Iran is testing Trump in ways he hasn’t yet experienced, confronting him with fundamental questions. Is he willing to risk another war in the Middle East? Is armed intervention necessary to protect American interests? Who in the West Wing has his ear?
By ordering and then calling off the military strike, Trump risks looking indecisive, potentially emboldening adversaries who may conclude he won’t make good on blustery threats. His ambivalence was clear when he tried to downplay the significance of the downed drone.
Talking to reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump suggested it was all a misunderstanding. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said. “I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”
What’s evident is that Trump is getting conflicting advice on dealing with Iran’s provocations. On one side are administration hawks led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in the past has called for military strikes against Iran to eliminate its nuclear program.
Peter Beinart: Bolton keeps trying to goad Iran into war
Last month, Bolton raised the specter of armed conflict when he presented Iran with a surprisingly broad ultimatum based on recent intelligence. He warned Tehran that “any attack on United States interests or those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” (Shooting down a $100 million American drone would seem to fit that description.) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of Trump’s closest advisers, has spearheaded a “maximum-pressure campaign” to punish Iran for regional misbehavior and its support for proxies in the region.
Atop the more dovish wing is the president himself. In 2017, he threatened the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” over a series of missile tests. Now he entertains crowds with stories of the lovefest he says has broken out between the two—even though North Korea shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear weapons. Joe Yun, a former U.S. special representative for North Korea policy at the State Department, told us in a recent interview: “Trump’s basic cycle [is] he starts off with ‘fire and fury,’ he bluffs big, and then he settles. This is his M.O. in a lot of realms … I think we’ll see that, presumably, over Iran.” What Trump appears to want dearly is a replay of his North Korea strategy with Iran. And so he has repeatedly said he was open to negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as threats volleyed between both capitals. “We’re not looking to hurt Iran,” he told reporters. “What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me.” (Yet he has also wavered on talks.)
Trump has launched cruise missiles into Syria, but his instincts are to avoid the sorts of messy Middle East conflicts that play out in perpetuity. He sees Iran as one such quagmire, former administration officials said. Hoping to reach an accord with Iran, Trump tasked one of his closest overseas allies, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with passing a message to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the U.S. wanted to negotiate. In reply, Khamenei said, “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in the future.”