President Donald Trump spent the last week talking up possible military action against Iran, discussing the number of troops that would be involved, and threatening that war would mean the “official end of Iran.”
On Monday, he suddenly reversed course, claiming that there was “no indication” of threats from the country that would require such a response.
“They’ve been very hostile. They’ve truly been the no. 1 provocateur of terror,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House, before saying that there was, in fact, no threat. “We have no indication that anything’s happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met, obviously, with great force. We will have no choice.”
That’s a huge about-face from his own tweet on Sunday, in which he wrote, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
A few days before that, Trump said he would send a “hell of a lot” more than 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter Iran, referring to a New York Times report on an updated military plan should Iran attack U.S. forces or resume nuclear fuel production that it suspended under the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Experts say the mixed messages have to do with the administration’s lack of a coordinated Iran strategy in general.
“I oscillate between thinking the administration is being quite clever, and almost demonstrating irrationality in order to scare the Iranians into not doing anything stupid — or at least that’s what they think they’re doing — or just genuine total cluelessness, which is what I tend to lean towards,” said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and the Century Foundation’s Middle East Department.
“[Trump] wants to sound threatening and wants to basically demonstrate that the U.S. … will stand up to Iran, that the maximum pressure campaign is working,” Esfandiary said. “But he wants to do it up until the point where there’s a war, and he definitely wants to avoid war, to — I think — [National Security Adviser John] Bolton’s great dismay. I tend to lean towards that being the explanation for why there’s so much back and forth, they want to take them to the cusp of war and then basically reign it in and be like, ‘Wait, no actually, at the moment there’s no threat.'”
Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said the back and forth has to do with the fact that the administration “has not made up its mind on what it wants to get from its Iran policy.”
Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), last year. He called it a “horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made,” ignoring the fact that it was a multilateral agreement also signed by the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany. Since then, Trump has reimposed sanctions on Iran that were lifted under the deal and designated the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
“What is clear is that by this stage the Trump administration had hoped that the historic sanctions would have brought the Iranians back to the table for a new set of talks,” Vatanka said. “That hasn’t happened, that’s unlikely to happen, and this new reality is creating an urgency for President Trump and his team in terms of Plan B.”
In his statement to reporters on Monday, Trump indicated that he would be open to negotiating with Iran. “If they called, we would certainly negotiate, but that’s going to be up to them,” he said.
But complicating any negotiations, said Vatanka, are two issues: Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the administration’s set of 12 demands that must be included in any future deal with Iran. Shortly after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this list of requirements, which includes demands that Iran stop all uranium enrichment entirely and give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country.” (The IAEA has already repeatedly verified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 agreement.)
“The problem with finding a Plan B is that it kind of could really amount to an uncomfortable position that the Trump administration has to adopt … You’ve got on the one hand the option of escalating, which I don’t think President Trump wants to do, for obvious reasons with his reelection in mind and the promises he has made in the past about getting out of wars in the Middle East,” Vatanka said. “And number two is to … deescalate, bite the bullet, which could be obviously humiliating. That isn’t a President Trump-style item.”
“Neither side has given the other side much room to maneuver,” he added. “On the U.S. side we have those 12 points, demands. And on the Iranian side the idea that Trump has to come back to the nuclear agreement before they talk to him… The real challenge right now, given that neither side wants to go to war, how do you find something you can talk about? It has to be something small, it has to be something that both sides can say, ‘Well that just makes common sense, we don’t want accidental war, maybe we should create some sort of a back channel.’ It remains to be seen what they can actually talk about.”
Meanwhile, talk of war is also coming from Trump’s allies in Congress. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said last week that Iran could be defeated with just “two strikes.” Cotton is a supporter of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that both Iran and Iraq consider a terrorist group and that the United States did as well until 2012, and has been a vocal advocate of regime change inside Iran.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has also called for regime change in the past, said Monday that Trump should “stand firm” against Iran and referred to a briefing from Bolton that revealed Iran “created threat streams against American interests in Iraq.”
Bolton has repeatedly called for regime change inside Iran — and was an architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq — and Trump is reportedly growing frustrated with him.
Several U.S. officials told The Washington Post earlier this month that Trump is not convinced that now is the right time to attack Iran and is frustrated with Bolton and Pompeo’s Iran strategy.
“They are getting way out ahead of themselves, and Trump is annoyed,” one senior administration official told the Post. “There was a scramble for Bolton and Pompeo and others to get on the same page.”
The lack of a strategy could end badly, said Esfandiari.
“The only thing [this strategy] is doing is it’s worsening the situation, in terms of increasing the risk and likelihood of either miscalculation or accident leading to actual military confrontation, and it’s not working internally in Iran,” she said. “Because if the point is to foster some kind of regime change, well, all Trump’s maximum pressure campaign is doing is unifying the public behind its government and even unifying the system within Iran. Because like any other normal country, when you tend to have an external enemy, people tend to unify behind the flag.”
“Increasing the maximum pressure campaign, using sanctions as much as possible, threatening war, to them, it seems to be working,” she continued. “Because you know, when they talk about it … they seem to allude to the fact that we’ve reduced Iran’s oil imports, the Iranian economy is being severely squeezed, all of which is true.”
She added, “But again, as an analyst of international relations, you want to ask them, ‘Okay, but to what effect? What are you trying to achieve?’ And as soon as you ask people supportive of the policy that question, then the answer can begin to get a little bit more confused.”