Trump may lack a strong worldview, but one consistent theme for him ever since his campaign has been his desire to withdraw from conflicts in the Middle East. Many of his supporters shared this aim, and it would be difficult for him to justify starting a new one. American officials have in recent days reiterated that they do not seek a military conflict, though notably are willing to engage in one if necessary. The assumption that such brinkmanship can drive Iran to the table in the same way may be flawed, given that the Iranians feel burned by Trump’s withdrawal from the last deal they struck with the Americans. And Iran, lacking its own leverage, may seek to accumulate leverage by raising tensions.
Conflicting public signals, as in the North Korea case, are once again making it difficult to discern the administration’s intentions. On Tuesday, for example, a deputy commander of anti–Islamic State coalition forces in the region, the British Major General Chris Ghika, told reporters at the Pentagon from video-link in Baghdad that “there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” though he then said the coalition was monitoring a range of threats from a variety of militias that go up or down depending on a range of factors. Asked whether he was worried that U.S. comments were putting coalition troops in danger, he responded: “Am I concerned about the danger? No, not really.”
Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, later challenged these comments, saying they ran “counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from U.S. and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region.”
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Another instructive analogy could be Venezuela. There, unlike with Iran, the administration has laid out an explicit policy of regime change, but is seeking it almost entirely through sanctions and verbal pressure. Though officials frequently invoke the military option, the military is so far being used in a humanitarian and support role, and there are no indications of imminent hostilities. There, the administration is experimenting with driving a regime out without firing a shot. For the Iranian case, various administration officials have hinted that they’d prefer a different government in Tehran, but have carefully stopped short of articulating a regime-change policy and say publicly that they seek only behavior change.
“I think we have to be careful not to throw all sound analysis out the window just because events start to speed up,” says Michael Singh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was a Middle East director in George W. Bush’s White House.
He notes that Iran is mostly taking actions one would expect, given the administration’s efforts to throttle its oil exports—including possible attacks on regional energy infrastructure. He also notes that under the Trump administration, Iran has not undertaken the same kind of naval harassment of American ships that it has in the past, a possible indicator that the administration is deterring it from some activities. But he adds that the confrontation still seems to be moving into a more dangerous phase, with no diplomacy to speak of serving as a release valve for the tensions.
The fact that neither side is looking for a conflict, he says, doesn’t mean a conflict won’t happen. But a drawdown of tensions remains possible too.
* A previous version of this article misstated the reason Thielmann left his U.S. government post and clarifies his current role at the Arms Control Association.