The United States is rapidly heading down the path of confrontation with a rogue-state adversary, a potential foe that has proved rational yet ruthless in pursuit of its interests, including the aggressive development of its nuclear programme and associated military capabilities. The rogue state this description best fits, however, may not be North Korea, but Iran.
Although the slow-motion crisis involving North Korea’s atomic and missile programmes is undoubtedly perilous, it still seems likely that the logic of nuclear deterrence will promote a degree of caution on all sides. In the Middle East, however, the Trump administration is barrelling towards a potential conflict with Iran, one that the White House has shown little capacity to handle thus far.
That looming confrontation is being driven by three powerful factors that are now converging. First is the rapidly approaching endgame of the struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The defeat of that terrorist army is removing a point of tacit cooperation between the US and Iran while sharpening the regional competition between them. Washington and Tehran are gearing up for an intense political struggle for influence with the government of Iraq. The potential for violence between any US troops that remain in Iraq and the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias that strenuously oppose such a presence will be omnipresent.