Trump pulls back from war with Iran but instability to continue

US president’s actions have made Iran’s place in the world more volatile and unstable

For a period of approximately two hours on Tuesday night, Washington seemed as though it was on the brink of war.

As darkness settled on the US capital, senior members of the president's national security team disembarked from black SUVs at the White House gates, brusquely entering the West Wing for a meeting with the president. Speculation abounded that Donald Trump would address the nation.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi's office confirmed she had been briefed by the vice president on developments in Iran. Mobile phone footage of Iranian ballistic missiles hitting Iraqi air bases housing US soldiers began to beamed onto TV screens, frightening in their raw, unedited immediacy.

But by 10pm local time, the mood music had changed. A tweet by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave grounds for optimism. Iran did not seek "escalation or war", it said, suggesting that Iran had "concluded" its retaliatory measure for the US killing of its top commander – a crucial point given speculation about a possible second wave of attacks.


Having brought America dangerously close to war, Trump took the least belligerent response available to him

As if on cue, Trump followed up with a tweet declaring “All is well!”, stating that there were no reports of injuries. “So far, so good,” he wrote.

Trump’s efforts to dial down the rhetoric in his tweet laid the ground for what was to become his ultimate response to the rapidly escalating Iran crisis.

As he addressed the nation on Wednesday morning, it became clear that he was choosing the off-ramp.

Having brought America dangerously close to war, and after warning just a few hours earlier that it was “totally prepared” to attack if provoked, Trump took the least belligerent response available to him.

The economic sanctions announced by the president in his 10-minute address to the nation on Wednesday are effectively a continuation of US policy. The US had already been incrementally increasing sanctions on Iran as part of the low-level escalation of tensions between the two powers.

That the president perceived this to be a sufficient response to a direct attack on US troops, even though no lives were lost, illustrates Trump’s efforts to avoid military confrontation at all costs.

Unanswered questions

But the events of recent days leave a myriad of questions unanswered.

Trump may have stepped back from the brink, but further Iranian action is possible, particularly from proxy forces in the region.

The US relationship with Iraq is at its worst point since the Iraq war, as the country finds itself torn between two outside powers who are conducting a proxy war in the heart of its territory. The future of the US in the country remains in limbo following the Iraqi government's resolution to expel foreign troops, supported by prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Trump's calls for Britain, France and Germany to wind down the deal is the latest strain in the transatlantic relationship

Despite Trump’s conciliatory tone, there is no specific indication that the two sides are any closer to negotiating, though work could be taking place through diplomatic back-channels. The Swiss, who represent American interests in Iran, have confirmed that messages were exchanged between the two countries in recent days.

After all, a meeting between Trump and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had been floated as recently as September at the UN General Assembly in New York, advocated in particular by France, which has been trying to keep lines of communication open in an effort to keep the Iran nuclear deal afloat.

However, Trump's calls for Britain, France and Germany to wind down the deal is the latest strain in the transatlantic relationship since Trump's election. His call to "make a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place" was, after all, the guiding principle of the original 2015 Iran accord – a deal which signatories were aware was always going to be updated.

Ultimately, Trump’s actions since his abandonment of the deal have made Iran’s place in the world more volatile and unstable, and sent the international community back to the drawing board.