The past day has seen a staccato series of reversals by Donald Trump on Iran: first de-escalating, then signaling a military attack, then pulling it back, then reaching for talks. And finally, Friday morning, he bragged on Twitter about his decision to call off the strike at the last minute to save lives — but in practice offered a deeply weird series of remarks that have national security professionals across the spectrum wincing in embarrassment and fearing the implications.
But we’ve seen crazy tweets from Trump before in the midst of a low-grade international crisis, and the optimist in me hopes that from here we’re heading into a new phase that plays out roughly like the situation with North Korea — if not another full-on dictator love story, we’d at least get a surprise summit or two and a reset.
As recently as yesterday, I thought this scenario might actually be the most likely one: for a moment, Trump seemed tough enough to strike, cool enough to rise above others’ mistakes, confident enough to have a Cabinet full of hawks but still be able to “no” to them, and reasonable enough to want a deal.
Unfortunately, that fluid, improvisational aspect of Trump’s style — potentially a diplomatic strength — is inseparable from his management style, or rather lack of a coherent one. That means we’re in the midst of this situation with no secretary of Defense to manage the military side, no one with enough experience in the affairs of state to tell Trump how his various pivots and reversals will be perceived outside the U.S., and no one around him in the White House with the willingness or ability to get him to take in and consider information he doesn’t want to hear. That all means there’s bound to be a lot of chaos. Or worse.
Everything diplomatic history teaches about how signaling works between nations suggests that this all leaves us in a phase that is much more dangerous. Trump’s tweets may help reinforce his base’s view of him as an antiwar — even compassionate — decider who called off an attack. But as far as clarity with Tehran is concerned, they only make the make the big picture less clear — which is to say, they make things worse, not better.
Let’s review the specifics: On Thursday afternoon, Trump seemed to be diffusing the situation around the downing of U.S. drone, suggesting that maybe a rogue individual in the Iranian military had been responsible and the whole thing had been “a big mistake.” He also underlined that no lives had been lost. Then, later in the evening, Reuters put out a breaking news alert: The Federal Aviation Administration had ordered all U.S. aviation out of the parts of Gulf airspace controlled by Iran. Late-night watchers held their breath — was this a demonstration of U.S. anger, or preparation for an air strike?
An hour later, the answer seemed to be “all of the above,” as the New York Times broke a story asserting that the administration had approved and prepared a military strike on Iran, in retaliation for shooting down the U.S. drone — and then pulled it back at the last minute.
Before sunrise in Washington, it had emerged that Trump had given Iran warning that the attack was coming, and also reiterated his desire to talk — in much the same tone that he seemed, 18 hours earlier, to be trying to de-escalate the situation.
Then, at 9:03 a.m. he tweeted this:
As a U.S. reader, you are now desperately confused about our strategy and our goals. But imagine yourself as an Iranian military official trying to make sense of this sequence of events. You are unsure what Washington’s red lines are; whether the administration truly wants to talk or fight; and whether its ultimate aim is a more restrictive negotiated agreement, or the destruction of your regime.
This morning, for example, Iran called in the senior Swiss official in Tehran, who also represents U.S. interests in the absence of an American embassy — possibly a hopeful sign for talks. At the same time, though, all of the anonymous military officers who have told the media about the military operation canceled last night — and there do seem to be quite a few — have stressed that an attack could still be carried out at any time.
That all said, Trump still has good options for trying to resolve this peacefully. Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser to President George W. Bush, suggested Thursday that “off-ramps” for the two sides would include Washington rethinking the heightened economic pressure it’s been applying, and Tehran backing away from its threats to return to uranium enrichment and ceasing its provocations in the region. If displaying the U.S. ability to conduct a strike makes Trump feel strong enough to adopt that approach, all to the good. One could imagine the result being an extended stalemate, à la North Korea. That would still be a worse outcome than staying in the Iran deal, because of the loss of international inspections and the effects of sanctions that harm regular Iranians and funnel money to illicit Iranian military actors. But, as in the North Korean case, it would be far better than continued escalations.
At the same time, it’s hard to see this administration, specifically current national security adviser John Bolton, as well as the Saudis and Emiratis, giving up what they see as their freedom of action.
So even for national security insiders in Washington the situation is hopelessly murky. Now think again of that Iranian general. This kind of uncertainty between well-armed and aggressive adversaries is how wars begin.
And if something like the worst-case scenario comes to pass, and the United States and Iran get into a war, what would it look like?
When security experts think this question through, the scenarios tend to start, as former Defense Department official Ilan Goldenberg wrote earlier this month, with “a small, deniable attack by Iran on a U.S.-related target.” We have now had two: first, the tanker attacks Iran still insists it didn’t do, and second, the shooting down of a U.S. drone which Iran insists was in its territory.
Goldenberg and other experts say that the risk of escalation comes not from the small attacks themselves — none of these has yet caused any loss of life — but from each side’s assumption that it knows how the other will react.
We could see more tanker attacks in the Gulf; or the Iranians could choose to act on their threats to send proxies against U.S. forces in Iran or Syria. Or they could help their Houthi clients in Yemen send more devastating missiles against the Saudis; or empower Hezbollah, the Middle East’s most powerful guerrilla force, to be more aggressive against Israel.
Or, any of those proxies could take action on its own, as they often do. Or, Iran could use its cyber capacities to target the United States. Indeed, it already does. Ian Wallace, my colleague at New America, writes: “In the past they have carefully calibrated their effort to stay just below the threshold that would trigger a response. If however they feel they have nothing to lose they might try more destructive attacks.”
In any of those cases, Washington would then have to sort out who was responsible, how to signal its understanding of that, and respond in a way that convinced Iran to back down rather than escalate.
That’s the theory, anyway. And Trump’s Thursday afternoon attempt at de-escalation looked like an excellent step in that direction, delivered in what this frequent critic thought was an excellent use of his rhetorical style. But what followed will have left a deep mark of uncertainty. And we don’t have any idea what the Iranians will make of it, or what actions it will lead them to take.