Tensions have escalated between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. It began with a fiery speech from Rouhani, which prompted Trump to issue a bellicose tweet warning Iran to "NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE."
To many, this provocation seemed foolish. Indeed, escalation between Trump and Iran comes with risk of military conflict. But Iran is a strategic actor, unlikely to be goaded into making a move that leads to conflict. Instead, Trump, egged on by a hawkish constituency, could back himself into a corner from which there is no escape that does not involve the U.S. taking military action against Iran. This would be a crisis of Trump's own making, and it would be disastrous.
A direct military conflict is not in the interest of Iran or America, but this is especially true for Iran, which, at the moment, actually finds itself in a relatively advantageous position, partially with Trump to thank. When Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — or the Iran nuclear deal — he ceded the high ground to the other parties to the agreement, including Iran. Now, if it wants to, Iran can play up America's lack of credibility as a negotiating partner and champion its own reliability. After all, even according to U.S. intelligence, Iran has abided by its nuclear commitments despite America's behavior.
On top of that, a military conflict could have disastrous effects on Iran's economy, potentially unifying currently sparring former partners like France, Germany, and the U.K., not to mention Russia and China, convincing them to re-implement sanctions. Already, U.S. sanctions, coupled with the worst drought in recent decades, are taking their toll.
The real wild card here is the United States. Just as we saw recently when Trump called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un names and ratcheted up tensions so he could claim victory when Kim then made a limp commitment to denuclearization, it is possible that Trump is presently creating a problem with Iran just so he can be perceived to swoop in to the rescue. But these two situations are very different, and the risk of military action — while still relatively small — appears much greater with Iran than with North Korea.
When it comes to North Korea, critical members of the U.S. body politic and the Trump administration — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chief among them — were opposed to military action. But regarding Iran, there is a larger, more hawkish contingent pushing for a hardline position, including force. This includes critical people in the White House, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who gave an aggressive speech on the subject, making no mention of a diplomatic option. Also lurking in the background is National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has a long and public history of advocating for regime change and military action when it comes to roguish states and their nuclear programs.
Outside the administration, there are other key voices pounding the drums for war: Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas (R) was a vociferous opponent of the Iran deal and has, like Bolton, argued for military confrontation and regime change. Cotton's view is shared by organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, both of whom have taken a hardline position against Iran for some time. Lastly, a critical American ally, Israel, has been advocating against diplomacy and towards force for a number of years. Taken collectively, there is a sizable cacophony of voices in support of Trump's return to an aggressive position on Iran.
Perhaps the most critical point, however, is that while Iran is a relatively strong conventional military power with ballistic missile capability, it does not have nuclear weapons. North Korea does possess nuclear weapons, and this added to the numerous reasons to avoid military conflict there. That Iran remains without nuclear weapons may very well make it a more appealing target for Trump.
And so, backed by a strong domestic constituency bruising for a fight, Trump may soon find himself in a position where he cannot back down. His domestic political environment remains bleak. He is feeling the pressure from all sides on everything from his trade war to the Mueller investigation to his conflicting comments on Russian election meddling. As such, Trump will probably continue his attempts to deflect, and Iran is an appealing diversion. This will only continue in the lead-up to the November midterm elections.
Certainly, we should continue to watch Iran's problematic and destabilizing behavior closely, but not because there is a significant risk that they might deliberately pick a fight with the United States. Rather, the worry is that Trump will stumble into a crisis of his own making, and the Iranian situation will develop into something more explosive than a summit of pageantry and fanfare.