When President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last May, many critics argued that he risked setting off a chain of events that could lead to war. The nuclear deal wasn’t perfect, supporters of the deal acknowledged, but if the United States precipitously walked away and the deal collapsed, Iran might resume its nuclear enrichment program, and to stop it, the United States would end up with no option but to use force. This in turn could ignite a wider conflagration. But administration officials and other opponents of the deal dismissed such concerns—even as they insisted that in the agreement’s absence, the best way to block Iran’s nuclear program was with the “credible military option.”

Now the inevitable escalation cycle seems well under way. As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, in the past month alone the United States has designated the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist group; ended the waivers that allowed a small number of countries to purchase Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions; announced additional sanctions designed to cripple the country’s economy; and even deployed an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region to send “a clear and unmistakable message” to the Iranian regime not to challenge the United States. 

Predictably, Iran has responded not by caving to U.S. demands (let alone collapsing) but with a pressure campaign of its own. On May 8, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would suspend compliance with parts of the nuclear deal and would withdraw entirely if Europe did not find a way to deliver economic benefits to Iran within 60 days—something nearly impossible to achieve. Four days later, four Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were sabotaged with explosives, and two days after that drones crashed into Saudi oil facilities, causing explosions and shutting down a pipeline. No Iranian role in these events has been proved, but the IRGC has resorted to similar asymmetrical and untraceable attacks in the past—which is exactly why U.S. military and intelligence officials had warned that such retaliation was possible.

The Trump administration has now responded to Iran’s response by leaking intelligence that Iran was preparing potential missile attacks against American interests and warning Iran publicly about potential military action. Washington even went so far as to evacuate the staff of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and to put out word that the United States was preparing contingency plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the region. Trump himself described reports of the military preparations as “fake news,” but also said that he would deploy “a hell of a lot more troops than that” if needed, and that Iran would “suffer greatly” if it attacked Americans. For his part, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that “if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion.” On May 16, a state-aligned newspaper in Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the Trump administration, called for “surgical strikes” against Iran, while a Trump supporter and occasional foreign-policy adviser, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, confidently predicted that the United States could win a war with Iran with just two strikes: “the first strike and the last strike.”

Iran is not likely to enter talks with an administration it does not trust.

Avoiding further escalation will be difficult, given both sides’ determination not to back down. A new nuclear negotiation, which Trump claims to want, would be one way to avoid a clash. But Iran is not likely to enter talks with an administration it does not trust, and even less likely to agree to the sort of far-reaching deal Trump says is necessary: one that bans all enrichment, lasts forever, allows for even more intrusive inspections than the old agreement, restricts ballistic missiles, and constrains Iran’s regional behavior. Then there’s the scenario in which Iran just hunkers down and hopes that President Trump is voted out of office in 2020. But eighteen months is a long time to endure the sort of economic pressure that Iran is under; and in any case, Iran appears to have closed the door on that option by threatening to violate the nuclear deal if it does not get rapid economic relief.

Further escalation, on the other hand, is quite easy to imagine: should Iran leave the deal entirely, expand its nuclear program even gradually, or sponsor direct or proxy attacks on U.S. troops, the United States will be confronted with only two choices—a humiliating climb-down or the use of military force.

All Too Predictable

That the Trump administration’s approach to Iran could lead the United States into an inadvertent conflict should come as a surprise to no one. Indeed, from the day Trump took office, many feared that his impulsive behavior, blustering rhetoric, inability to think ahead, disrespect for policy process, and determination to “win” could lead to war. In a spring 2017 essay for this magazine (“A Vision of Trump at War,” May/June 2017), I raised concerns about his potential to stumble into conflict with Iran, China, or North Korea. I wrote the essay in the form of a fictional look back at events that hadn’t actually happened but could, if Trump tried to bluff his way to “better deals” through confrontation and escalation, and without realistically assessing what was achievable or how potential adversaries might react.

Two years later, the good news is that none of these wars have happened. But the bad news is that Trump continues to display the characteristics that made such developments plausible in the first place. If anything, he appears readier than ever to break with norms and antagonize allies and adversaries alike. Moreover, the advisers who now surround him are less willing and able than their predecessors to constrain his most provocative tendencies—when they are not actually determined to encourage such tendencies for their own purposes. Iran is by far the most dangerous contingency in the near term, but it is hardly the only place where Trump could stumble into accidental war.

