In Trump’s Iran Response, Some See a Dangerous Ambiguity
President Trump’s decisions to order and then suddenly abort a military strike against Iran set off a debate across the region on Friday over whether his stop at the brink amounted to his gravest threat yet or a sign of capitulation.
Iranians, locked in an escalating standoff with Mr. Trump over the previous six weeks, quickly sought to portray the aborted strike as evidence that he had blinked first, proving what they called his reluctance to fight and eagerness to compromise.
Iranian foes in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, on the other hand, argued that Mr. Trump’s willingness to come so close to military action — with warplanes in the air, ships in position, and missiles minutes from launching — instead meant that Iran should expect an even more serious retaliation if it sought to lash out again at the United States or its close allies.
And the ambiguity itself, some argued, may now pose its own danger: Hard-liners in Iran could become emboldened to further test Mr. Trump, while at the same time raising the expectations among some of his closest allies that he will let the missiles fly the next time.
“The risk of what Trump has done is that it conveys a confusing message to other parts of the world,” said Sir Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to Washington who was previously stationed as a diplomat in Iran. “Is he a blowhard? Is he secretly cautious — an Obama in wolf’s clothing? Or was new information brought to his attention that made him change his mind?”
The dangers posed by Mr. Trump’s ambiguity are acute inside Iran, where hard-liners with an eye on domestic politics can argue that “we were right, the red lines were much higher, and we can push back even more,” said Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, at the Royal United Services Institute, a research center in London.
Mr. Trump initially ordered the attack in retaliation for the downing of an American surveillance drone by an Iranian missile near the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran and Washington dispute whether the drone was in or merely near Iranian airspace.
But the stage for the current conflict was set last year when Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from a 2015 deal to lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Iran continued to comply with its end of that deal until May, when the Trump administration added new sanctions intended to cripple Iran’s ability to sell oil anywhere in the world.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps displayed debris from what they said were fragments of the American drone.CreditTasnim News Agency, via Reuters
With Iran’s oil revenue plunging and its economy weakened, Iranian officials denounced the new sanctions as economic warfare and declared that they would begin enriching more uranium, in a step that would exceed the limits of the 2015 deal.
The United States has since accused Iran of using limpet mines to damage a total of six petroleum tankers in two separate incidents in the waterways leading to the Persian Gulf. Iran denies those accusations.
Citing the shooting down of the drone and threats of American airstrikes, several international airlines said Friday that they were diverting planes from flying over the Strait of Hormuz and parts of Iran.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order early Friday that prohibited all American flights in Tehran-controlled airspace above the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman because of “heightened military activities and increased political tensions.”
Iran has not commented publicly on the aborted American strike, but unidentified Iranian officials appeared to seek to put their spin on the events in comments to Reuters. The news service reported on Friday that these officials said President Trump had used intermediaries in Oman to warn of an imminent attack if Iran did not reopen talks with Washington.
“In his message, Trump said he was against any war with Iran and wanted to talk to Tehran about various issues,” an Iranian official said, according to Reuters, and another said the Iranians had refused the ultimatum and warned that any attack would have consequences.
Mrs. Tabrizi of the Royal United Services Institute said many in the Iranian government now appeared to believe Mr. Trump had backed down.
“Those inside Iran who were pushing for more resistance, more retaliation will say, ‘See? We were right! Trump does not want war. Let’s push the situation,” she said. That could lead them to miscalculate the administration’s future reactions.
The European Union, which was also a party to the nuclear deal with Iran, is convening a conference with Iran next week in an effort to preserve that agreement and address “challenges arising from the withdrawal and re-imposition of sanctions by the United States,” the bloc said in a statement.
On Friday, some Europeans applauded Mr. Trump for his show of restraint. “A strike would undoubtedly mean escalation, and can you control that?,” said Carl Bildt, a former foreign minister of Sweden.
But others saw Mr. Trump’s 11th-hour move as improvisation on a major military action, and a threat that could further undermine the strained trans-Atlantic alliance.
“It is not entirely clear that Trump has any idea of what he’s going to do next, and that’s very disturbing,” said François Heisbourg, a former French defense official. “Europeans are powerless,” he said, but “that doesn’t mean we are not petrified.”
In a measure of the confusion about Mr. Trump’s thinking, though, analysts more hawkish toward Iran argued that Mr. Trump had played it perfectly, including by making public his differences with his advisers and the last-minute switch.
It “creates a credibility to the threat,” argued Giora Eiland, retired major general in the Israel Defense Forces and a former head of Israel’s National Security Council.
Now, Mr. Eiland said, the Iranians “are very frightened today from the American retaliation.”
He argued that Iran’s leaders now understood that if they attack again — especially so directly, and against American targets or even Arab allies of the United States — “there will be a very, very massive American retaliation, and they don’t want to be in this scene.”
Analysts close to the rulers of Saudi Arabia praised Mr. Trump, too. “The fact that a military strike did not happen right away, or that the president is not trigger-happy, should not be viewed as a sign of weakness,” said Mohammed Khaled Yahya, the English language editor for the Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya news network.
“What the administration should be pressing for is for its maximum pressure campaign to run its course — that is the worst-case scenario for the Iranian regime.”
Still, there were few indications that Tehran would change its course any time soon, said Sanam Vakil, a scholar at Chatham House, a London-based research organization.
Mr. Trump has said he would require Iran to agree to talks over at least new limits on its nuclear program before lifting any sanctions. Iran’s leaders have said the United States must rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement, and that they will refuse to talk under coercion or before some sanctions relief.
“They are in a complete stalemate,” Ms. Vakil said.