Donald Trump’s message to Iran: get nukes fast

US President Donald Trump doesn’t do quiet confidence. If he had, then he might have ended 2019 displaying it. Which makes his actions in Iran in early 2020 baffling.

As Autumn approached Mr Trump might have been worried about his reelection and his legacy. He came into office promising to show his vaunted business skills, in contrast to his inept predecessors. He was the arch deal maker, he claimed. And yet he had practically nothing to show for it. His attempts to negotiate with North Korea had run into the sand. His dramatic ripping up of the “worst deal ever” to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions had not restrained that country’s foreign adventures, and seemed to be hastening the day when it would become nuclear. There were almost no trade deals: even the replacement for NAFTA was stuck in Congress. On other issues, his attempt to negotiate a fabulous new deal for Americans on healthcare had long since collapsed. It was painfully slow to find funding for his border wall. He had aggressively slapped tariffs on Chinese trade, but he seemed unable to close any kind of deal with China, while America’s trade deficit roared ahead. His one significant achievement in his term to date was corporate tax cuts, which probably left most Americans unimpressed.

It got worse. He allowed Turkey’s President Erdogan to talk him into winding down the American presence in Syria, abandoning his Kurdish ally. Whatever strategic sense this made, it was tactically inept. It angered many of his Republican allies.

But this blew over, and things started to look up. As the race to be his Democratic opponent in 2020 started to heat up, it became clear that each of the candidates had weaknesses that he could exploit. There is nobody he can be truly scared of. The House of Representatives also cracked after revelations on Mr Trump’s attempts to pressurise Ukraine, and set impeachment proceedings in motion. This largely works in Mr Trump’s favour; ordinary voters will not be able to fully understand his wrongdoing and its implications, especially after these are buried by the barrage of nonsense supplied by him and his many allies. The whole episode will just serve to distract attention from his weak record in office. Meanwhile he managed to close a deal with the Democrats in Congress for the NAFTA replacement, and some kind of interim deal with China looks close. The wall is being built. Even in the Middle East, Iran was under increasing pressure from its own people, and those fed up with its meddling in Iraq and Lebanon. Thin pickings, perhaps, and North Korea is going from bad to worse, but enough for Mr Trump to suggest things were going his way at last. His core support was holding up. If opinion polls still seemed against him, he might reflect that they were probably good enough: all he needs to do in November is hold the states that voted for him last time; he needs no majority in the popular vote. Enough for some quiet confidence.

But then came the Iran/Iraq episode. He firstly overreacted to a militia attack on a US base in Iraq, and then, after those Iranian-backed militias made a not-all-that-serious attack on the US embassy, he launched his assassination of Qasem Soleimani and his associates. This is a dramatic escalation, to which Iran has “no choice”, in the oft-repeated phrase, to respond. The Iranian government is playing the episode for all it is worth to distract attention from its other troubles.

What makes this very striking is that it goes against the general restraint Mr Trump has shown in the Middle East. He is much criticised for this, and has shown no tactical acumen, but he is not wrong in principle. Not, at any rate, in his wish to disengage the US military involvement, and treat Russian adventurism with a shrug. We need to get beyond the post-colonialist thinking that everything that happens in the region is somehow the result of US and western government actions, while denying multiple local actors agency and responsibility themselves. Mr Trump is, though, wrong in principle to think that ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal and applying sanctions to that country will make it more amenable, rather than making the whole region a lot messier. This is the logic of the bully, who assumes their own actions are principled and everybody else simply responds to the exercise of menace.

The defence put up by Mr Trump’s supporters are really hard to fathom. Soleimani was a bad man and his removal will make peace more likely, they say. Soleimani, and his like in the Iranian regime, are indeed bad people. They use innocent human lives as pawns in their games, and have no compunction in perpetrating murder. But he was also a senior state actor, and acting against him is like declaring war on the Iranian state. Assassination is a very dubious instrument of state policy. Israel has long used it, but its conflicts with neighbours and people within its borders have just dragged on regardless. The Iranians are no worse than the Russians, but would the US attack senior Russian officials in this way?

Which brings me to the central point. The US under Mr Trump treats nuclear armed powers with respect, even such mavericks as North Korea. Mr Trump seems to think that the rational response to his behaviour is to come to the negotiating table to make serious concessions. Iranian leaders are just as likely to think that the only rational course for them is to acquire nuclear weapons as fast as they can.

As I write the Iranian response has begun with some missile strikes at US bases in Iraq. They are suggesting that this is the limit of their response, though it is hard to know whether to take that seriously. Mr Trump seems to be shrugging it off. If that is all that happens, then Mr Trump will have got off lightly, and he and his supporters will claim victory.

But earlier the Iranian regime abandoned its vestigial adherence to the nuclear deal. Their thinking may be to deliver this rather underwhelming response and then go as hard and fast as they can for nuclear weapons. In their eyes that is probably the most rational approach: if Mr Trump wants to scale down US action in the Middle East, there will be little they can do to stop Iran, if that country does not present too many easy targets for air strikes.

The US public is unlikely to understand that this is what is happening, and look on Mr Trump’s actions favourably. If so Mr Trump’s faith in his own genius will be affirmed. At some point this has to unravel. Doesn’t it?