US President Donald Trump held all the cards on Thursday when he sat with his advisers to decide what to do about Iran. A US drone had been shot down. It was the latest provocation by Iran and its allies, which has included attacks on oil tankers and harassment of US forces in Iraq. To be consistent with US threats to respond with “unrelenting force,” the president was supposed to order some kind of retaliation.
Instead, Trump decided against strikes. Evidence and reports indicate that the attacks were already in motion, and that politicians and media insiders had been alerted to an apparent US operation on Thursday night.
Now the president is being accused of fueling “policy chaos,” and he has been slammed by political opponents, arguing that Trump brought the US to the brink of war. Joe Biden, who is seeking the US Democratic presidential nomination, wrote that by walking away from diplomacy “Trump has made military conflict more likely.”
It appears the actual decision by Trump is more complex and that he has gambled on diplomacy and sanctions while being wary of starting an unpredictable, new military interaction.
The Trump administration has said for years that the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 was a bad agreement and that the US was not interested in conflict with Iran, but rather a new deal. In May 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out US demands for a new agreement, which included 12 conditions. The international community was skeptical. Then UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that a new “jumbo Iran treaty” would be difficult.
The 12 conditions the US set forth related to important policy goals. Besides stopping Tehran from building a nuclear weapon, the Trump administration wants Iran to stop meddling in Iraq; cease supporting terrorist groups; stop the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its activities in the region; and halt missile threats against Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.
Since May 2018, the US has accomplished some of these goals. Sanctions reduced Iran’s oil exports greatly and got countries such as India and even Turkey to appear to be on board. In addition, the US labeled the IRGC a terrorist group and has gone after pro-Iranian affiliated groups in Iraq.
The Trump administration said it would leave Syria in December 2018, which shocked many who believed the US role there is key to stopping an Iranian “road to the sea,” which stretched through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Trump has reversed some of the Syria drawdown.
The question the US administration faced in early May was whether Iran or its allies might try to strike at the US in response to growing sanctions. Iran was flailing about, threatening Europe with enriching more uranium, and seeking closer connections to Russia, China and Turkey. Iran even reached out to Japan to mediate.
The US warned that any attacks would be met with “swift and decisive” action. While Pompeo went to Iraq in May to warn of Iran’s activities, and Bolton went to the Gulf to condemn Iran’s alleged attacks oil tankers, the US also said it was ready to negotiate without preconditions. Pompeo reiterated that the US “does not seek war,” many times.
But he also said Iran would “suffer greatly” if Tehran did something against the US. Iran and its allies tested the US response with rocket fire in Iraq, attacks on Saudi Arabia and attacks on oil tankers. The US did not respond.
This has left some wondering if Trump blinked.
Praised in the past by supporters for drawing a red line in Syria against chemical weapons use, in contrast to the Obama administration, Trump now appears more like his predecessor in the eyes of some critics. For instance, the phrase “stand down” was used, which conjures up the Benghazi scandal of 2012, when a US ambassador was murdered by terrorists.
Trump in the last month has been coy on his views on Iran. While his advisers are talking tough, the president hasn’t tweeted much. He told reporters last week that the US was “prepared.”
Then the large drone was shot down. Iran said it could have also downed another US plane. This was a serious incident and a direct attack on the US over international waters. Washington had to respond.
According to CNN, Fox News and other media outlets, Trump agonized over final details of the retaliation. Learning that up to 150 Iranians might be killed, he noted that Tehran had downed an unmanned drone “and here we are sitting with 150 dead.”
Concerned, he called off the strike 10 minutes before it happened, Fox News said. “I am in no hurry, our military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go.” Trump has now tweeted an explanation.
This raises questions, The Guardian says, about how close the US came to war and about why the plans for the attack foresaw so many casualties.
Trump wants to keep the message clear amid the questions. Iran could be “obliterated” if the US wants, he told NBC. US Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch said the president doesn’t want another wider war. He has tried to get the US out of Syria and Afghanistan, and he opposes the “endless” wars the US is engaged in. He should know, he was in New York City on 9/11 and knows the US has been fighting in Afghanistan so long that a person born on September 11, 2001, is now almost old enough to serve in the war. Trump concluded that the US has other ways to pressure Iran, including sanctions.
Trump now faces criticism from the Right and the Left. According to reports, most of his national security team supported the retaliation. The Democratic candidates have opposed conflict but they see the current tensions as stemming from the US leaving the Iran deal. The narrative on the Left in the US tends to present the Iran issue as a zero-sum game, either a deal or war. Trump has gambled on a third option: Pressure Iran and make them come up with a better deal.
Those who thought Trump would strike Iran have generally looked at it in light of the decision to strike Syria, and also because some believe Trump is influenced by pro-Israel supporters or by Saudi Arabia.
But this is a misreading of the Trump administration’s general trajectory and of the Trump doctrine in general. Trump wants to call the bluff of adversaries. While he is grounded in unorthodox decisions that are supposed to upend what Trump sees as failed policies, he is also opposed to more conflicts.
It is not surprising that the term “wider war” enters into almost every discussion of the Iran conflict. US president Lyndon Johnson said “we seek no wider war” about Vietnam in 1964. Trump would have just left the New York Military Academy that year to attend Fordham University. Others of his generation served in the Vietnam War. Trump’s instinct is to avoid more wars abroad, knowing that US Special Forces are already engaged in missions in 90 countries, including an expanding role across a swath of Africa.
While Trump has often sought to call the bluff of dire warnings about things like the US Embassy move in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, withdrawing from various treaties, or meeting the North Korea dictator, on Iran he has shown caution.
In Bob Woodward’s account of the early Trump presidency, the president is seen as questioning key US defense strategy. Then US secretary of defense James Mattis was “particularly exasperated and alarmed.” But Trump also wanted to know why the US was pursuing certain policies and what the US was seeking to accomplish. In January, he mocked US policy in Afghanistan, noting that ISIS and the Taliban were fighting each other. “Why are we getting in the middle of it? Let them fight.”
Stopping the Iran strikes may be a transformational moment. Trump has shown that he is open to another track with Iran. He warned Tehran about the strikes via Oman, according to Reuters.
The UK Foreign Office is sending MP Andrew Murrison to Iran amid the tensions. France and Germany have stepped up efforts to deal with Iran.
If war had broken out Thursday, the world might be a different place today. But Trump’s hesitation reveals a new side to the president who is often portrayed as either a bumbler or a war-monger. A new Trump, more thoughtful and probing of his advisers, has come out. This Trump always existed, but lurching from crisis to crisis in 2017 and 2018 kept it under wraps. Now, perhaps growing into his presidency finally, Trump has made an atypical decision.
He has another reason to be cautious. The US, Russia and Israel are meeting this week, and the US is pushing a Bahrain summit as well on June 25. War would sabotage much of that and threaten US troops in Syria and Iraq, potentially upending US policy in those countries as US assets have to position against Iran.
Iran has learned something about the administration as well. It was concerned in May that the US was moving toward conflict. Now Iran will wonder what comes next. News that US forces were in the air, minutes from dropping hi-tech weapons at targets that would kill 150 Iranians, makes them realize that Trump’s administration is close to retaliating.
Tehran understands this. It has made sure not to harm any Americans in the various incidents. Trump felt a strike that killed people would be disproportionate. Iran understands that proportion, and that it can test the US only so much. The decision on Iran could be a transformational moment for the US if Iran doesn’t seek further provocations, and if Trump made the decision for the reasons that he says he did.
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