Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum PhotosIranian Basij paramilitary forces during an annual reenactment of the Iran–Iraq War at a park in southern Tehran, 2015
August 15, 2019 Issue
There is no plausible reason for the United States to go to war with Iran, although the Trump administration appears to be preparing to do so. In mid-May, the Pentagon presented the White House with plans for deploying up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East to respond to Iranian attacks on US forces or the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
To be sure, the Iranian government is guilty of genuine transgressions against American interests and values. It backs Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad. It undermines the security of Israel by organizing and sustaining Shia militias in Syria, supporting the Palestinian extremist group Hamas, and arming the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah. By serving as Iran’s proxy on Israel’s border, Hezbollah exposes Lebanon—long a fragile state—to the risk of Israeli retaliation. Iran has also supported Shia militias in Iraq that in theory answer to the Iraqi prime minister through a special commission, but in practice are outside the national military command structure, which compromises the cohesion and authority of the Iraqi state.
With money and weapons, Iran backs the Houthis, an insurrectionist movement in Yemen that has ousted the elected government and attacked the territory of its Saudi patrons. It has allegedly tried to stir Shia unrest in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, where the US has an important naval base, and in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It is developing ballistic missiles that could threaten its neighbors and—especially if they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads—could provoke an arms race in the region. Iranian authorities detain and jail foreigners, including Americans, on fabricated charges. And the Iranian government oppresses its own people by coercing them into obeying strict religious rules, limiting their political choices, and abusing and imprisoning journalists.
This list of misdeeds served as the pretext for the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the Iran nuclear deal—and for the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran. The withdrawal made emphatically clear that rollback—coercively reversing any Iranian gains in regional power and influence rather than just containing them, with an eye ultimately toward regime change in Tehran—is the policy that the administration now embraces. It wants to force Iran to curtail its ballistic missile development and its provocations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—none of which the JCPOA addresses—as well its nuclear program. Strongly supporting this hard-line position is Saudi Arabia under its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, which has become the United States’ main Arab partner in the Middle East.
Yet Iran had continued to observe the JCPOA’s limits on its nuclear program until recently, when it declared its intention to breach the 3.67 percent uranium enrichment limit stipulated by the agreement and said that it had exceeded the three-hundred-kilogram ceiling for stockpiled fuel. It has not carried out terrorist attacks against Americans in years.1 Its reactions to Israeli strikes on the small forces it maintains in Syria have been subdued. The Shia militias it backs are ragtag, composed mainly of young Afghani, Iraqi, and Syrian fighters. Moreover, in Iraq, militias thought to be aligned with Iran—known as Popular Mobilization Forces—have not come into conflict with US troops and, in the fight against ISIS, were battling a common enemy.
Iran is economically beleaguered and its military is weak, plagued by outdated equipment, a defense-industrial base that cannot supply much of the hardware it needs, and a conscript army that is poorly trained. Its warplanes use 1960s technology. Its navy is essentially a coastal defense force, and its only means of harassing the US Navy are small, lightly armed boats that would use swarming tactics against 105,000-ton Nimitz-class carriers, such as the one deployed to the Persian Gulf in early May, and their strike groups. Iran has virtually no amphibious military capability. It does possess a large inventory of cruise missiles, rockets, and mines, and is capable of disrupting shipping and harming US warships.
Its capacity to project military strength abroad, however, is quite limited. The idea that Iran could dominate, let alone subjugate, the states on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf is risible. Yet the Trump administration, with Saudi Arabia’s encouragement, insists that Iran controls four regional capitals—Damascus, Sana’a, Baghdad, and Beirut—and has designs on others, such as Manama, the capital of Bahrain. This is a variation on the “Shia Crescent” scenario, which acquired currency about fifteen years ago among wary Sunni governments in the region. There is little evidence of its validity. Iran did help save the Assad regime. But this barely restored the status quo ante, while costing Iran considerable money and casualties, and Hezbollah, its local surrogate, large-scale casualties. Furthermore, while Assad may be beholden to Tehran, he must now also answer to Moscow, which decisively intervened after Iran did and has interests in the region that do not easily coincide with Tehran’s. In Yemen, Iran has, through glorified harassment, merely raised the cost to Saudi Arabia and the UAE of controlling Yemeni politics, without enhancing its strategic leverage there because, among other things, its navy cannot operate effectively in the Red Sea.
