Throughout the 2016 campaign and up through the first week of the administration, Donald Trump and his team have displayed a severe cognitive dissonance when it comes to their approach to the world.
On the one hand, Trump and friends offer a more grounded nationalist and realist approach to world affairs than recent presidents, arguing if something is not directly in the American interest then it is not worth pursuing. This would include so-called humanitarian missions and military interventions, where no direct interests are at stake for the United States. In other words, no entangling alliances, a traditional American position.
But on the other hand, Trump and his advisors—particularly National Security Advisor Mike Flynn—have relentlessly and obsessively targeted Iran for criticism and been outright provocative to the point of appearing to actually want to force a military confrontation.
On Wednesday, the provocation continued with Flynn cryptically claiming in a press conference that the Trump Administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” in response to a litany of Iran’s recent activities, including a ballistic missile test. It is not clear what being “put on notice” actually means nor what the distinction of “official” denotes in this context.
President Trump repeated the phrase in a Tweet today, saying “Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile. Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”
Trump followed up later and said “nothing is off the table” in responding to Iran’s ballistic missile test—a statement likely to unnerve many and heighten tensions.
Reuters reports a top adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to the rhetoric of the Trump Administration by claiming that threatening Iran was “useless” and showed a lack of knowledge about Iran’s ballistic missile program because the tests did not violate the nuclear deal reached with the U.S. and other countries.
So, what is the endgame of all this saber-rattling? While it is possible Trump wants to scrap the nuclear deal and this is all an effort to justify that action, the consequences for dumping the agreement at this point could quickly boomerang against Trump.
The other parties to the agreement have already normalized relations with Iran and are making major investments in the country. They, like Iran, have no interest in renegotiating the deal. Which means Trump would simply put the U.S. at odds with other countries in the European Union and Russia while not gaining anymore concessions.
More disturbingly, this could be a prelude to military aggression against Iran—a decision that would be catastrophic for the region and invite untold retaliation against the United States. It would also ensure Iran restarted its nuclear weapons program.
Perhaps the best scenario is that President Trump is simply posturing to placate the hawks in Washington D.C. and beyond. While reckless, it offers the possibility that the conflict between the U.S. and Iran remains restricted to social media banter.