On Tuesday night, many of us participated in the odd and quintessentially Trump-era ritual of watching a geopolitical crisis unfold in real time on Twitter. A retaliatory Iranian missile strike seemed at first like the beginning of a full-scale shooting war, but it quickly became apparent that the damage was limited and that this may have been an “off-ramp” allowing both sides to de-escalate . As usual, along with breaking news and statements from officials, there was an awful lot of dubious analysis, propaganda, and complete nonsense. The spread of misinformation and bad-faith conjecture in our “post-truth” world has, in other contexts, inflamed tensions and inspired violence. This time, the power of “fake news” might have actually stopped a dangerous situation from getting even more deadly.
Iran fired 15 missiles at two bases hosting U.S. troops that were heavily fortified and on notice after days of warnings from Tehran that it would soon retaliate for the U.S. killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The U.S. had ample notice after the missiles were launched thanks to early-warning systems, and no one was killed. U.S. officials believe the Iranians deliberately targeted the missiles to avoid casualties.
You wouldn’t know that from Iranian state television, however. According to Reuters, state networks claimed that 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and that the bases had sustained heavy damage in what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called a “crushing response” to Soleimani’s death. The Iranian regime was in a bind: For its own credibility, it had to respond to Soleimani’s killing, but it can ill afford to get into a sustained shooting war with the United States. The solution? Launch an attack minor enough that the enemy can brush it off while telling the Iranian public it was a devastating blow.
After the missile launch, the action moved, naturally enough, to social media, where the two sides performed an odd de-escalation dance for their millions of Twitter followers.
First, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif signaled that the attacks had “concluded” and that no more measures would be forthcoming. He also referred to international law to justify the attack—a blatant misrepresentation as the article he cites allows for self-defense, not reprisal. (The U.S. has also had some trouble with that distinction this week.)
Observers held their breath to see if Trump, who does not exactly take perceived insults lightly, would get the message. Just a few minutes later, Trump, remarkably, took this invitation to de-escalate as intended, tweeting a bizarrely chipper “All is well!” message and brushing off the attack, as if he hadn’t promised just days earlier to bomb 52 sites in Iran if the country’s leaders even thought about trying to avenge Soleimani.
In his statement from the White House on Friday morning, Trump may not have lied as blatantly as Iranian state television, but he was certainly misleading. He began by stating dramatically, “As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” which ignores the fact that his own actions resulted in Iran resuming enrichment activities that bring it closer to a nuclear weapon. He then implied the attacks by Iran on U.S. interests in recent weeks were the result of the 2015 nuclear deal. In fact, for the most part, the attacks were a response to Trump leaving the deal and reimposing sanctions in 2018.
Trump is playing the latest round of his favorite game, which we’ve seen in previous confrontations with Iran and North Korea and Turkey, as well as in a host of domestic issues: He’s creating a crisis and then claiming victory for solving it once things return to the status quo.
Will it work? Partially. Polls on support for Trump’s handling of Iran break down almost exactly along partisan lines. His supporters will interpret this as a strong stance against a dangerous adversary. His opponents will see him as an unhinged narcissist who unnecessarily brought the country to the brink of another catastrophic Middle East war.
By the end, the standoff felt like a stage-managed event concocted to give both sides enough to claim victory and step back from the precipice. The idea that, in order to resolve an escalating crisis, both sides need to be able to save face and claim partial victory is certainly not new. But it’s a lot easier when both sides are so comfortable misleading their publics.
The crisis is still far from over, of course. There’s still likely to be further retaliation from Iran for Soleimani’s death, though probably nothing quite as direct as what happened last night. We might already be seeing the start of it. And Trump could always change his mind entirely and begin threatening Iran again in tomorrow morning’s tweets.
But the best reason to think there won’t be an escalation to a major ground war is that both countries currently have leaders that are more than comfortable lying to their populations. As long as the situation remains contained, both sides can say whatever they want about it.