Trump Calls Off Airstrikes Against Iran…For Now?
Editor's Note: GMF's Jan Techau speaks with Caroline Fetscher of Deutschlandradio on President Trump's decision to cancel the airstrikes against Iran.
Jan Techau: I can only speculate as to why, at the end, the airstrikes were cancelled. There has been a lot of guesswork. It is possible that Trump got cold feet at the last minute, or that he bowed to the pressure of his advisors, especially the military that did not want to escalate at that point in time. Besides, a rumor has been floating around that there was some kind of last-minute diplomacy between the Americans and the Iranians, whereby they reached agreement over the “red phone” hotline. In the final analysis, we cannot say for sure what happened.
The looming question is about the game of credibility. Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal to put pressure on Iran. At the same time, as Trump has indicated on several occasions, he is not looking to start a war against Iran. This means that Trump’s means to an end are limited. Could Trump maintain his credibility that is being tested by Iran? In the end, nobody knows how Trump could get out of the trap he set for himself, so to speak.
Caroline Fetscher: But the Iranians did not have to shoot down an American drone?
Jan Techau: No, but the Iranians are testing how far they can challenge Trump’s credibility. Trump himself has said that he does not want to go to war against Iran. At first glance, all this would seem like genuine saber-rattling but—if you take into account the U.S. military forces available in the region—it becomes evident that these means are insufficient for war with Iran.
From the Iranian perspective, this is a sign of weakness, and they are now exploring how far they can press forward. They can shoot down a drone and see if there is a strike back or not. It allows them to test the limits on what they could do in the region. This is why Trump is now under pressure to respond. Of course, the problem is that Iran could cross a line and provoke retaliation that would be painful.
Caroline Fetscher: Even though the president says that he does not seek war, he is also someone who would never publicly admit to any form of weakness. Meanwhile, Trump has several foreign policy advisors—including National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo— each with their own aims and interests when it comes to dealing with Iran. How is this all playing out in the White House?
Jan Techau: The opposing camps in the White House have probably become more entrenched. In every presidency leading up to the current administration there has been differences in opinion but, under Trump, these disagreements have become more acute.
We have the hardliners—most noticeably Pompeo and Bolton—who support something similar to regime change, meaning the forced replacement of government in the country, and they tend to employ very harsh rhetoric. On the opposite side, we have Trump himself who is skeptical of military adventures. The pledge to get Americans out of foreign entanglements was one of Trump’s campaign promises that helped his election. And then we have the military that, of course, will follow instructions from above, but at the same time is reluctant to escalate from a position of relative weakness. One reason behind Trump’s cancellation of airstrikes was the U.S. forces in the region are still too weak to make an escalation credible. The right moment had not come.
Caroline Fetscher: I would like to ask you whether you have the impression Trump is now oscillating between these two poles, and the notion that Trump is raising uncertainty to unnerve the enemy, to make the opponent feel smaller. Maybe his practice of strategy leaves the U.S. military frustrated? I am thinking about the North Korea situation, where Trump would say: “I can push the red button, I have the bigger atomic bomb.” He is certainly not a dove at the moment; rather, he is vacillating between being dovish and hawkish.
Jan Techau: He is going back and forth. However, in my reading, these are not precise and calculated policy moves that threaten and withdraw, thus generating uncertainty. There are two things happening. On the one hand, Trump feels that Americans can no longer afford foreign adventures, that they need to withdraw. And, on the other hand, he strolls along acting like a bully, intimidating all sorts of people.
The question that everyone, including us Europeans, is asking is whether Trump is merely bluffing, or whether there is bite behind the bark. The North Koreans have already seen though Trump’s bluff and made him look bad. The Iranians are now checking Trump’s rhetoric with regard to their region. I think that Trump is moving back and forth, that there is no clear strategic plan, that he is wavering.
Caroline Fetscher: This could be the type of strategy that was employed with North Korea, one that led to negotiations, at least to the symbolic sitting down at the same table. But you are skeptical?
Jan Techau: I am skeptical. I think the North Korea situation made the United States look weak. The country flexed its muscles, threatened to push the red button and—at the end of the day—had to realize that it had few options. North Korea had become a nuclear power and the military option, therefore, was not really possible.
Caroline Fetscher: But Iran is not yet a nuclear power. Do you believe that, even though the recent airstrike was cancelled, that a military response will materialize, in any form?
Jan Techau: I would not rule this outcome out. If Iran crosses a line, or if the Americans begin to look weak by retreating, then they will have to respond in some way. I do not think that this is Trump’s objective. His aim is to put on the pressure without having to escalate militarily. However, if Iran is careless enough, then there could be escalation. We are seeing two opponents that are willing to behave quite carelessly.