The Trump administration ratcheted up tensions with Iran last week, blaming the Islamic Republic for attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and for shooting down an unmanned American drone in what America claims were international waters. (Iran denied responsibility for the tanker attacks and claimed the drone overflew its territorial waters.) The administration was prepared to launch a series of strikes on Thursday, before the president called them off at the last minute.
Why the sudden reversal? Trump claims that he found out on the brink of giving the go-ahead that the casualty estimate for the strikes was as high as 150 people, which he — rightly — considered disproportionate to the Iranian offense (which caused no casualties). Others have noted that Fox News' Tucker Carlson, one of Trump's favorite talking heads, has been whispering in the president's ear, warning him away from his hawkish advisors and from starting a shooting war with Iran. Perhaps he deserves the credit for moderating the president's stance?
Either or both explanation may be correct. But I can't shake the feeling that we've seen this movie before.
In his first year in office, Trump promised "fire and fury" against North Korea, a rhetorical escalation that was met by similar threats from Pyongyang against American territory in Asia. Numerous observers were worried that America was on a path to a war. But after raising tensions, Trump dramatically dispelled them by agreeing to face-to-face talks with Kim Jong Un. Since their first summit, Trump has consistently touted his excellent personal relationship with the North Korean dictator and has responded insouciantly to both the failure of their talks to produce much of substance and to North Korea's subsequent provocations.
Are we about to see a repeat performance, this time with Iran center stage?
It's not impossible. During his presidential campaign, Trump expressed limited concern about Iran as a threat, arguing against his predecessor's nuclear deal primarily on the grounds that it was too favorable to Iranian interests. (He later withdrew the U.S. from the agreement in his first year in office.) Now, in the wake of calling off the strike, Trump has repeatedly called for patience in dealing with Iran and expressed a willingness to enter into direct, face-to-face talks with the Iranian president without preconditions, something he has expressed an openness to in the past. He has also reiterated that his concern is about Iran's nuclear capability, implicitly sidelining concerns about human rights that have rarely exercised this presidency but also Iran's regional ambitions and support for terrorism.
Of course, staging a summit with Iran would mean going directly against the views of his core foreign policy advisors. But the Trump administration was full of North Korea hawks before he launched his charm offensive on the peninsula, and yet the summit went forward as he intended. If Trump could get his economic adviser Larry Kudlow to sign on to a trade war with China, in violation of all his prior convictions, how hard would it be to get National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to sing the praises of a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani? Vice President Mike Pence's staunch support for both the strike and the decision to abort it serves as the perfect synecdoche for the administration as a whole. If Trump did meet with the Iranian president, it's likely that rather than bolt, his hawkish advisors would see it as all the more imperative that they remain on the team so as to prevent him from giving away too much.
The more significant obstacle is the radically different international context. America's regional allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, were horrified by the prospect of war between America and North Korea, which could cost tens of thousands or even millions of their citizens lives. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in deserves much of the credit for carefully steering Trump toward a less-confrontational policy. By contrast, America's major regional allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel, opposed Obama's nuclear deal and favored American military confrontation with Iran.
But they might not have the ability — or the incentive — to stop the show. Trump has built up extensive political capital in both countries and has delivered on some of their top priorities: moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and endorsing Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights (and potentially of parts of the West Bank), and providing full backing for Saudi Arabia's brutal war in Yemen and ignoring its dismembering of a critical journalist. They can realistically assume there will never be an American administration less inclined to criticize or restrain them. That will probably inform and temper any criticism they choose to lob Trump's way.
That's particularly true when they should be aware, from the North Korean example, that a summit with Iran could well lead to almost no practical change on the ground. American sanctions on North Korea remain in place and North Korea continues to test weapons. Its nuclear arsenal remains intact, as does America's commitment to South Korea's defense. Trump and Kim continue to exchange love letters, but the conflict remains largely frozen. Could Riyadh and Jerusalem live with Trump rhapsodizing about Iran's economic potential, praising Persians for being "great negotiators," and calling Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei a tough guy and beloved by his people? If there's no progress on actual peace, they probably could.
The biggest obstacle, actually, is likely to be the Iranian people, who have more freedom and more knowledge of the outside world than the people of North Korea, and hence may be less willing to accept fruitless photo-opportunities while sanctions remain in place and the Iranian economy remains crippled. That, in turn, puts constraints on the Iranian regime's ability to make empty but extravagant rhetorical gestures of their own.
But even if he doesn't get a Singapore-style summit in Doha, Trump may succeed in getting what he wants out of his practice of creating crises that he then resolves: keeping the support of his party's hawks while preventing them from realizing their goal of outright conflict, and making himself the indispensable actor on every stage.