The Current

Trump cancelling strike on Iran was both a warning, and an offer to negotiate: expert

After the downing of an American military drone, the U.S. planned limited strikes on Iran Thursday, and then abruptly cancelled them. We discuss tensions between the two countries, and fears that they could lead to outright hostilities.

U.S. president reportedly cancelled retaliatory attack on Iran on Thursday

Outside the White House Thursday, protesters were calling for a peaceful resolution to tensions between the U.S. and Iran. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)
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U.S. President Donald Trump's last-minute cancellation of a strike on Iran was meant to send a clear message, according to an expert on international studies.

"Ordering first an attack and then pulling it back is … showing restraint," said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Washington D.C.

"It's also a signal to Iran and others: 'I can do this, but I'm still waiting to see whether there's a path forward other than conflict,'" Nasr told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"I think he really wants to talk to Iran, but he doesn't know how to get there."

The U.S. reportedly planned to strike Iran Thursday, over the downing of an American drone in what Iran said was its territory. Trump called off the retaliation at the last minute, and tweeted Friday morning that it was to avoid the loss of 150 lives.

Similar incidents have been mounting in recent months, including an attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week. Iran denies carrying out the attack.

Tensions have been rising since Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran in May last year, which was designed to limit the country's weapons program.

The U.S. has pursued a "maximum pressure" campaign of economic sanctions since then, which have severely damaged Iran's economy.

Ali Vaez said that tensions are rising because Tehran has lost patience with those sanctions.

"I think the effectiveness of sanctions and driving the Iranian economy into the ground has brought their maximum patience policy to an end, and now the Iranians are pushing back," said Vaez, director of the Iran Project for the International Crisis Group.

Attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week has ratcheted up tensions between the U.S. and Iran. (File/The Associated Press)

He said the country is trying "to demonstrate to the U.S. that there is a cost associated with a hostile policy towards Iran, so that it would be deterred from ratcheting up pressure any further."

Vaez told Chattopadhyay that both sides have now shown they can inflict serious harm on each other.

Given Washington's actions over the past year, Vaez believes it is quite difficult for the Iranian government "to engage with [Trump]."

He said that as the stronger party, Trump should make the first concession, in order to show that "he is serious about negotiations." 

Iranians will rally to their flag, just as Americans would, Vali Nasr tells Piya Chattopadhyay. 1:29

Nasr said that Trump is being faced with a scenario he didn't expect, one where "the Iranians would actually risk war or are willing to push him."

That's left him "outside his comfort zone," he said.

"[Trump] doesn't want war but he's being goaded by some members of his administration," he told Chattopadhyay.

"He's vacillating right now between a typical American reaction, which is to use force and retaliate, and his own inclination, which is not to go to war, and still try to see whether he can salvage his policy."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran with files from CBC News. Produced by Imogen Birchard, Max Paris and Jessica Linzey.

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