Donald Trump had the opportunity of his presidency to stand at a White House lectern, look out on the country he leads, and declare to the world his victory over Iran after a deadly standoff.
He blew that chance.
Trump did the bare minimum in his Wednesday morning address, which was to recognize that Iran’s weak attack on two American military sites in Iraq was a deescalation. Instead of specifically targeting US troops at al-Asad airbase and Erbil, it appears Tehran may have missed them on purpose, leading to zero US or Iraqi casualties.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said.
But then his remarks took a turn: He chose not to take the victory lap and use the occasion to boast about his diplomatic and military prowess. He instead escalated his pressure campaign against Iran — the same campaign that fueled this crisis in the first place.
The three ways Trump needlessly escalated the Iran standoff
First, Trump announced he would impose new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, increasing America’s economic squeeze on the country that has already decimated its economy.
“The United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime,” Trump said. “These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior.”
Iran aims to force Trump to lift the sanctions campaign by bombing oil tankers in international waters, striking Saudi oil fields, and even downing US drones. Those actions partly helped bring Washington and Tehran to the brink of all-out war this week. Adding further sanctions on Iran is more likely to lead Tehran to lash out again than to step back from the brink.
Second, Trump called on all parties to the Iran nuclear deal to exit it like the US did in 2018. “The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to ... break away from the remnants of the Iran deal or JCPOA, and we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” he stated.
That’s unlikely to happen, as those European nations want to do business with Iran and Russia and China are Tehran’s allies. But it gives the Islamic Republic another reason to unshackle itself from the nuclear deal’s restrictions and move closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon. Earlier this week, the Iranian regime said it would no longer honor its nuclear enrichment limits — possibly inching it closer to getting the bomb.
Finally, Trump called on the US’s NATO allies to be “much more involved in the Middle East process.” It’s not entirely clear what the president means by this, especially since NATO forces are already in the Middle East, including at the bases in Iraq that were targeted by Iran Tuesday night.
One possibility is that Trump wants more troops from NATO countries to deploy to the region to fend off future Iranian aggression. It’s doubtful allies would have the appetite for that, though, and surely Iran wouldn’t want more Western forces in the area. After all, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated on Wednesday morning that Iran’s goal now is to force US troops out of the Middle East. Having more troops enter the region to join American ones would be viewed as an escalation by Tehran.
Some international security experts, like the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel, see Trump’s rhetoric as consistent with his previous policies. “He still wants to get a deal” with Iran, he told me. “That’s his top policy goal. That’s how he got started and that’s where he wants to end up.” And Trump was never going to stop his maximum-pressure campaign against Iran, and one speech was never going to make both countries suddenly become friends.
But he did have a chance not to take another shot at Iran when it was waving the white flag. With these new statements and actions, then, Trump made the US-Iran standoff worse when he could’ve made it better.