Trump is setting up a massive nuclear crisis with Iran

Forget about deterrence. Trump has broken all three cardinal rules about avoiding war.

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images, NATALIIA OMELCHENKO/iStock, Aerial3/iStock)

Republican analysts and officials spent most the week taking a macabre and unearned victory lap, celebrating President Trump's rub-out of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the tepid Iranian response. Lee Smith, in the New York Post, called it "a strategic victory for President Trump," that could result in "a political masterstroke." The Daily Wire's Ben Shapiro, with his trademark magnanimity, declared on Twitter that "deterrence worked, you f---ing numbskulls."

Dead Soleimani Fever even spread to the theoretically sane, with Time columnist Ian Bremmer calling it "a win for Trump" and claiming that negotiations are now more likely. It's all a bit premature. While Iran chose not to further escalate this week, the situation remains combustible. The most significant danger is still an Iranian decision to pursue immediate nuclear breakout, something the president's blundering and blustering has made much more likely.

First, the fog of war created by the president's decision to assassinate Soleimani led to tragedy, as Iran seems to have accidentally shot down a planeload of innocent civilians. While most of the blame goes to whichever incompetent Iranian operator pulled the trigger, the reality is that all 176 of those people, including 63 Canadians, would be alive today if the U.S. had not carried out its hit on Soleimani. For another, we should remember that a month passed between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the outbreak of WWI.

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More importantly, just because both the Trump administration and senior Iranian leadership seem to share an aversion to full-scale war and pulled back from the brink this time doesn't mean that the Soleimani killing was costless for the U.S.

Far from it.

The day after the Iranian response, the seldom-seen Teleprompter Trump showed up to deliver a short, sober speech. "As long as I'm president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon," President Trump said on Wednesday. He said this before saying "good morning" to the assembled crowd. The specter of an Iranian nuke is still, ostensibly, the overriding goal of American policy vis-à-vis Iran. Yet everything that Trump has done since the day he took office has made an Iranian nuclear breakout more likely.

Trump's speech was, of course, full of the kind of obvious lies that truly seem to have driven his policymaking. For example: "The very defective JCPoA expires shortly anyway," the president claimed. Yet most provisions of the Iran Deal, including prohibitions on enrichment activities, were scheduled to run through 2030. Feel free to critique these sunset provisions all you want, but that's not "shortly."

The need to lie shamelessly about what was actually in the Iran Deal stems from the total and dangerous incoherence of the Trump administration's policies. Binning the Iran Deal and re-imposing crushing economic sanctions on Iran might at some point conceivably restrict the regime's ability to exert power beyond its borders in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Yet so far it has had the opposite effect of causing Iran to lash out unpredictably and redouble its efforts to use proxies as implements of power projection. The goal of this mischief was not to draw the U.S. into war, but rather to convince the administration that the costs of incinerating the Iran Deal were greater than the benefits and that Tehran has no intention of reining in or cutting off its regional proxies.

At the same time — and I can't believe that this actually needs to be said — shredding a nuclear agreement that Tehran was complying with makes it more likely that Iran will develop and test a nuclear weapon. For the Iranians, the U.S. walking away from this agreement proves that we can never be trusted, and that negotiating their nuclear rights away is both fruitless and counterproductive. The regime has already restarted enrichment activities it had verifiably halted under the deal, and after the Soleimani killing, announced they would not observe any of the restrictions in the JCPoA.

This is what actually makes war a terrifyingly real possibility. The Trump administration has drawn a bright red line around an Iranian nuclear breakout. It threw away one of only two things standing between the regime and a nuclear weapon. One was the Iran Deal. The other, of course, is war, a massive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities that may or may not work anyway. And unlike the assassination of Soleimani, an aerial assault on the Iranian homeland will not be met with only a volley of artfully aimed missiles.

The Soleimani gambit is thus doubly ominous. It further eroded any chance of negotiations between Iran and the U.S. And it has now given trigger-happy Iran hawks inside the Trump administration false confidence about how far it can push things with Iran.

Doesn't this week prove that this confidence might be somewhat justifiable? In one sense, those who believe war is quite unlikely have the evidence on their side. Most countries, even those with serious grievances with one another and the capacity for sustained violence, don't go to war most of the time. Powder kegs like the India-Pakistan dispute remain unexploded even in the face of serious provocations. Leaders push against the boundaries of acceptable conduct, and almost inevitably pull back when war seems imminent.

In a famous-in-its-field research paper, the international relations scholar James Fearon wrote that war makes no rational sense. That's because, "war is costly and risky, so rational states should have incentives to locate negotiated settlements that all would prefer to the gamble of war." After all, leaders often settle after the fact for terms they could have obtained prior to war, without the senseless loss of life and waste of treasure. War also rarely yields the intended benefits. Iran and Iraq, for example, fought an eight year war between 1980 and 1988 that killed a million people and resulted in no policy gains for either side.

War only happens, Fearon writes, under three circumstances. One, leaders have "private information" about their own capabilities, which they misrepresent. Two, countries are unable to come to an agreement because of "commitment problems" — the fear that one side will renege on the agreement. Finally, the issue itself may not be amenable to compromise — to throw one last piece of lingo at you, this is known as "issue indivisibility."

Divisible issues are things like fishing rights, trade, or in some circumstances territorial disputes. Territory can be split up. Whether a state has or does not have nuclear weapons is not that kind of issue. For the most part, you either have them or you don't. Sure, a handful of countries, like Japan, are known as "threshold states" — countries that clearly have the know-how and the industrial capacity to go nuclear practically overnight. What was so clever about the Iran deal was that it made an indivisible issue divisible, in essence by buying time and some degree of certainty over the short and medium term.

The Trump administration threw that all away. The president himself is rapidly plunging itself into all three of Fearon's risks. Trump has incentivized Iran to hide its nuclear activities and capabilities. His reckless abandonment of the Iran Deal destroyed all trust in Tehran that a reasonable accommodation with America can be reached. And by staking out an all-or-nothing strategy that requires Iran to totally reverse its foreign policy and completely abandon all nuclear activities, the president has turned the nuclear file back into an indivisible issue.

If that sounds like a win to you, by all means party on.

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