WASHINGTON — Iran seemed to blink Tuesday night. But thanks to President Donald Trump, the regime in Tehran opened its eyes Wednesday to a stronger position in the Middle East.
Trump patted himself on the back Wednesday, saying Iran was "standing down" from the brink of a possible war with the U.S. Yet Iran's show of restraint in the face of unpredictable behavior in Washington left American allies stunned, and put Iraq at risk of falling further under Iranian influence.
If Iran takes no further immediate action to retaliate against the U.S., its limited and nonlethal missile attacks on American-manned sites in Iraq on Tuesday night will stand, at least for now, as the repercussion for Trump's decision last week to order the killing of Quds Forces chief Qassem Soleimani. That would be irrefutably good news for American military personnel stationed in the region.
"We took decisive action to stop a ruthless terrorist," Trump said Wednesday in remarks at the White House in which he announced he would add new sanctions to the mile-long list the U.S. already has imposed on Iran in an effort to stop Tehran's nuclear ambitions and its backing of terrorism. "American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent."
But Trump cavalierly risked a protracted armed conflict and appeared to gain nothing from it. Instead, as Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled combat veteran, said on the Senate floor Wednesday, he has strengthened Iran's hand in Iraq, where there have been calls for the U.S. to withdraw its forces in the wake of Soleimani's killing.
"In one fell swoop, he somehow managed to villainize the U.S. and victimize Iran — isolating us from our long-term partner in Iraq and amping up Iran’s influence in a country everyone knows is vital to our security interests throughout the Middle East," Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, said. "I wish this weren’t true, but my diaper-wearing 20-month-old has better impulse control than this president."
Moreover, Trump's proclamation of victory, announcement of new sanctions and recycled threats to counter Iranian aggression sounded all too familiar to some experts who hope to see a more permanent change in Iran's behavior and its relationship with the United States.
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"He seems to be doubling down on the very same maximum pressure strategy that has gotten us to a near-confrontation," said Daniel DePetris, a fellow at Defense Priorities. "If Trump’s objective here is to keep slapping sanctions on the Iranian economy until Tehran bows its head to all of Washington’s demands, then whatever off-ramp exists will quickly crumble."
If Trump really wants to change the chessboard, DePetris said, he needs a "wholesale reorientation" of American strategy that starts with "averting war at all costs, establishing a dialogue that is sincere, and focusing on goals that are actually realistic."
On Wednesday, Trump again blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for increased Iranian aggression in the region, pointing to the return of assets that had been frozen in conjunction with Tehran's entry into a nuclear deal with the U.S. and several other nations. Trump withdrew the U.S. from that accord in May 2018, and Iran recently announced it would no longer abide by any of the restrictions on its development of weapons.
"President Trump decided recklessly to withdraw from the nuclear deal," Susan Rice, the national security adviser under Obama, said on MSNBC Wednesday. "It was in the wake of that that led to this escalatory cycle and where we are today — a very dangerous moment."
Unable to force Iran back to the negotiating table through his "maximum pressure" campaign, which has combined the imposition of economic sanctions with stepped-up efforts to confront Iran and its proxies, Trump heeded the counsel of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other hard-liners in his administration in ordering the Pentagon to kill Soleimani in a drone strike.
Trump and other administration officials have alternately described the rationale as revenge for the killing of an American contractor attributed by the U.S. to an Iranian-backed proxy group, and as a preventive measure designed to thwart imminent attacks on American assets being planned by Soleimani.
But neither Trump nor his lieutenants have provided the public any information to support the latter assertion, which could be a vital component of the legal justification for the U.S. military killing a foreign military official without the authorization of Congress. Several top administration officials, including Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, were on Capitol Hill early Wednesday afternoon briefing lawmakers on the Soleimani strike and the larger picture of U.S.-Iran relations.
While Trump critics saw the strike as a provocation that put the U.S. further away from a resolution of its conflict with Iran, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday that it did the opposite.
"I think we’re closer to the day of reckoning," Graham said. "I think with the killing of Soleimani, we’ve hurt their efforts to spread radical Shi’ism throughout the region, we’ve put them on notice that enough is enough when it comes to attacking Americans. The inflection point is coming."
But he acknowledged the obvious stalemate.
"Our goal is for their regime to change their behavior, their goal is for us to leave the region, and therein lies the conflict," he said.
Left unspoken: It makes sense for Iran to wait Trump out — for him to leave office, or pull the U.S. out of Iraq — rather than confronting the U.S. militarily, particularly if he's going to take actions that alienate the Iraqi government and people.
The U.S. came close enough to announcing a withdrawal from Iraq this week that the Pentagon issued a letter announcing the move this week only to retract it almost immediately. Esper said it was just a draft that had been released mistakenly.
To the president's critics, the misfire was a metaphor for the dangers of Trump-era impulsiveness.