Iran does have considerable influence in Iraq, but it was the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent elevation of Iraq’s Shia majority to political dominance that facilitated it. Iran also has strong relations with largely Shia political parties and semi-autonomous militias in Iraq. But the US retains much influence there as well, since it not only supports the Iraqi government financially and trains its military but also has a wide range of commercial interests. The government that ultimately emerged in Baghdad from national elections in 2018—led by President Barham Salih, a British-educated Kurdish leader; Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shia economist and intellectual who lived in France for years and attended an American Jesuit school in Baghdad; and Speaker Muhammad al-Halbusi, a former governor of Anbar Province and a supporter of US troops remaining in Iraq—can scarcely be described as Iran’s dream team for Iraq.
It’s true that Iran has for years had a strong foothold in Lebanon and has supplied Hezbollah with a vast arsenal of increasingly sophisticated missiles and rockets, which give Tehran the capacity to attack Israel by proxy. But Hezbollah’s militarization was the product of Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982, which was aimed at eliminating the Palestine Liberation Organization. Iran seems to regard Hezbollah’s missile inventory as part of its own strategic deterrent, not to be put at risk for anything short of preventing Iran’s annihilation by Israel. Such an Israeli threat would likely emerge only in response to Iranian aggression or rapid progress toward a nuclear weapon. In this light, Iran’s long-standing influence in Lebanon melds self-protection with strategic expansion. Critics often point to Iranian assistance to Hamas, but it has been relatively modest, mainly financial and political, and essentially symbolic. Iran’s support for Palestinian militants and its other marginal challenges to regional stability are manageable and do not strategically threaten Israel, the United States, or its Gulf Arab partners.
Are there real as opposed to perceived Iranian threats to the United States and its allies and partners? There is some truth to the allegation that Iran provides safe haven for jihadists who crossed the border from Afghanistan when the US ground campaign there seemed to stall in 2003, despite the fact that the overall thrust of Iranian security policy is to thwart Sunni jihadism wherever it appears, especially in Syria and Iraq. Former US director of national intelligence James Clapper referred to this tactical cooperation as a “longstanding…shotgun marriage or marriage of convenience.” A recently released compendium of declassified documents captured in the US raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden makes clear the abiding mistrust between the two sides and the miserable conditions that al-Qaeda operatives have endured as guests of Iran.
Washington did, of course, identify a strategic threat in Iran’s nuclear research effort, which had advanced fitfully since the time of the shah’s rule. But the JCPOA could manage that problem at least until 2030, when the caps on fuel stockpiles and enrichment levels expire, and probably well beyond then, given that the International Atomic Energy Agency is to continue intrusive inspections indefinitely under the terms of the agreement. These inspections would make a breakout to nuclear capability thereafter a highly risky proposition for Iran. If American provocations, including its disavowal of the JCPOA, push Iran to jump-start its nuclear program, again the US will have only itself to blame. In view of America’s superior military capabilities and Tehran’s circumspection, that possibility had appeared unlikely until the most recent tightening of sanctions. Though Iran has now exceeded negotiated limits on uranium enrichment, it has not threatened to reach weapons-grade level. In an impressive display of illogic, the White House promptly declared, in effect, that its withdrawal from the JCPOA and resumption of sanctions were warranted by the Iranian response to those actions.
