The escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran paused on Wednesday, which, as President Trump put it, “is a good thing for all parties concerned.” Having demonstrated that it can strike Iraqi bases where U.S. troops are deployed with precision, Iran announced that it had “concluded” its response to the killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani; Mr. Trump, reporting that no Americans were killed or injured by Tehran’s missiles, set aside the sweeping attacks he had threatened on 52 sites inside Iran.
Mr. Trump’s acolytes quickly proclaimed him victorious for having eliminated the architect of Iran’s foreign adventurism while avoiding a more damaging response. That assessment was premature and shortsighted. Iran’s strikes on U.S. interests and allies will almost certainly continue in the coming months. Unless the Trump administration quickly steps up its diplomatic game, what Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called his ultimate aim – the removal of the United States from the Middle East – could soon be realized in Iraq and Syria.
Then there is Iran’s nuclear program, which the regime announced it would step up in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing. In his White House address Wednesday, Mr. Trump asserted that he would “never let” Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. But, having scrapped the deal that curtailed Iran’s program and plunged into confrontation with the regime, he has articulated no coherent strategy for stopping additional Iranian enrichment of uranium – other than calling on European allies and Russia to give up their attempts to save the pact.
Mr. Trump ought to embrace the pause in hostilities as an opportunity to begin serious negotiations with the Islamic republic. That is the course favored not only by a majority of Americans but also by Mideast allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been pressing for restraint. Though he nodded to the idea, saying the United States was “ready to embrace peace,” Mr. Trump also said he would intensify already-massive sanctions on Iran. That campaign of “maximum pressure” has failed to bring about the new nuclear negotiations Mr. Trump says he wants, much less the regime collapse or capitulation his more hawkish advisers hope for. But it virtually ensures that Iranian responses like last year’s attacks on Persian Gulf shipping and Saudi oil fields will continue.
Tehran will meanwhile press its advantage in Baghdad, where Iraqi legislators furious over two U.S. military operations in its territory in less than a week voted Sunday to expel the 5,000 American troops in the country. Abetted by U.S. incompetence – the dispatch of a letter announcing a withdrawal that was later termed a mistake – acting prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi is pressing the case. Mr. Trump only helped him with a foolish threat to impose sanctions on Iraq; in his address Wednesday, Mr. Trump sounded as if he were arguing the case for an American retreat, saying he wanted NATO to become more involved in the region and that “we do not need Middle East oil.”
There was reason for relief Wednesday that the United States and Iran had avoided a plunge into full-scale war. But Mr. Trump’s manifest lack of clear goals or strategy in the Middle East, combined with his readiness to launch strikes or order troop movements on impulse, is cause for continued alarm.
A version of this editorial first appeared in The Washington Post.