The world has greeted Donald Trump’s eleventh-hour decision to call off action against Iran with a collective sigh of relief. And yet it does nothing to resolve the stand-off over matters nuclear. Nonetheless, visuals of his detractors and protesters holding placards that read “No War” points to the groundswell of opposition to a repetition of the misadventure as witnessed in Iraq in March 2003. In retrospect, the crisis was ignited by the US attempt to derail a nuclear deal that Iran has abided by, and to choke its economy. It has exacerbated with Tehran’s recent actions, including the alleged attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. President Trump tweeted on Friday, confirming reports that the US had been “cocked and loaded” for attacks on three sites in retaliation for the shooting down of a drone. As it turned out, the US President has had the good sense to call off the strike with only 10 minutes to go, having been cautioned by a General that 150 people would die in a US blitzkrieg from the skies. Call it an exercise in brinkmanship if you will, the consequences would have been catastrophic, to say the least. Yet the stand-off between the US and Iran intensifies.
Iranian officials have already claimed that the President sent a message via Oman that an attack was imminent but that he wanted talks, and was against any war. In retrospect, Mr Trump seemed to make a striking shift from Thursday morning’s apparent threat that “Iran made a very big mistake” to his subsequent suggestion that the downing of the drone was probably a genuine error, perhaps reflecting second thoughts and resentment against the hawkish approach of the likes of John Bolton and other advisers. But any reassurance at the President’s decision to override the hawks, who had been goading him, should be tempered by the fact that the strike almost went ahead.
Another danger is that the US is counting on Iran which is feeling chastened by its near-miss. Yet with its economy in such dire straits, Tehran may be more willing to risk taking a limited hit if it thinks that is the only way to get what it ultimately wants. Though it exercises significant control over militias, it cannot totally rule out an unplanned action. And the lesson it takes from Thursday’s events may not be that it is under threat, but that the US won’t ultimately act upon its threats. It is hard not to wonder if Mr Trump’s decision to call off the operation is part of his “maximum pressure” strategy. Iran desperately needs a relaxation of the sanctions regime, perhaps through lighter enforcement or ad hoc waivers. There is no sign that the US is willing to shift. But allies should continue to make the case, including at this month’s G20 meeting in Osaka. Without de-escalation, the risks of mistakes, miscalculations and mutual misreadings will persist.