Whatever could be causing this saber rattling, the Washington Post wondered today. With tweets like these, Ishaan Tharoor writes, Trump is setting the Middle East “on a knife edge,” even though talk of war with Iran had receded during the week. Tharoor then provides enough context to make this sound like a chicken-egg exercise:
If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2019
Talk of war with Iran seemed to subside in Washington over the past week. As is his wont, President Trump lambasted media coverage of his administration’s moves against the regime in Tehran, but in doing so also seemed to be pushing back against an aggressive agenda set by his national security adviser John Bolton. Then on Sunday, possibly goaded by a segment on Fox News, Trump launched another broadside on Twitter, warning that conflict between the two countries would mark “the official end of Iran.”
Gee, why would Trump have tweeted that? Er …
The atmospherics are making many officials in Washington and capitals elsewhere nervous. On Sunday, a rocket landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, adding to the jitters felt in Iraq — a nation where Iran retains outsize influence. A series of sabotage attacks on oil tankers and facilities in the region were linked to Iran, but experts suggested they were calibrated so as not to justify an American escalation.
Those are some pretty impressive dance moves. Iran and/or its proxies sabotage oil shipping, but they’re off the hook as long as its “calibrated” to keep the US from responding? Trump’s tweet is aggressive and problematic, but dropping a rocket near US facilities in the Green Zone is subtext?
This is what preceded Trump’s tweet by a few hours. Note that this is not the first attack of its kind, either (emphasis mine):
A rocket landed inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which houses the sprawling U.S. Embassy, Iraqi security officials said Sunday, in an apparent warning shot to the United States amid escalating tensions with Iran.
The rocket landed less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy near Iraq’s parliament building and caused no injuries or serious damage, a security official said. But the timing of the launch has increased worries in Iraq that it will be drawn into a conflict between two of its closest allies, the United States and Iran.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion among Iraqi officials and Western diplomats fell on one of the Shiite militias that draw their strength from Iranian support. Last week, the State Department took the extraordinary step of ordering all nonessential staff to leave the embassy and consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, citing an alleged threat from Iranian proxies in the country.
Shiite militias with deep ties to Tehran have gained unprecedented political and military power over the past three years and have repeatedly used rocket launches toward American diplomatic missions to express their displeasure with U.S. policies.
In other words, Iran’s proxies have been attacking Americans with impunity for several years. Until now, Iran has seemingly “calibrated” its strategy on the basis that the US will not respond when attacked. Somehow that seems like more important context than a presidential tweet following the latest such volley of rocket fire.
That doesn’t necessarily make Trump’s tweet wise, but it provides a much clearer view of why the Trump administration has provided a more assertive face toward Iran. The Trump administration wants Iran to “recalibrate” its strategies on the basis that we might actually start responding in kind with attacks on Iranian interests. It’s certainly possible to overshoot that mark and start a conflict by semi-accident, but it’s important to understand that Iran has been actively attacking the US for years via proxies and occasionally directly, including the period in which the US was honoring the JCPOA.
Trump isn’t just pulling a threat out of his hat for no good reason. And it’s not Trump that’s setting the region on a “knife edge,” either, or at least not alone and certainly not unprovoked. Iran and its proxies are attempting to shove the knife fully into the US and its allies and to intimidate them out of confronting Iran. We can debate the best methods for “recalibration,” but let’s not kid ourselves on the need for it.