Behind the bluster, Trump hints at his dubious strategy for Iran

The Trump administration’s posture toward Iran has taken an alarming turn in recent weeks, though there’s some question about the president’s position. The Washington Post reported overnight that Donald Trump is “frustrated with some of his top advisers, who he thinks could rush the United States into a military confrontation with Iran and shatter his long-standing pledge to withdraw from costly foreign wars.”

A senior administration official told the newspaper, “He is not comfortable with all this ‘regime change’ talk.”

Of course, that raises the question of what the president would be comfortable with. Trump told reporters late last week, “What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me.” He said something similar on Twitter last night:

“The Fake News Washington Post, and even more Fake News New York Times, are writing stories that there is infighting with respect to my strong policy in the Middle East,” the president wrote on Twitter. “There is no infighting whatsoever.”

“Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision – it is a very simple process,” Trump continued. “All sides, views, and policies are covered. I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

It’s often difficult to know how (or whether) to interpret the president’s many tweets, and as a rule, it’s best not to take anything Trump says at face value.

That said, if we look past the usual presidential palaver, some hints of a strategy appear to be coming into focus.

For all the recent discussion about the parallels between George W. Bush’s war campaign in 2003 and the Trump administration’s escalating tensions with Iran in 2019, at no time did Bush ever suggest he wanted Baghdad to give him a call.

Trump’s plan, for lack of a better word, appears to be based on the idea that threats and saber-rattling will force Tehran to the negotiating table, at which point the Republican will be able to negotiate some kind of international nuclear agreement.

Or put another way, by pushing the two countries closer to some kind of confrontation, Trump believes he might be able to get the kind of deal Barack Obama negotiated a few years ago – which Trump threw away for no reason.

Indeed, if we ignore the noise, the current American president has long suggested this is his only plan. When Trump abandoned the international nuclear agreement with Iran, he wasted no time in saying he was “ready, willing and able” to negotiate a new deal. Indeed, Trump predicted at the time that Tehran would “want to make a new and lasting deal.”

But Iran already had “a new and lasting deal,” which was working exactly as intended. Trump cast it aside for reasons he could never coherently explain.

Is there any reason to believe the Republican’s gambit will work? Will deliberately escalating tensions lead to a diplomatic breakthrough? As William Burns and Jake Sullivan, the American negotiators who paved the way for the P5+1 talks, explained in The Atlantic today, Trump’s strategy is on the wrong track.

Trump’s hawkish advisers and the hardliners in Tehran could easily become mutual enablers in pushing a crisis up the escalatory ladder. The idea that the conflict is inevitable can produce momentum of its own, as can the sort of hubris that led to a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003. And should Iran abandon the deal altogether, the odds of conflict will grow larger still.

An escalating conflict brings with it increased risks of significant collateral damage. Fissures between the U.S. and our European allies are widening as a result of our withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, our subsequent pressure campaign, and our erratic saber-rattling. We’re also eroding the long-term utility of economic sanctions with our reckless unilateralism. Even our closest partners have begun to talk publicly about reducing exposure to the American financial system as a hedge against U.S. economic pressure.

We’ve seen coercive diplomacy succeed with Iran – this is not how it works.

Trump seems convinced he knows what he’s doing. There’s ample evidence to the contrary.