The situation is becoming increasingly volatile. National Security Adviser John Bolton broadly favors the threat and use of military force to implement US policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo harbors a profound conviction that in opposing Iran and embracing Israel he is an instrument of God’s will, having pledged to continue such efforts until “the rapture.”2 The Trump administration’s stated reason for “maximum pressure” on Iran through sanctions is to force Tehran back into negotiations to limit its ballistic missile program and destabilizing regional activities. But given the high degree of mistrust that the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA has generated in Tehran, that rationale can only be read as disingenuous.
John Bolton; drawing by John Springs
In effect, Bolton and Pompeo have repurposed sanctions—normally conceived as an alternative to armed conflict—as the means to provoke a war. Even if sanctions fail—as they so far have—to force Iran’s oil exports down to zero, cripple its economy, and create internal strife on a scale large enough to topple the Iranian government, they could nevertheless provoke Iran to directly counterattack American targets in the region, which would give Washington a casus belli to pursue regime change through force. The suspected Iranian attacks in June on a Japanese tanker and a Norwegian tanker in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, and Iran’s subsequent shooting down of an unmanned US surveillance drone, suggest how easily this scenario could develop.
It is less probable but still plausible that Tehran’s intransigence could lead Trump to declare victory, based on a real or imagined turn of events favoring the United States, as has happened in his relationship with Kim Jong-un, or on a deescalation of the conflict, hinted at by Trump’s observation that the June attacks on the tankers were not all that important, since the US does not rely on Saudi oil. Trump’s response to the drone’s destruction revealed both his impulsiveness and his tendency to back off. Initially, he vowed threateningly that Iran would “find out” what would happen when it attacks American assets and ordered US Central Command to prepare to strike three Iranian sites in retaliation. Later, however, he noted that the shootdown of the drone had caused no fatalities and suggested that some “loose and stupid” Iranian officer might have “made a big mistake.” Whether the drone was in Iranian airspace, as Tehran claimed, or international airspace, as Washington maintained, remains unclear. Bolton, Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel apparently favored retaliation, while the Pentagon counseled restraint. With aircraft and warships reportedly in position to attack, Trump called off the strikes.
His tweeted explanation was that a high number of potential Iranian fatalities made the planned response “not proportionate” to the downing of an unmanned drone. An unnamed source told The New York Times that the president also thought the rapid shift gave him the bearing of a decisive and discriminating commander. Yet the essential takeaway from this episode is that Trump lacks a coherent policy with a clear desired outcome. In another mixed message and inadvertent swipe at Bolton, the administration’s nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, dismissed congressional concern that a preoccupation with Iran would distract the US from serious threats posed by China and Russia, saying, “I don’t think anyone is seriously considering anything approaching [deploying 150,000 US troops].”
It is conceivable that Trump could try to rebrand the JCPOA with marginal changes as his own improved deal—much as he did with NAFTA—and try to entice Iran into renewed negotiations. On July 16, he seized on Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s off-the-cuff remark that the door to negotiations was “wide open” should the US drop existing sanctions, claiming that “a lot of progress” had been made in nonexistent talks between Washington and Tehran. Iran immediately rejected this outlandish claim. Given its heightened mistrust of the United States, any new agreement would be highly unlikely. But no one should discount the power of ego and appearances in dictating Trump’s moves. It remains impossible to tell whether the administration actually intends to go to war, is merely engaging in coercive diplomacy, or is adrift in a sea of miscues. It may not matter. In a maelstrom of probes and provocations, strategic intention may give way to heedless reaction.
The White House has reinforced this possibility by doing away with the systematic interagency process conducted by the National Security Council that has traditionally built consensus on foreign policy and, even given the constraint of secrecy, allowed reasonable transparency about how that policy is formulated. George W. Bush was the last president to jettison the policy coordination process, and it resulted in the long and bloody occupation of Iraq.
