Trump places the Middle East on ‘a knife edge’
Talk of war with Iran seemed to subside in Washington over the past week. As is his wont, President Trump lambasted media coverage of his administration’s moves against the regime in Tehran, but in doing so also seemed to be pushing back against an aggressive agenda set by his national security adviser John Bolton. Then on Sunday, possibly goaded by a segment on Fox News, Trump launched another broadside on Twitter, warning that conflict between the two countries would mark “the official end of Iran.”
The atmospherics are making many officials in Washington and capitals elsewhere nervous. On Sunday, a rocket landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, adding to the jitters felt in Iraq — a nation where Iran retains outsize influence. A series of sabotage attacks on oil tankers and facilities in the region were linked to Iran, but experts suggested they were calibrated so as not to justify an American escalation. The United States had sent an aircraft carrier group and bombers to the Persian Gulf, supposedly in response to increased threats from Iranian forces and their proxies.
Instead, the news of those deployments elicited a diplomatic backlash against the Trump administration, with allies both in Europe and the Middle East urging caution and insisting they don’t want war. Washington’s perceived saber-rattling drew unfavorable parallels to the reckless buildup to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Rather than galvanizing a united front around countering Iran’s problematic role in its neighborhood, the U.S. efforts seemed to only deepen the impression that it was veering down a lonely, provocative path.
Late last week, Trump suggested to reporters that Iran had “great potential” and he would be interested in cutting a deal with the Islamic Republic. According to my colleagues, he chided Bolton, an inveterate hawk, and quipped to aides that “we’d be in war everywhere if it was up to this guy."
The results of Trump’s mixed messaging have yet to fully materialize. On the one hand, the apparent dissonance between the anti-Iran zeal of senior officials within his administration and his own stated desire to disentangle the United States from the Middle East’s conflicts grows louder by the week. On the other, Trump’s bellicosity and his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran is laying the powder for a possibly explosive escalation.
Ultimately, as Washington Post columnist Max Boot argued at the end of last week, those who seek to discern a coherent strategy or policy doctrine amid the bluster may be on a fool’s errand.
“We’ve come full circle though, with Washington’s attention span so violently short now, that it’s possible to dispute intelligence, debate war plans, threaten a full-scale conflict, and then back off the entire idea, just inside of one working week,” noted CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh.
Walsh pointed to the ideological druthers of officials such as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have in the past called for military action against Iran and regime change. “They lurch forwards, and for a week like this one you can genuinely feel like it’s 2002 again, and history repeats always more as tragedy than farce,” he wrote. “But then the true nature of the Trump presidency emerges — forged on isolationism, on ending wars about places that his base does not understand or care for.”
The uncertainty has only raised fears of a calamitous clash that neither side may actually want. “The region sits on a knife edge and escalation in and of itself will only create new risks,” Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group told the Wall Street Journal.
Over the past two years, Trump’s threats have often been read as the opening salvos in negotiations. He lobbed insults at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before meeting him at two summits and expressing great personal affection for the totalitarian despot. The Iranian regime, like North Korea, may be hoping to call Trump’s bluff, shrugging off Trump’s tweets with the assumption that neither he nor American military planners are seriously considering a real intervention.
“The Americans are unwilling and unable to carry out military action against us . . . and their unwillingness stems from their inability,” Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, a military aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said last week.
As my colleagues reported, the state of play may damage Trump’s credibility among allies even further. “If you make threats and then people decide you aren’t going to follow through, if you’re looking for the reaction and you stop getting the reaction, the options are either to make larger threats or to stop going down that road at all,” Jon B. Alterman, Middle East Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Post. “Credibility is a hard thing for a president to maintain."
Still, the Trump administration can point to certain victories. As my colleagues reported over the weekend, the sweeping U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil industry hit Tehran’s ability to finance some of its proxy groups abroad. The Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah has slashed its budgets amid a funding shortfall. Yet that may only increase the risk of a military escalation.
“There is no doubt these sanctions have had a negative impact,” said a Hezbollah official, speaking to The Post on the condition of anonymity. “But ultimately, sanctions are a component of war, and we are going to confront them in this context.”
War may not be on the horizon, but dark clouds loom nonetheless. The feverish wrangling of the past week underscored the vast gap between the Trump administration and its European counterparts, who see the crisis as the result of Trump’s unilateral decision to scrap U.S. commitments to the Iranian nuclear deal. In their view, it’s the United States that is playing the role of the provocateur.
“I personally believe the American president doesn’t want to go to war. But that’s not the problem,” a senior European diplomat, whose government was briefed by Pompeo this past week, said to my colleagues. “The problem is that the situation may at some point become so volatile and so unstable that it’s inevitable.”