Still more threatening is Iran’s nuclear programme. Mr Trump pulled America out of the agreement with Iran, signed in 2015 with six world powers, which limited its ability to get a bomb. He argued that he would be able to negotiate a better deal which also took in Iran’s non-nuclear regional activities—a proposal he repeated in his press conference this week. Last summer there was speculation that Iran was ready to talk. But that now seems out of the question, possibly for a long time. Indeed, on January 5th Iran said it would no longer abide by any restrictions on the enrichment of uranium. It has every reason to indulge in nuclear brinkmanship not only as a bargaining counter against America, but also because, were Iran to get the bomb, it would permanently oblige America to change its calculations about using military force against it.
The lack of an American strategy for negotiation means that the general’s killing has reduced America’s Iran policy to extreme sanctions accompanied by an ill-defined threat of massive retaliation if the regime misbehaves. Yet, starving Iran into submission is unlikely to work—other regimes have resisted American pressure for longer. There is no path to the peace Mr Trump this week said he wanted. Indeed, because America’s red lines are unclear, the danger of blundering into war remains.
Meanwhile, sanctions and deterrence will gradually become less potent, because they always do. If America wants its approach to be sustained, the price could well be repeated rounds of sanctions buttressed by sustained military counters to Iranian aggression—and an aerial campaign if Iran appears about to get the bomb. Is Mr Trump prepared for that? Are his successors?
The wrong place at the wrong time
Both Barack Obama and Mr Trump realised that turmoil in the Middle East consumes American resources and attention that would be better focused on Asia. Mr Obama tried to negotiate his way out of the region and failed. Mr Trump is trying to bully his way out instead, but he is likely to fail, too—because his strategy towards the regime in Tehran depends on America being present in the Middle East to contain Iran and maintain deterrence. The dramatic assassination of General Suleimani may look like a gamble that has paid off in the short term. Unfortunately, it has not solved America’s Iran problem.