This time, zealous ideologues—mainly Bolton and Pompeo—are implementing the “maximum pressure” policy without sufficient knowledge of their adversary to confidently control risks. Ironically, it has been Trump who has constrained them. That is not due to any superior knowledge or discretion: Trump is even more ignorant about world affairs and scornful of protocol, process, and custom than his advisers. It is simply that a protracted war would cut against the isolationist cast of his “America First” vision and, if it went wrong, diminish his chances for reelection. To the extent he needs a war to mobilize his base, he has one on the southern border, to which he has deployed military units, and where the enemy cannot shoot back.
If tensions continue or increase, those advisers could still prevail. Trump’s Middle East policy hinges on demonstrating to Israel and Saudi Arabia his determination to roll back Iran in the region, and Trump at war—as long as the US doesn’t lose too many troops or get bogged down in combat—would play well to his domestic base. The Pentagon is considering dispatching more warships and combat aircraft and an additional six thousand troops to the Middle East, the first group of which has been authorized. Both the 1991 and 2003 interventions in Iraq demonstrated that as operational momentum toward war builds, it becomes politically more difficult to resist.
At this stage, Tehran’s national security decision-making appears more orderly and transparent than Washington’s. While sometimes disingenuously characterizing activities such as intervention in Syria and Yemen as vital to Iranian deterrence—clearly they are efforts to preserve and expand Iran’s regional influence—Iranian officials across the board consider them none of the US’s business. They differ on the nuclear deal, however. For over a year following the United States’ disavowal of the JCPOA, moderates aligned with President Hassan Rouhani were able to persuade Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Iran should continue to abide by it in order to drive a wedge between the US and the European signatories—who remain in the deal—and isolate the US. The idea was that Iran could wait for a Democratic administration to rejoin the JCPOA.
But the Europeans’ inability or unwillingness to circumvent US secondary sanctions forcing other countries not to buy Iranian oil and goods, and the unpredictability of American electoral politics, appear to have eroded and altered the moderates’ position. The Obama administration’s accomplishment in negotiating the JCPOA was to sidestep Khamenei’s deep-seated hostility toward the US and Israel, which had until then proven an implacable obstacle to US diplomacy. The Trump administration has managed to weaken the pragmatic restraint of the hard-line leadership while turning Iranian moderates into hard-liners.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—the elite, secretive, and proactive element of the Iranian military that the State Department designated a foreign terrorist organization in April despite objections from the Pentagon—looks to be regaining the upper hand. Even the moderate and cosmopolitan Zarif, who negotiated the nuclear deal and established cordial working relationships with US officials while emphasizing his loyalty to the clerical regime, has labeled US sanctions “economic terrorism.” The IRGC has also reissued its customary threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes. Such a move would be a last resort; it would send oil prices through the roof and almost certainly prompt retaliatory US action. By using Houthi proxies, Iran could less provocatively target oil shipments through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, another chokepoint on the other side of Saudi Arabia at the entrance to the Red Sea. But an escalation of this kind would not necessarily serve Houthi interests, and they would probably balk.
That Iran would see fit to lash out rather than capitulate should come as no surprise, as there is clear precedent for it. In 1995 the Clinton administration was engaged in a full-court press to cut off Iran from its trading partners and extend the territorial reach of US unilateral sanctions, while isolating Iran diplomatically. American diplomats and intelligence officers were circling the globe in an effort to convince allies that Iran had to be punished because of its assassination campaign, which targeted opposition figures, and other nefarious provocations, such as Hezbollah’s attacks on the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992 and a Jewish community center there in 1994. Tehran’s response was to use Saudi Hezbollah in 1996 to detonate a truck bomb outside Khobar Towers, a residential complex housing US soldiers deployed in Saudi Arabia to enforce the southern no-fly zone against Iraq. Nineteen US Air Force personnel and one Saudi national were killed, and 498 others of various nationalities were injured.
