke along some surprising lines. While much of the response was predictable and partisan, some Republicans grumbled that Mr. Trump looked weak in allowing Iran to destroy U.S. aircraft with impunity. Some Democrats who are typically fierce critics of the administration allowed as how the result, so far, was better than fighting.

“I don’t think that people should be jumping down the president’s throat for wanting to think this through and make sure that neither side miscalculates and we don’t inadvertently end up in a war with Iran,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the House intelligence committee.

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