World | ANALYSIS

As U.S. boosts pressure, Iran tests Trump's appetite for a fight

by Nick Wadhams

Bloomberg

President Donald Trump’s campaign vow to get the U.S. out of costly foreign entanglements is colliding with the messy reality of America’s commitments in the Middle East, where tensions are rising between Washington and Tehran after attacks on two tankers last week.

The dilemma emerged again as the administration on Monday ordered another 1,000 troops to the region in response to what Trump officials say was Iran’s role in the latest strikes.

The Tehran government has rejected those accusations.

So far, the international response to the U.S. charges has been muted. With the rhetoric on both the American and Iranian sides rising, the relatively small deployment announced Monday appears calibrated to show the U.S. will push back on what it sees as Iran’s bad behavior without changing the balance of American power in the region.

“Trump is very determined to avoid getting dragged into a military conflict if he can avoid it,” said Gary Samore, a former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction in the Obama administration.

The president seemed to reinforce that impression in a Time magazine interview published late Monday. “So far, it’s been very minor,” he said of the attacks. Asked if he is considering a military confrontation, he told Time, “I wouldn’t say that. I can’t say that at all.”

Yet experts say that the broader Trump approach to foreign policy — exerting maximum pressure on adversaries to force concessions — raises the risk of an unintended conflict and has yet to pay off. From Tehran to Caracas to Pyongyang, U.S. efforts to force hostile regimes to back down have met stubborn resistance, despite threats or demands from officials including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

Before Bolton joined the Trump administration last year, he publicly advocated war with Iran to eliminate its nuclear program. And it was Pompeo who last year announced a lengthy list of demands Iran had to meet to enter talks with the U.S., only to have the president say he just wished officials in Tehran would call him to work things out.

“If it was up to others like Bolton and Pompeo, they would advocate more aggressive action but I don’t see any sign Trump is spoiling for a fight,” Samore said.

The mixed messages and a general distrust of American motives have fueled doubts about U.S. intentions toward Iran, even among allies. The situation has been exacerbated, analysts say, by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord and his administration’s general skepticism of alliances and multilateral institutions.

“Unfortunately, our great comparative advantage as a nation — building and working with alliances — has eroded, particularly with respect to Iran,” Brett McGurk, Trump’s former envoy to the global coalition to combat the Islamic State, wrote in a tweet Friday. “Key Western allies warned of this very circumstance and sequence of events when the U.S. began its maximum pressure campaign a year ago.”

Trump may be even less willing to consider military force this week given he will symbolically kick off his re-election campaign Tuesday in Florida. Though he campaigned in 2016 on promises to get out of overseas conflicts, Trump has struggled to draw down troops in Syria and Afghanistan, and now is in the position of sending more forces to the Middle East as he tries to convince voters he deserves another four years in office.

Sensing inconsistencies in Trump’s strategy, leaders in Tehran may even be trying to call the president’s bluff.

Iranian officials have indicated the country may stop abiding by some elements of the 2015 nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in days, a move experts argue is a carefully calibrated bid to exert new pressure for sanctions relief on European nations that have urged Iran to remain in the deal.

Short of war, possibilities of additional U.S. pressure include stepping up military escorts of tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf region to striking boats or facilities belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the U.S. has accused for being involved in the latest attacks.

“There’s a lot of hysteria that holding Iran accountable has to be justified as a prelude to war,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We’re already in the midst of a low-intensity conflict that has managed to regulate itself.”

Yet even some of Trump’s most stalwart of allies, such as Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, caution that the U.S. and Iran must not edge closer to conflict.

McCaul said that American forces in the region are in a “defensive posture” to protect transit through the Strait of Hormuz and he warned that military action against Iran would be “very, very complicated.”

“I don’t think anyone has the appetite for war, although we do have military plans, obviously, contingency plans, in the event that is to happen,” McCaul said on TV. “I would caution that Iran is about the size of Iraq and Afghanistan combined and it would be very, very complicated.”