If a new Iranian attack causes the death of even one American, the U.S. will respond militarily. That, at least, is the warning Secretary of State Pompeo reportedly issued to the mullahs.
If Iran attacks a U.S. ship, it’s likely that the U.S. will respond militarily even if no American dies. There’s also a case to made that if Iran keeps attacking non-U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, we should strike back, given the importance of shipping in the Gulf to the global economy.
Iran’s latest act of aggression — the downing of a U.S. drone — did not take any of the forms just described. No Americans died or were injured. No ships were hit. But the Iranians still managed to strike a blow against the U.S. and to escalate the confrontation between the two nations.
Thus, Iran threaded the needle.
By doing so, Iran created doubt as to the correct response by the Trump administration. Because no red line was crossed, there is a case that Trump shouldn’t retaliate, or at least that he need not feel compelled to do so.
On the other hand, it can be argued that if Trump declines to retaliate, Iran may feel sufficiently emboldened that its next attack will cross a red line. In that event, Trump might feel compelled to take severe military action against Iran, whereas now he can maintain credibility with a less destructive strike that might nip things in the bud.
Which way to go? The call was close enough that the administration apparently couldn’t decide.
According to the New York Times, President Trump approved retaliatory military strikes against Iran today, but then pulled back from launching them this evening:
As late as 7 p.m. Thursday, military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike, after intense discussions and debate at the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.
Officials said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.
The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said. Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said.
Trump faced a difficult decision, as I acknowledged above. However, if the Times’ report is accurate, the kind of indecision it describes does not inspire confidence in the administration.
Maybe, though, the report that Iran narrowly avoided a retaliatory strike will cause the regime to curb its aggression. I’m pretty sure the administration hopes so. The Times notes that the White House did not urge it to keep the story of the on-and-then-off strike out of the paper.
But the report may cause Iran to believe it’s dealing with a confused and conflicted adversary — one who talks a good game but has difficulty following through. If Iran is right, that’s not good for the U.S. If Iran is wrong, its miscalculation increases the chance of a war, and that’s not good either.
JOHN adds: I suppose another possibility is that, by leaking the fact (if it is a fact) that President Trump initially ordered strikes but then relented, the administration is sending a strong signal to the mullahs that if the transgress again, attacks will follow. In other words, the president ordering strikes and then changing his mind can be seen as more than a mere threat, but less than actual violence. Which might be a nicely calibrated response.