This past weekend, Iran conducted a ballistic missile test, prompting a strange response from the Trump administration. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn stated that “as of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,”a meaningless platitude that conveys no information to Iran. Flynn and others, including the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, accused Iran of violating a UN Security Council resolution–passed in support of the US-Iran nuclear deal–that calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Iran argues that since it does not have a nuclear weapons program its missiles are not designed to deliver nuclear weapons and, therefore, its missile launches are legal.
Leaving aside the legal argument, there’s a more interesting question here. Given a president who has already threatened to respond to provocations with force (true, most people dismissed this threat as meaningless campaign braggadocio, but if we’ve learned anything from the first two weeks of Trump it’s that he seems determined to do the things he has threatened to do) and a new administration that is likely looking for an opportunity to demonstrate its toughness, why would Iran take such a provocative action?
To my eyes, Iran’s missile test looks like a probing action, designed exactly to extract a response of some kind from the Trump administration. The new president’s behavior and decision making process (if such a thing even exists) are so far outside of the bounds of normal US foreign policy norms that other actors likely literally have no idea of how the US will respond to their moves. Uncertainty of that sort is a very dangerous thing in international politics; when actors do not know what will and what won’t provoke military responses, what are or are not a state’s core national interest, or what a state will or will not go to war over, miscalculations become more likely and so-called “accidental” wars become possible.
Iran needs to find out critical information about how the US will respond to provocative actions, who makes the critical decisions, and how to interpret statements from the new administration. A probing action has to find the right balance: Too much, and you risk war, to little, and you don’t get a response and don’t learn anything useful. Iran is already involved in a number of military actions in the region (i.e. Syria and Yemen) so a small, regional military action is unlikely to reveal anything new. Hassling a U.S. naval warship or threatening the shipping lanes is, given the president’s volatility and early statements (referenced above) possibly too dangerous. A missile test falls right in the sweet spot: It doesn’t directly threaten anyone, Iran can make a plausible, if not particularly convincing, legal defense of the action, and other countries conduct their own missile tests (such as the UK’s failed Trident test and US tests of anti-ballistic missile interceptors), placing the action within the realm of “normal” state behavior.
So, what might Iran have learned from the US’s response? Not much. Saying that Iran is being put “on notice” is meaningless. Iran knows it’s on notice. The US response is so mealy-mouthed that Iran is likely to take one of two things away: Either the US has no clear sense of foreign policy priorities or protocol or Trump does indeed intend to implement a strategy of unpredictability. In a foreign policy speech last April, Trump stated that:
We must as a nation be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops? We tell them. We’re sending something else? We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.
Such a strategy would involve not tipping one’s hand at minor probes like a missile test. Given Trump’s threat that North Korea will not be allowed to conduct its own ballistic missile test, Trump would likely not want to reveal his hand over Iran’s test. But again, this more likely than not raises, not lowers, the chances that North Korea tests which in turn might, if Trump’s warning was serious, raise the likelihood of a military response.
Deterrence and stability depend on clear communication of red lines, capability, and intentions. Ambiguity is not a strength here. Even if Trump is trying to implement a Nixonian “madman” theory, he doesn’t have advisers (perhaps with the exception of Secretary Mattis) with the experience or shrewdness of Kissinger who helped Nixon carefully calibrate his supposed irrationality.
Iran likely didn’t come away from its missile test comfortable with anything it learned and very well might try another probing action soon. Perhaps as secretaries Mattis and Tillerson settle into their jobs and the NSC is able to function, the US will be able to come up with something more than putting Iran on notice.