What's Trump's plan for Iran? Nobody knows.
WASHINGTON -- In any tense military confrontation, diplomats start looking for an "off ramp" that could de-escalate tensions. But in the current standoff between the United States and Iran, it's hard to find any such exit route.
The U.S.-Iran faceoff is one of those odd situations where both players appear eager to set off sparks, although neither seems to want a raging fire. They seem comfortable in a halfway zone of conflict, where nations use force in deniable ways across different domains, hoping they don't set off an explosion.
The problem is that nobody in Washington, Europe or the Middle East has a convincing answer to the obvious question: What's next? Each side says it fears an attack by the other, but hardliners in both capitals seem eerily ready for an exchange of blows.
Here's how a senior Trump administration official put it in a talk with reporters Thursday: "Because we are applying levels of pressure that don't have any historic precedent, I think we can expect Iran to increase its threats to increase its malign behavior."
Washington and Tehran both view the confrontation through rosy lenses, tinged by ideology.
The Trump administration sees an Iran straining to cope with punitive sanctions; White House officials are telling colleagues that in six months, the Iranian regime will have to make a deal -- or face chaos in the streets. Rather than reducing sanctions, Trump officials are talking about adding even more, affecting petrochemicals, for example. Intelligence analysts here and abroad are skeptical about the Trump policy assumption that Iran will cave.
The Iranians, for their part, appear to have concluded that confrontation is the only way to deal with what they see as an untrustworthy, bellicose America. Tehran decided a few weeks ago that waiting out the Trump administration wasn't working. Sanctions were squeezing too hard, and Trump looked like he might be reelected.
Iranian leaders then began messaging the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies in Iraq and elsewhere to begin planning strikes against American targets, U.S. and European analysts believe. This messaging, accompanied by some new IRGC shipments of missiles that could attack U.S. forces, rang the Pentagon's alarm bell.
President Trump sits astride the war machine with an optimistic but probably incorrect assumption that the Iranian regime will capitulate under pressure. He doesn't want a war with Iran (indeed, he's somewhat allergic to war in the Middle East), but he thinks that a weak Iran will bargain for a new mega-deal that limits its nuclear options and regional meddling. "I'm sure that Iran will want to talk soon," Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Reality check: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has insisted emphatically that he is not prepared to talk with America. He grudgingly agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal, warning colleagues that America was unreliable and would renege, and he isn't going to be fooled again. Khamenei's whole career is premised on the defiant logic of resistance.