Iranian women gather during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/TASNIM NEWS AGENCY)
One could get whiplash from the recent contradictory signals and announcements.
They have been strikingly incoherent even for the Trump administration, which either appears to savor keeping adversaries off balance about its intentions or lacks a coherent policy.
On May 5, the US announced that it was moving a naval flotilla into the Persian Gulf which included significant additional aerial strike capabilities. There was hot debate about whether this was just a general defensive, deterrent message to Tehran following threats from the Islamic republic’s leaders, that Iran or its proxies were going to go after US troops stationed in the region, or a prelude to an offensive war.
Next, it leaked to the media that top US military officials were putting together a possible scenario wherein the Washington might need to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East.
This moved the dial significantly toward the US getting ready for an offensive war – of not waiting for new Iranian actions before striking Tehran’s nuclear program and pushing back against its other aggressive activities.
That lasted a brief time as US President Donald Trump then said last Monday that he saw no indications that Iran was planning any specific attacks on the US and that he was not planning to start a war.
Then on Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan did a mini and bizarre version of declaring “mission accomplished,” declaring that the Islamic republic had backed off its plans to strike the US. This was the strongest evidence yet that the US was looking to deter Tehran through its movement of naval and aerial assets and media leaks, but wanted to proclaim “victory” so that it could climb down from any expectation that it might actually imminently attack Iran.
But by Friday, Shanahan and several other US political and military officials were rolling out an announcement of 1,500 US troops moving to the Middle East, as well as new weapon sales to allies in the region. They said that Iranian threats had spiked again. This seemed to push the dial back toward conflict. While 1,500 troops are nowhere near 120,000, every observer of military conflicts knows that once actual boots are on the ground, the chances of more following and of a bigger conflict often escalate.
Simply put, there is a major psychological barrier for the US about committing troops. Once that barrier is crossed, it seems to indicate that Washington is ready to duke it out.
But a careful reading of the rollout finds that many of the officials were falling over themselves to explain why the 1,500 soldiers were not really troops on the ground and were still only a “mostly protective effort.”
They emphasized that the troops would only man additional missile defense systems and work with drones and other aerial surveillance units to perform intelligence collection regarding Iranian ballistic missile and other deployments.
So where does all of this leave things? The jury it still out and the US is still working through what its next move will be.
On one hand, it wants to keep the maximum pressure campaign on Iran without the Islamic republic striking back militarily.
The 1,500 troops plus the original additional naval and aerial deployments can support those goals.
At the same time, Trump has been adamant throughout his presidency about avoiding actual long-term military deployments which would cost any significant amount of blood and treasure, and which could snare him in a Vietnam/Iraq-style quagmire. That means that the main player to watch is still Iran.
Its 60-day ultimatum for a reversal of the economic pressure against it has reached the half-way point. All eyes will be on how aggressive it might get to shift the current dynamic back into its favor.