Trump seems to have painted himself into a corner with China in much the same way as he has done with Iran: by imposing unilateral sanctions, misreading his opponents, and misleading the American people about the costs, risks, and consequences of his approach. The tariffs he initially imposed on $50 billion in imports from China were supposed to produce a “better deal,” but instead—and unsurprisingly—provoked Chinese counter-tariffs. The United States responded by increasing the rate of the tariffs and preparing to expand them to cover the entirety of China’s $540 billion in exports to the United States. Even as the costs to U.S. farmers, producers, and consumers mount, Trump is now speculating that he will be better off politically if he continues to confront China at least until the 2020 elections.

A trade deal with China is, of course, still possible, just like a new nuclear deal with Iran. But further escalation is also a real possibility, as is a dangerous spillover from the economic domain to the political one. Indeed, in my fictional scenario I imagined the slippery slope toward military conflict having been preceded by a “trade war that escalated beyond what either side had predicted,” and an extreme nationalist China denying the United States cooperation in North Korea and challenging it in the South China Sea. China’s state media is now calling the United States an “all-out bully,” a “paper tiger,” and “colonialist.” At least one prominent Chinese scholar has suggested that Beijing hit the “anxious and arrogant” United States by banning the rare earths on which U.S. industry relies and selling U.S. treasury bonds, moves that would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy. Trump seems to have failed to anticipate that other countries have domestic politics, too—not to mention leverage to use against the United States.  

Trump’s approach to North Korea began with bluster, name-calling, and threats, yielding in 2018 to a surprising rapprochement; Trump even claimed that he and the dictator Kim Jong Un “fell in love.” This courting of Kim was a welcome alternative to a possible nuclear war, but Trump could easily revert to hostility, given his penchant for turning suddenly and brutally on anyone whom he believes has turned on him. North Korea’s recent testing of a “new type of tactical-guided weapon,” its resumption of short-range missile tests, and the U.S. seizure of a North Korean smuggling ship that Pyongyang is demanding be returned are all recent reminders that relations could deteriorate quickly if Trump’s professed love for Kim proves unrequited.

Iran is hardly the only place where Trump could stumble into accidental war.

And now we can add Venezuela to the list of countries about which U.S. miscalculations could lead to deadly conflict. Trump boldly threw in his lot with the Venezuelan opposition and called for regime change, confident that U.S. pressure could dislodge the corrupt regime of Nicolas Maduro. He seems to have failed to anticipate that Maduro would use violence to cling to power, and that he would do so with Russian, Chinese, and Cuban support. Now Trump finds himself caught between accepting an embarrassing failure or escalating in a way that could involve U.S. military intervention, an “option” he does not rule out.

What Next?

With all the public talk about the potential for conflict with Iran, Trump appears to be looking for a way out. He said last week that he would “like to see [Iran’s leaders] call me,” and he reportedly told the Pentagon that he did not want to go to war. His continued outreach to Chinese Leader Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, despite their defiance, also suggests that he may well understand the risks of escalation. Perhaps Trump has, after all, envisaged a future that includes inadvertent U.S. military conflict and doesn’t like what he sees.

Less reassuring, however, is that the Trump administration’s overall approach to these issues—and the president’s personal approach to dealmaking—has not changed and risks ending in catastrophic failure. The pattern seems to be one of hoping that threats, sanctions, and bluster force an adversary to concede or accept a “great deal”; then, having failed to anticipate the actual results of such tactics, the United States finds itself backed into a corner with no obvious way out. In an apparent effort to assuage fears of war with Iran, one senior U.S. official said to The Washington Post this week, “because we are applying levels of pressure that don’t have any historic precedent, I think we can expect Iran to increase its threats and to increase its malign behavior.” That such a response from Iran might be explicable does not make it reassuring.  

While Trump may not want war, moreover, he is no longer surrounded by advisers who can help him avoid it. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, someone who had seen war up close, was a voice of restraint, but he has now been gone for six months, and his acting successor has neither the stature nor apparently the willingness to challenge Trump. The president’s two closest foreign policy advisers are now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—an uber-hawk on Iran who seems to tell Trump only what he wants to hear—and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has long advocated the very sorts of wars Trump apparently seeks to avoid. Bolton has argued that the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear program is to bomb it and advocated supporting Iranian ethnic and internal resistance groups in order to accelerate regime change. He has also called on the United States to revisit the “one China” policy and “see how an increasingly belligerent China responds”; refused to rule out the use of U.S. forces in Venezuela while insisting that the Monroe Doctrine is “alive and well”; and written that “it is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”

In 2017, when I imagined various ways the United States might stumble into a conflict, I got some things right and some things wrong. What I certainly failed to anticipate was that two years further on, we would be relying on the instincts of Donald Trump to keep us out of war.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • PHILIP H. GORDON is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region from 2013 to 2015.
  • More By Philip H. Gordon