Last Thursday night, the United States almost went to war with Iran. According to a report in the New York Times, Donald Trump approved military strikes against the Islamic Republic in response to the downing of an American surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz on June 20, before abruptly changing his mind.

“The operation was under way in its early stages when it was called off,” the Times revealed. “Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down.”

On Friday afternoon, via his favoured medium, Trump himself confirmed the accuracy of the report, tweeting that US forces had been “cocked & loaded” on three separate Iranian targets when, with just minutes to spare, he decided that an intensive bombing campaign wouldn’t have been a “proportionate” response to Iran’s alleged provocation.

The president’s eleventh-hour reversal may have stopped – or at least delayed – another round of unnecessary bloodletting in the Middle East.

But it will also have been personally jarring for at least two of his closest foreign policy adjutants, as well as for many of his most ardent supporters on Capitol Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have been aggressively lobbying for a military confrontation with Iran since they were first appointed to the Trump cabinet in the Spring of 2018 – and their efforts reflect the profoundly hawkish instincts of a sizeable constituency on the American right.

For many Republicans, war with Iran isn’t just a pressing strategic imperative, it’s an ideological one, too.

Conservatives in Washington view Iran as their principal antagonist in the Muslim world – a state sponsor of terrorism with close ties to militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah; a constant, destabilising influence in crumbling, war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria; a staunch enemy of Israel; and, above all, an aspiring nuclear power.

Both Pompeo, a former director of the CIA, and Bolton, an arch neoconservative who helped orchestrate the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have been vocal about their desire for regime change in Tehran.

Indeed, they have even publicly discussed how America should go about achieving that goal.

“The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs in Tehran,” Bolton stated in 2017 at a “Free Iran” conference in Paris. “The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.”

Under their influence, Trump’s rhetoric on Iran has become increasingly bellicose.

When he ran for president in 2016, Trump cast himself as a foreign policy isolationist, uneasy with the doctrine of liberal interventionism that had dominated elite Washington circles since the mid-1990s.

During the early stages of his presidency, this attitude seemed to frame his approach to international affairs.

Flanked by relative moderates like General James Mattis at the Defence Department and Rex Tillerson at State, the prospect of a serious military escalation with Iran looked remote.

But things changed with the arrival of Pompeo and Bolton.

In May 2018, Trump announced that he was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal – with immediate effect.

“It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the current agreement,” Trump said at the time. “The Iran deal is defective at its core.”

The JCPOA was negotiated by Barack Obama in 2015 with the aim of bringing Iran’s nuclear weapons programme to a halt.

In exchange for suspending its nuclear ambitions, economic sanctions previously imposed on Iran by the UN, the US and the EU would be lifted and the Iranian Government would gain a degree of legitimacy on the international stage.

The deal was multilateral, backed not just by Iran and the Obama White House but by Europe, China and Russia as well.

And yet, the Republican party unanimously rejected it, dismissing Obama’s hard-fought compromise as a capitulation to the Iranian regime and a betrayal of Israel which, under the nationalist leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, has consistently opposed any and all moves to reintroduce Iran into the global mainstream.

“Iran has routinely threatened the United States and its neighbours for decades,” the late senator John McCain, a Republican critic of Trump’s, stated in 2017. “I did not support the nuclear deal at the time it was proposed, and many of its specific terms will make it harder to pursue the comprehensive strategy we need.”

Since the US withdrawal, tensions between Washington and Tehran have intensified.

In November last year, sanctions were reimposed on Iran’s oil, banking and transport sectors, critically undermining the country’s economic growth and further isolating it from its major trading partners.

In April 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, an elite branch of the Iranian armed forces, were blacklisted by the US, marking, for the first time, Washington’s decision to formally designate another nation’s military as a “terrorist organisation.”

And in May, the Americans bolstered their naval and aerial forces in the waters around Iran in order, John Bolton declared, to send a “clear and unmistakable message” to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani regarding America’s military might.

The National: Iranian president Hassan RouhaniIranian president Hassan Rouhani

(According to some estimates, the US already has 80,000 troops on the ground in the region and thousands more stationed on naval vessels in the surrounding seas.) Iran has certainly retaliated, not least by – allegedly – engaging in “acts of sabotage” against commercial shipping tankers from countries allied to the US sailing round the Iranian coast.

But it’s impossible to deny who the chief aggressor in this stand-off is, and which of the two countries enjoys the clear military and economic advantages.

The main question is whether Pompeo and Bolton can persuade Trump to overcome his reticence about getting drawn into a potentially intractable foreign military engagement.

American public opinion is likely to play a central role in Trump’s decision-making process.

ACCORDING to a Reuters/Ipsos Mori poll conducted in May, although a high proportion of US voters (49%) believe a conflict with Iran will probably take place at some point in the next few years, a much larger share (60%) remains opposed to any pre-emptive US strike on the Iranian military.

Moreover, 61% of Americans still back the Obama nuclear deal, while a massive 80% either “disapprove” or “strongly disapprove” of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

Given these numbers, it seems unlikely that Trump would want to jeopardise his chances of re-election next year by getting embroiled in a foreign war that would, by all accounts, be enormously unpopular with a hefty majority of the US electorate.

Congress could be another obstacle.

Trump’s aides have argued that the president has the legal authority to unilaterally order military action by invoking resolutions passed by the Senate and House of Representatives in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But the Democrats disagree and left-wing figureheads like Bernie Sanders have pledged to block any attempt by the executive branch to initiate conflict in the absence of congressional approval.

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“Unfortunately for this president and people like John Bolton who love endless wars, the constitutional authority for declaring war rests with the United States Congress – not the president – no matter if that president is a Democrat or a Republican,” Sanders wrote in an email to his supporters last month. “It is long past time my colleagues in the Senate re-assert that authority.”

Finally, the international community will do everything it can to stave off an outbreak of hostilities.

Iran, Europe and the other signatories to the JCPOA aren’t the only actors who don’t want to see another war in the Middle East: even America’s allies in the region are uneasy about Washington’s sabre-rattling.

Notably, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to some high-ranking officers in the Israeli defence establishment, have all expressed concerns about the consequences of actively trying to topple Iran’s government by force.

The problem, however, is that the chances of a radical escalation are measurably heightened by Trump himself.

As president, Trump has been tasked with the challenge of navigating one of the world’s most acute geopolitical crisis points – something he obviously isn’t equipped to do.

On one hand, he wants to batter Iran into submission using the threat of military action.

On the other – much to the frustration of Pompeo and Bolton – he is visibly reluctant to commit US forces to any kind of military operation that might spiral rapidly out of control.

In other words, as his dramatic volte-face on Thursday night revealed, he isn’t conclusively interventionist or non-interventionist.

What he’s opted for, instead, is a policy of blustering incoherence – and that policy is almost as likely to end in war as any other.

For now, Trump has simply said “Iran made a very big mistake” in shooting down the US drone.

Those words appear to signal that there may not be an immediate US response to the incident.

Outgoing White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has said the administration would also keep in touch with lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have demanded briefings on the US conflict with Iran.