What will follow Trump's cancelled strike on Iran?

One is to steadily increase his “maximum pressure” campaign to cut off Tehran’s oil exports, while pushing to negotiate a broader accord that would address terrorism, ballistic missiles, regional meddling, and human rights. The prospects of success are small. “There’s zero incentive for Iran to talk to us,” John Kirby, a retired admiral and a former spokesman at the State Department and at the Pentagon, said. “We’ve damaged Iran’s economy, but not enough to bring it to the table.” Nor does the Islamic Republic want to reward Trump for scrapping the nuclear accord.

Another proposal is to flaunt even more troops, ships, and aircraft around Iran’s borders—or even to deploy the U.S. Navy to escort tankers through the Persian Gulf. It’s been tried before: in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq War, Operation Earnest Will, the largest U.S. convoy since the Second World War, had thirty ships in the Gulf to escort reflagged Kuwaiti tankers ferrying Iraqi oil. The first tanker struck an Iranian mine. Iran blamed “invisible hands,” but heralded the incident as “an irreparable blow to America’s political and military prestige.’’ In 1988, the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine and almost sank; in retaliation, the U.S. destroyed two Iranian oil platforms and four ships. The United States was not an innocent party: the U.S.S. Vincennes mistakenly downed an Iran Air passenger plane, killing two hundred and ninety people. Earnest Will lasted for fourteen months, ending only after Iran and Iraq agreed to a ceasefire.

A third option is a tit-for-tat military response to any provocation. That is what the White House was considering on Thursday night—the equivalent of its “precision strikes” on Syrian sites in 2018. The targets were reportedly Iranian missile batteries and radar sites. But Iran is not Syria, the shell of a former state; it has the world’s eighth-largest military, with more than half a million forces. Punitive action would send a strong signal, but it could also trigger a potentially catastrophic escalatory cycle.