Trump’s conflicting impulses on Iran have brought America to the edge of war without any apparent plan for an endgame. On the one hand, Trump has been eager to appear tough on Iran and to undo Barack Obama’s legacy, walking away from the 2015 nuclear accord and ramping up sanctions in an effort to cripple Iran’s economy. On the other hand, Trump has repeatedly recoiled from the idea of starting a new war, and talks often about pulling U.S. troops from the Middle East. After Tehran downed a U.S. drone this summer, Trump prepared to take the drastic step of launching strikes inside Iran, then canceled the strikes at virtually the last minute. Yet he then ordered the killing of Soleimani—a decision two U.S. presidents before him had declined to make, because its repercussions promised to be so unpredictable and so potentially deadly.
Read: It wasn’t the law that stopped other presidents from killing Soleimani
Trump and his advisers say that the goal of their so-called maximum-pressure campaign is to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, yet it often feels more like a push to topple the regime. In any case, it has not stopped any of the Iranian activities U.S. officials so often criticize—threats of further nuclear enrichment, support for proxies, expanding influence around the Middle East.
Even so, this precarious moment offers Trump the chance to pull a tenuous win from the flotsam of his Iran strategy. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said in today’s address. As Michael Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who worked as a U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, told me, Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani “was such a blow to the regime that it may actually be the de-escalation event we were looking for. If this is it, then we got Soleimani, and they know this American president is serious.”
That assumes that this is the most tense moment—and that Trump will continue to take the high road not just today but every day as the standoff simmers. One likely outcome, London and others told me, is that Iran, having launched this rare public strike, now returns to the kind of shadow and proxy warfare for which it is notorious. While he stopped short of vowing another military strike, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, threatened further retaliation, saying that true retribution for Soleimani’s death would come against U.S. troops leaving the Middle East. If the Iraqi Parliament’s recent vote is enforced, U.S. troops will be out of Iraq before too long.
Read: America’s self-sabotage in the Middle East
Colin Clarke, a research fellow at the Soufan Center, told me that the next phase of Iranian retribution could focus on “a prolonged campaign of proxy attacks by the range of Iranian proxy forces, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Both sides likely want to de-escalate tensions, but that merely brings things back to the status-quo ante, which is where things stood in the summer of 2019.”
In other words, the U.S. and Iran may be right back where they were before the Soleimani strike—caught in a precarious standoff in which they may be one American death away from the new war Trump says he doesn’t want.