With all of that said, I am increasingly of the mind that the worst of the Iran crisis might be over.
Sounds crazy, right? After all, since a U.S. drone killed Qasem Soleimani last week, the hard-working staff here has written not one but two columns expressing concern about the Trump administration’s capacity to handle this crisis. It seems increasingly clear that Donald Trump made this decision rashly, almost as if the 45th president lacks impulse control.
Furthermore, my Post colleagues David Nakamura and Josh Dawsey noted Tuesday night, the Trump administration has not exactly been firing on all cylinders in its response to the crisis that it precipitated. They report Trump himself did not expect much of a response: “Before Iran’s apparent retaliation, Trump argued to aides that the attack on Soleimani would be politically popular and that Iran would not ‘do anything too stupid,’ in the words of one senior administration official who had spoken to the president.”
Is a missile attack from Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq “too stupid?” Because on Tuesday night that is exactly what Iran did, attacking two bases. In a world in which Iran hawk Mike Pompeo is the voice that Trump listens to the most, the possibility for continued escalation is pretty darn high. So the fear this crisis would escalate into a larger conflagration seems well founded.
Why, then, do I think that the worst might be over? Because Iran said it would only target military installations in response, which is exactly what happened. Along with the missiles, Iran sent some other signals: If the United States did not retaliate to these attacks, that would be that. Iran’s foreign minister tweeted, “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Zarif is trying to send a signal that this is a response and not an escalation. Why is there any reason for Trump to take the off-ramp now after blustering about war crimes and disproportionate responses over the weekend? Because bluster is one thing and a real war is something else. Iran’s retaliatory strike did not lead to any loss of American lives (Iraqis were killed, but non-Americans do not factor into Trump’s thinking). Any time the president has provoked a crisis that could lead to an actual shooting war, he has backed down. Think of an overgrown toddler who suddenly realizes that the game of make-believe has real-world consequences, and I suspect you have a sense of Trump’s mind-set at the current moment.
Trump has the opportunity to walk away now without further loss of American life, and he has powerful reasons to do so. A war with Iran is not popular and will not help Trump get reelected. Trump’s support from his base has helped to reduce the costs he faces from flip-flopping. He can spin de-escalation as a win, since Soleimani’s death is far more significant than the missile attacks. He has spun far worse outcomes as smashing victories.
Finally, we have Trump’s own actions. After initial reports that Trump would address the country in response to the missile attacks, we got this tweet instead:
All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2020
If one ignores the Kevin Bacon-esque tone of that first sentence, this is a pretty low-key statement on his part. If he de-escalates now, the worst could be over.
How confident am I in this prognostication? Enough to write it, but not so much that I feel great about it — Trump could easily falsify my hypothesis within hours of me writing this. I fully acknowledge that however cable news plays this in the next 12 hours could cause Trump to lash out instead of scale back. His favorite anchors are mostly trying to goad him into escalation. Tom Gara is correct when he tweeted, “It’s both true and incredible that the Iranian cruise missiles alone may not lead to a U.S. escalation, but if they’re paired with a particularly bad taunt from Ayatollah Khamenei’s Twitter account then things could spiral.” Furthermore, none of this means that Iran will not choose to strike again later, as Suzanne Maloney has argued — at which point we are back to escalation.
Still, I am closer to Elizabeth Saunders and Michael Horowitz’s position than I was a few days ago. They noted that Iran would retaliate, but “it’s also key to distinguish tit for tat between the United States and Iran from a general war involving ground troops.”
Right now we are just at tit for tat. Hopefully that is where this ends for now.