Is Trump Ready for War with Iran?

On Wednesday, Hezbollah issued a deterrent threat to the United States, stating that the Lebanese-based militant group will attack US forces if the US crosses certain “red lines” in Syria. Several times over the last few months, the US has launched air strikes against pro-Assad forces, including elements of Hezbollah, that the US has accused of violating the “de-confliction zones” set up by the US and Russia. Despite both the US and Iran being opposed to ISIS–and to some degree cooperating against the Islamic State in Iraq–in Syria, the two states goals are at loggerheads, with the US fighting primarily against ISIS while Iran strives to support the beleaguered regime.

The problem lies in the de-confliction zone, which Iran seems to seeking to control in order to develop a corridor through Syria to Lebanon, through which it could supply Hezbollah with weapons. The US, prodded to some degree by Israel and its Sunni allies, all of whom fear the rise of Hezbollah and the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, has been punishing violations of the de-confliction zone as a way to push back against Iran and its proxy.

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Why President Trump Won’t Move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (Unless…).

On Tuesday, Vice President Pence stated that President Trump was “seriously considering” moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump campaigned on a promise to move the embassy, something that nearly every presidential candidate has talked about doing but that none has actually followed through on. The US embassy is in Tel Aviv for political reasons: the disputed status of East Jerusalem and its role in any future peace negotiations with the Palestinians have led every American president to rethink the wisdom of inflaming Arab and Islamic public opinion for such little gain. Yes, Israel wants the international community to recognize Jerusalem as its capital, but Israel already has permanent control of West Jerusalem, so there’s little tangible gains to be made by the US for moving the embassy.

Given Trump’s unpredictability, however, his promise on the campaign trail was taken differently; maybe he’ll actually do it! Furthermore, the selection of  pro-settler David Friedman, a staunch supporter of moving the embassy, as US ambassador to Israel seemed to confirm that Trump was planning on upending the status quo. As Trump prepares to make a trip to Israel, possibly later this month, rumors are flying around that Trump will announce American recognition of East and West Jerusalem as the united capital city of Israel, if not formally announce the relocation of the embassy. These two options are, essentially, distinctions without difference, as American recognition of a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an acknowledgement of Israeli sovereign control of East Jerusalem which the Palestinians and other Arab states, not unreasonably, would see as prejudicing the final status negotiations that will eventually be necessary to secure a peace agreement and a Palestinian state.

Despite all of the promises, rumors, and even the appointment of Friedman, I do not expect the president to alter in any significant way the status quo on Jerusalem. There are several reasons that I am skeptical President Trump will move the embassy or recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

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Understanding Iran’s Missile Test

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.

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