After years of mostly positive, yet cautious, American engagement with Iran under President Obama, this past week saw a swift regression to the mean. The Trump administration arrived in Washington on a mission to intensify conflict with Iran. They succeeded within a month. Yet in spite of the sudden shock of the first direct confrontation between the Trump administration and Iran, the Iranian response has been predictable. The reasons for this are worth exploring in further detail.
First, a quick recap of last week’s tumult. Over the weekend following Trump’s announcement of his travel ban, Iran test-fired a ballistic missile. This prompted a dramatic reading of an official statement by national security advisor Michael Flynn in which the United States, in what was probably an inadvertent reference to the late, great “Colbert Report,” officially put Iran “on notice.” Shortly thereafter, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting 25 entities and individuals connected to Iran’s missile program.
Iran responded in kind, conducting a second round of missile tests before issuing reciprocal, though purely symbolic, sanctions against a group of American companies and individuals it said has “played a role in generating and supporting extremist terrorist groups in the region.” IRGC aerospace division chief Amir Ali Hajizadeh channeled his inner Flynn to deliver his own bombastic threat to the United States, albeit with a distinctly Iranian flourish, telling reporters, “If the enemy falls out of line, our missiles will pour down on them.”
If this all feels familiar, it should. Under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Iran periodically tested its ballistic missiles, both as a demonstration of domestic weapons development capabilities and as a deterrent to an attack on Iranian territory. Iranian and American officials always followed these tests with a combination of call-and-response threatening, public debating about the legality of missile testing, and economic sanctioning. Then all sides retreated to their corners to resume eyeing each other warily from across the globe.
In their reaction to this latest round in the ongoing conflict, government and media outlets in Iran hinted at a new emotional response to this repetitive dance: exasperation. During a press conference following Flynn’s statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said, “We have got used to hearing such remarks from different U.S. administrations for more than three decades now.” Meanwhile, the Tehran Times was unable to resist describing the administration’s recycling of the phrase “nothing’s off the table” as “hackneyed.” Prominent Iranian MP Mohsen Rezaee summed up his frustration in a tweet, noting that Iranian overtures to the United States — specifically, former President Mohammad Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” and current President Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear deal — are always met with American threats.
Taking this history into account, Iran appears to be basing its current behavior on the expectation that President Trump, like his predecessors, will ultimately be unwilling to cross the threshold from dramatic posturing into a direct military confrontation with Iran. This is a risky gambit, especially given the ideological fervor of many of Trump’s key advisors, most notably chief strategist and now national security council member Steve Bannon. They may also be underestimating the extent to which abstract notions of “reputation” and “toughness” (in the school-yard brawl sense) guide Trump’s thinking and are now primary considerations in the formation of American foreign policy.
The Iranians recognize that short of war, there is very little the United States can do unilaterally to harm their interests. If they are correct in their assumption that Trump will avoid a shooting war in Iran, then Iran can still succeed in advancing toward their goal of rejoining the world community even as the United States retreats from it.
The greater risk, of course, is that they are wrong. If so, the United States and Iran may already be in the opening phases of a race to the bottom of the gun barrel. Both countries will continue to drag each other further down the war path through a series of increasingly provocative actions and reactions until, eventually, all that will be needed is a tiny spark to set the whole thing ablaze.
It is a depressing scenario and one that can be completely avoided if calmer, more rational heads prevail. But as history has demonstrated many times over, nothing is guaranteed.