Administration in two minds on tackling enemies
Talk of war with Iran seemed to subside in Washington over the past week. As is his wont, US President Donald Trump lambasted media coverage of his administration's moves against the regime in Tehran. But in doing so he also seemed to push back against an aggressive agenda set by his national security adviser John Bolton.
Then on Sunday, possibly goaded by a segment on Fox News, Trump launched another broadside on Twitter, warning that conflict between the two countries would mark "the official end of Iran".
The atmospherics are making many officials in Washington and capitals elsewhere nervous. On Sunday, a rocket landed near the US Embassy in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, adding to the jitters felt in Iraq - a nation where Iran retains outsize influence. A series of sabotage attacks on oil tankers and facilities in the region were linked to Iran, but experts suggested they were calibrated so as not to justify an American escalation. The US had sent an aircraft carrier group and bombers to the Persian Gulf.
Instead, the news of those deployments elicited a diplomatic backlash against the Trump administration, with allies both in Europe and the Middle East urging caution and insisting they don't want war. Washington's perceived sabre-rattling drew unfavourable parallels to the reckless build up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Rather than galvanising a united front around countering Iran's problematic role in its neighbourhood, the US efforts seemed to only deepen the impression that it was veering down a lonely, provocative path.
Late last week, Trump suggested to reporters that Iran had "great potential" and he would be interested in cutting a deal with the Islamic Republic. He chided Bolton, an inveterate hawk, and quipped to aides "we'd be in war everywhere if it was up to this guy".
The results of Trump's mixed messaging have yet to fully materialise. On the one hand, the apparent dissonance between the anti-Iran zeal of senior officials within his administration and his own stated desire to disentangle the US from the Middle East's conflicts grows louder by the week. On the other, Trump's bellicosity and his administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran is laying the powder for a possibly explosive escalation.
"We've come full circle though, with Washington's attention span so violently short now, that it's possible to dispute intelligence, debate war plans, threaten a full-scale conflict, and then back off the entire idea, just inside of one working week," noted CNN's Nick Paton Walsh.
Walsh pointed to the instincts of officials such as Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom have in the past called for military action against Iran.
"They lurch forwards, and for a week like this one you can genuinely feel like it's 2002 again, and history repeats always more as tragedy than farce," he wrote. "But then the true nature of the Trump presidency emerges - forged on isolationism, on ending wars about places that his base does not understand or care for."
The uncertainty has only raised fears of a calamitous clash that neither side may actually want.
Over the past two years, Trump's threats have often been read as the opening salvos in negotiations. He lobbed insults at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before meeting him at two summits and expressing great personal affection for the totalitarian despot. The Iranian regime, like North Korea, may be hoping to call Trump's bluff, shrugging off Trump's tweets with the assumption that neither he nor American military planners are seriously considering a real intervention.