A little more than a week after Iran’s shoot-down of a U.S. drone, and President Donald Trump’s decision not to respond with force, it’s tough to judge whether America is closer to or further from taking military action against the Islamic republic. The situation is only becoming more anarchic and the actions of the players involved becoming more unpredictable.
Congressional opponents of such military action tried and failed on Friday to limit Trump’s authority to launch it. A proposed amendment to the just-passed National Defense Authorization Act would have required congressional approval for any use of military funds in Iran. It garnered 50 votes in favor, with support from every Democrat and four Republicans (Sens. Susan Collins, Mike Lee, Jerry Moran, and Rand Paul)—but fell short of the 60 votes needed to get past a filibuster. A similar measure is being debated in the House.
Under the interpretation of the president’s executive power developed over several administrations, there’s nothing legally stopping Trump from ordering strikes on Iran. The main thing stopping him at this point seems to be that by most accounts, he doesn’t really want to do it, despite the bellicose tweets. According to some reports, a divide has opened up between Trump’s civilian advisers—like national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel, who are urging military force—and more cautious military commanders. One administration official who spoke to the Wall Street Journal even accused the Pentagon of providing Trump with inaccurate casualty estimates to thwart last week’s planned strike. Meanwhile, everyone from Tucker Carlson to Vladimir Putin is sharing thoughts on Iran with the president.
Iran, for its part, is poised to violate one of the central restrictions of the 2015 nuclear deal within days, as the regime’s political factions squabble over whether to try salvaging what’s left of the deal or to scrap it altogether. If Iran really was behind the attack on Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman—carried out while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran for talks with the supreme leader—it suggests the diplomacy skeptics in the regime are ascendant. Thus far, Iran has avoided the most escalatory actions—namely, obviously attributable attacks that take American lives—but it’s come close, and as Washington continues to engage in “maximum pressure” tactics including more targeted sanctions and cyberattacks, Iran’s retaliation may get less cautious.
Iranian officials are meeting in Vienna on Friday with officials from the remaining parties to the nuclear deal for what have been described as “last chance” talks to save it. The Iranians are threatening to breach the agreement’s terms one by one unless European countries can shield the nation from U.S. sanctions. The Europeans are attempting to do this by setting up a new barter system known as INSTEX that will allow Iranian and European firms to trade goods without cash changing hands across borders. It’s not yet operational, and even when it is, it’s unlikely to bring Iran the economic benefits it wants. Still, it’s notable that ostensible U.S. allies are so openly working to evade U.S. sanctions.
Even some of the allies that are mostly on board with Trump’s Iran policies seem to be wavering. The United Arab Emirates has split with the U.S. by declining to blame Iran directly for the recent attacks on oil tankers off its coast. While the UAE maintains that a “state actor” was likely behind the attacks, the country’s foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said on Wednesday, “Honestly we can’t point the blame at any country because we don’t have evidence.” Another official recently said the UAE wants to avoided being “baited into crisis.” This is notable given that the UAE—a close ally of Saudi Arabia and regional rival of Iran—enthusiastically backed Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and has long been an influential force in Washington calling for a harder line against Tehran. Are the Emiratis experiencing some buyer’s remorse, with the prospect of a regional war looking more realistic? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps the leading global critic of the Iran deal, has also been awfully quiet lately, though to be fair, he has some other things on his plate.
So the situation right now is that there’s an unpredictable U.S. president with contradictory impulses, getting conflicting advice. The Iranians are getting increasingly desperate and aggressive, though they still often act either through proxies or in ways that preserve plausible deniability. The Europeans are more or less working on the Iranians’ behalf but appear unable to deliver. And America’s staunchest ally in the Gulf looks like it’s having second thoughts. Plus, Iran is becoming a starkly partisan issue in the U.S. heading into an election year, and Iran is looking ahead to elections of its own.
War is probably still not the most likely outcome, but further chaos certainly is.