Though President Donald Trump’s showdown with Iran mercifully ended short of a full-blown war, the near-miss did nothing to defuse a confrontation almost certain to boil up again soon.
While both sides can claim strategic advances and political payoffs, the riskiest standoff between the enemies in decades may have transitioned their confrontation to a new, more dangerous phase.
That’s because the structures of conflict and the diplomatic disconnect between revolutionary Iran and a nationalistic US administration that tore up the nuclear deal involving both countries are still in place.
The showdown uncorked a fierce controversy in Washington, where there’s a widening partisan dispute over Trump’s rationale for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, which sparked the crisis.
The week-long scare also left a chilling memory of how the impulsive choices of a seat-of-the-pants President brought his nation to the cusp of another war in the Middle East. It’s possible Trump might learn the wrong lessons from his brinkmanship.
And the drama exposed the failings of a gutted national security team staffed largely by inexperienced or deeply ideological officials apparently prone to confusion and mixed messages.
On the upside, tensions that culminated in Trump’s evaluation that Iran was “standing down” after not killing any Americans in strikes at bases in Iraq did not spin out of control. Both sides were apparently able to telegraph their intentions, through public rhetoric and a Swiss diplomatic channel, to avoid miscalculations that could have spilled over into a war.
While there are hopes that stepping back from the brink will give each side an incentive to kick off a fresh diplomatic process, it’s more likely they will return to the same state of mutual loathing that has prevailed for 40 years.
Iraq is still on edge – a brace of rockets landed in the highly fortified Green Zone of Baghdad on Wednesday, the area that hosts the US embassy, which was previously attacked by a pro-Iran mob.
The drones and missiles may have been pulled back for now, but it would be naive to assume this episode is over. Events in the Middle East take months and years to play out. And Iran’s history suggests that it will not view a limited missile strike as sufficient vengeance for the killing of a top leader like Soleimani, who headed the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, meaning more proxy militia violence is likely.
“I think that anybody who tells you that this is over and that the retaliation has now ceased and we can all make assessments based on where we are right now … that’s very unlikely. The story is far from over,” said Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Agency attorney who is now a CNN legal analyst, on “The Situation Room.”
What Trump achieved
Still, after looking like he was talking the United States into the kind of Middle East quagmire he decried as a candidate, Trump was glad to step back on Wednesday.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” he said at the White House.
The President’s team, eyeing his reelection race, has material to work with. They will boast about how Trump, daring to take a step discounted by his predecessors as too inflammatory, wiped Soleimani, whom he blasted as a terrorist “monster,” off the planet.
More strategically, Trump may have established a principle that could be significant in future US-Iran tensions. The killing of Soleimani, who masterminded Iran’s regional network of militia allies like Hezbollah and Hamas, signals that Washington now sees Iran’s proxy activity as grounds for military action, a new threshold in the confrontation.
“There was a direct attack, direct assault on the US Embassy, US sovereign soil, by Iranian proxies,” said David Urban, a senior Trump political adviser and veteran of the first Gulf War.
“This President, unlike presidents in the past, decided to say, ‘No longer will the US allow Iran to attack the US via proxies,’ ” Urban told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
That new standard could be significant given Iran’s record of using affiliated groups to attack US targets – such as the assault on the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983.
But it could also be a trigger to a future conflict.
Iran pockets its gains
Iran also sent messages to Trump after taking the significant step of firing missiles from its own territory at US troops, crossing its own new line in the clash with the President.
It put its US-allied neighbors on notice that its missiles can hit targets like bases, airports and civilian cities – and next time, they may not be programmed to miss. And Tehran skillfully orchestrated Soleimani’s funeral rites to foster an impression of unity, weeks after unleashing a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests amid economic blight brought on by Trump’s devastating package of economic sanctions.
Trump’s threat to hit Iranian cultural targets, meanwhile, helped solidify the notion that Iran faces an existential threat from the US that the clerical government has for years used to cement its legitimacy.
But the deeper trends revealed by these tense few days suggest that Iran and the US are not likely to just return to their respective corners and count their winnings.
To begin with, the President’s White House speech signaling that military action was over for now included a promise to tighten sanctions. While Trump said he was willing to “embrace peace with all who seek it,” he showed no sign of relaxing conditions for dialogue with Iran that would effectively require the Islamic Republic to capitulate on its top issues. That means there is no way for Iran to loosen the straitjacket imposed by Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” other than proxy attacks on shipping, oil fields and in a possible more serious scenario, US targets in the region.
How the showdown could erupt again
The US – despite Trump’s boasts that Americans are safer with Soleimani gone – seems to have come out of the conflict in a worse geopolitical position. Iran has wriggled out of the last constraints of the Obama-era nuclear deal, raising fears of a possible race to an atomic weapon within months.
The US now seems far closer to being forced out of Iraq after striking Soleimani on Iraqi soil, an insult to Iraqi sovereignty. Trump compounded the damage by threatening to sanction the star-crossed nation invaded by US-led troops in 2003 if American forces are kicked out. Any US departure from Iraq would hamper the fight against extremism and hand a prize to Baghdad’s bigger, more powerful neighbor. For reasons of military logistics, it would likely force the US to abandon the remnants of its fight against ISIS in Syria.
In Washington, the step back from confrontation with Iran has taken some of the heat out of Trump’s clash with Democrats in Congress over what at one point looked like another war.
But Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans on Wednesday left classified briefings on the crisis by top officials disgusted by the presentation. Trump has claimed that he thwarted imminent terrorist attacks against Americans by killing Soleimani.
GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah slammed “the worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue,” as he and colleagues castigated the administration for dismissing their concerns about Trump’s legal rationale for targeting Soleimani.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he wasn’t given overwhelming evidence that specific acts were about to happen.
“There was no specific information given to us of a specific attack. I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already,” Paul said.
The question of the timing of an Iranian attack is important because it bears on the legal justification for Trump’s targeting of Soleimani.
There was also fresh evidence of the disarray in Trump’s national security team during a crisis that at one point saw conflicting signals sent over whether US troops were withdrawing from Iraq.
Administration sources spoke on Wednesday of Iranian signals sent through Iraq and Swiss diplomats to the effect that the missile attacks were not meant to kill Americans.
But Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, broke ranks.
“I believe, based on what I saw and what I know, that they were intended to cause structural damage – destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft – and to kill personnel. That’s my own personal assessment,” Milley said.