What, precisely, does Donald Trump want to do with Iran? It’s increasingly clear that even he doesn’t know the answer to that question.
Last month, the president seemed close to taking military action against Iran over the still-mysterious bombing of two foreign tankers in the Gulf of Oman—and then nothing happened. Shortly after, Trump approved a strike against Iran over its shootdown of a U.S. drone—and then he tweeted that he had scrubbed the mission, minutes before it was set to launch. Both of these mini-crises came and went without open conflict, much like the White House’s announcement in May of new troop deployments around Iran and its trial floating of full-on war plans with the nation of 82 million people.
Now, the president has returned to saber-rattling, amid unsurprising reports that Iran is enriching uranium above the limits set by the Obama-era nuclear accord, which Trump withdrew from in May. “Be careful with the threats, Iran,” he tweeted last week. “They can come back to bite you like nobody has been bitten before!” Then, on Wednesday morning, he tweeted:
This is happening despite Trump’s claims on multiple occasions over the past two years that economic sanctions on Iran were “full,” “the most biting sanctions ever imposed,” and yet endlessly increasing. It is also happening despite recent assurances from U.S. officials that “we want [Iran] to stay in the deal.”
All this confusion has led to contradictory headlines. “US accuses Iran of nuclear extortion but remains open to talks,” Reuters reported on Wednesday.
Iran’s moves are easily explainable in terms of Kissingerian realpolitik: When treaties are rendered meaningless by a counterparty, you seek leverage outside them. Tehran has consistently and loudly warned international actors of what escalating actions it might take, and it’s taking them; right or wrong, the Islamic Republic’s position hasn’t been terribly ambiguous or irrational.
Contrast that with the United States, which under Trump has regularly issued factually shaky, belligerent statements on Iran and subsequently buried or reversed them under an avalanche of new statements. While Trump seemed to find a niche for his particular brand of mercurial, dishonest brokerings in direct negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, his limited intellect and toolbox of tricks are increasingly pinning him in a corner; he seems frustrated by the complexities of the Iran problem and its many players.
While he has backed off repeatedly from open conflict with Iran, the president made his bones on the campaign trail and in subsequent rallies with hawkish threats toward Iran, a traditional conservative stance with many supporters in Washington. Senate Republicans like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio have long made Iranian regime change a centerpiece of their pro-nationalist campaigning and fundraising; administration insiders like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been far out ahead of Trump in calling for military action against Iran. It was Pompeo, in fact, who first publicly blamed the Gulf of Oman attacks on Iran, and it was Pompeo who, on the day that Pat Shanahan announced he was stepping down as acting defense secretary last month, took an unprecedented solo trip to U.S. Central Command headquarters to talk with the generals and admirals who might be responsible for a war with Iran.
The apparent result of that CENTCOM visit was a tasking to military planners: Organize a coalition of willing U.S. allies to patrol the Middle East high seas, while Pompeo shuttled across the region in search of partners. Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the existence of a “specific plan” to reporters Tuesday. One of those reporters, Associated Press correspondent Robert Burns, noted that new acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper trekked to NATO headquarters late last month to rally allies, “but no nations were ready to commit to participating.”
Of course, despite their hesitance to materially support the effort, lots of nations are willing to help Trump wave his sword at Iran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates benefit directly from a weakened Iran and have supported the U.S.’s tough talk (though they’re having second thoughts now). Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Trump ally who is fighting for his political future (and facing a criminal investigation), on Sunday compared Iran’s breach of the uranium limits to Hitler’s 1936 march into the Rhineland. And British Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson, looking for a path to 10 Downing Street, told an interviewer this week that he favored Iran sanctions, in part because “I don’t want people to think I’m in any way soft on Iran.”
None of those leaders or nations, however, are promising military might to back up Trump’s position. And why would they? Trump’s position, such as it is, is self-contradicting and demonstrably weak; as The Washington Post’s Daniel Drezner notes, Trump is now asking for what the previous U.S. administration got; he has proven he’ll back down from a military confrontation at the eleventh hour; and he is increasingly making Iran’s nuclearization more likely, not less. “The Obama policy on Iran made sense, even if you disagreed with it,” he wrote. “The hawkish policy on Iran also made sense, even if you disagreed with it. The Trump administration is not pursuing a hawkish policy any more. It’s implementing a contradictory train wreck.”
Even that critique, blistering as it is, seems to give Trump too much credit for policy coherence. What is clear is that sanctions have strangled the Iranian economy and unsettled its domestic politics, increasing the current regime’s incentives to ditch the nuclear deal and vilify Trump. What will the president do in response? He will continue to tweet wild stabs at escalation and propose more double-secret sanctions, before de-escalating and repeating the cycle, because it is all he knows to do. For many of the people who surround him in the administration, brinksmanship may be a means to some other end. But for Trump, and many of the people who voted for him, pushing the world onto a dangerous brink is an end in itself.