Yesterday US President Donald Trump put a last-second halt to what would have been his third military action against targets in the Middle East, after hitting Syria twice. As bombastic as his Twitter account can be, he has undoubtedly taken a more measured tone with Iran.
In just the last two months, forces suspected to be Iranian or Iranian-backed have allegedly attacked a pipeline and multiple commercial vessels, Iran has threatened to increase uranium enrichment beyond the levels agreed to in the initial nuclear deal, and on Thursday Iran seemingly shot down a $US130 million ($188 million) drone over international waters.
Reports citing Iranian sources say Trump threatened a US strike unless Tehran agreed to negotiations, but then cancelled the strikes at the last moment after Iran seemingly called his bluff.
It is unclear at this point whether this was merely a strategic leak from the Iranian government to goad President Trump into a more destabilising action or the reality of how events unfolded.
What is clear, however, is that there is strategic value for the United States in not retaliating against Iran with more strikes at this time. It’s still unclear whether Trump changed course on air strikes due to a simple change of heart, logistical developments, or even because he is planning to conduct them at some time in the future.
The Iranian government and military are deliberate and calculating actors. It is highly unlikely that the attack on the drone – or their other recent actions in the region – were mistakes, unintentional, or the action of rogue elements of the Iranian military.
The Iranian military executes strategic orders of the dictatorial government. Amid a floundering economy and little or no support from its neighbours or any other great powers, such orders would likely include actions that, short of war, change the status quo.
This has not only resulted in ever more pressure from Iran on the European countries which are trying to salvage the Iran deal, but also, more importantly, an increased tolerance for the rising tension with the United States.
Trump has many reasons to respond to an attack by escalating the situation, particularly if it would discourage further Iranian attacks. Some even argue that Trump is the adult in the room among hawks in his administration such as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, both of whom reportedly favour retaliatory attacks and broader escalation.
Ultimately, however, the US incurs a lot more risk from escalating using military attacks than if it demonstrates strategic patience.
Strategic patience at this point would help win the United States more international support for its campaign against Iran.
The United States lost allied support when it unilaterally withdrew from the Iran deal in 2018 and re-established sanctions on Iran, resulting in the tanking of the Iranian currency and economy more broadly.
This is an opportunity for the United States to act more strategically than it did in its withdrawal from the deal.
That said, strategic patience need not be a complete lack of retaliation. There are plenty of options short of major military strikes, ranging from further sanctions to more targeted covert actions.
And the United States does not have the support from allies or a domestic political appetite for another war in the Middle East.
There is also strategic value in recognising the most consequential challenge to the US is not a dictatorial regime in the Middle East.
It does have seemingly increasing bipartisan support from its allies and a domestic political appetite for a more robust deterrence of China. Recognising the more consequential threat to both the US, and Australia for that matter, is the most strategic move Trump could make.