While the Khobar attack was one reason for Riyadh’s eventual decision to push US air operations out of Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia—these had to be relocated to Qatar—the larger point is that Iran is predisposed to respond defiantly to concerted American attempts to cripple it. Neither government might, on balance, really want war. But concerns about reputation and credibility, the risk of spontaneous clashes between US and Iranian forces, the provocations of proxies, or poorly calculated brinkmanship might cause one. These prospects are doubly worrying because the degree of mutual antipathy and distrust between the two adversaries and the absence of lines of diplomatic communication would make it exceedingly difficult for them to reverse course.
The similarities between the current situation and the prelude to the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2002–2003 are unmistakable. A pugnacious and insecure US president obsessed with a government he has demonized is unconstrained due to a disrupted interagency process and a Congress paralyzed by a cowed and craven Republican Party. On June 28, the Republican-controlled Senate voted down a bipartisan bill that would have required Trump to get Congress’s permission before striking Iran. Although on July 12 the House approved a defense bill that included the requirement, it is not likely to survive reconciliation in the Senate. Sycophantic advisers and inordinately influential foreign powers insist that he can remake a region purportedly forsaken by his despised liberal predecessor. It is probably lost on Bolton and Pompeo—and certainly on Trump—that the US intervention in Iraq ended up increasing Iranian influence there and elsewhere in the region. It may also be lost on them that a war with Iran could be even more disastrous than the war in Iraq.
One of the sycophants, Senator Tom Cotton, has compared developments in the Gulf to the 1984–1988 tanker war, in which Iran picked off Kuwaiti ships ferrying Iraq’s oil to market, while Iraq bombarded Iranian cities and oil terminals and gassed Iranian troops. Kuwait cajoled the Reagan administration into reflagging and escorting its vessels in 1987. The following spring, an Iranian mine disabled and nearly sank the USS Samuel B. Roberts. This precipitated a US–Iran shooting match in which American attacks disabled several Iranian warships. It also led to the inadvertent destruction in 1988 of an Iranian airliner by a confused US missile crew aboard the USS Vincennes, killing 290 civilians. The most strategically significant aspect of this confrontation, however, was Reagan’s self-control. Even when a US warship was attacked, resulting in US casualties, he refrained from striking Iranian territory and even forced out a high-ranking US commander for planning to do so. Restraint is the real lesson of the tanker war, but Republican hawks are unlikely to heed it.
The administration appears to be dusting off the tanker war concept and pressuring European allies to join the US Navy in protecting oil tankers from attack, though maritime operations would fall short of close individual escorts.3 If the administration were to take a harder look at the tanker war, it might observe that Iran, while still vastly weaker than the United States, is in a better position to resist now than it was thirty years ago, when it had been drained by the long war of attrition with Iraq. Although economically anemic today, it is not bankrupt. And thanks to the Trump administration’s abrupt withdrawal from the JCPOA and its humiliations of European allies, Tehran is less isolated diplomatically. Furthermore, it possesses old-style asymmetric means of response, such as terrorism, and new ones, including cyber capabilities and missiles.4 A tit-for-tat exchange of attacks and counterattacks could widen and intensify the conflict. Iran, for example, could retaliate against US partners in the Gulf. For the US, the escalation could ultimately reach so-called Iranian “leadership targets.”
In the worst case, the United States would launch something along the lines of Operation Iranian Freedom, invading and occupying the country. US forces would initially suppress Iran’s air defenses, target its shore batteries and missile launchers, damage communication networks, strike the headquarters of security services that keep the population under control, and cripple if not destroy hardened nuclear-related facilities with deep-penetrating “bunker-busting” bombs. If occupying Tehran became the American objective, US ground forces would overwhelm the Iranian army and oust the regime by forcing it to flee or killing its top officials with a lucky missile strike.
But the US experience in Iraq would hover ominously over any similar undertaking in Iran. Iran is appreciably larger than Iraq in both territory and population, so gaining control of the country and winning popular support would be all the more difficult. While Iraq’s military was handily defeated, Sunni groups reinforced by volunteers from elsewhere in the Arab world and Shia militias indirectly supported by Iran bled US forces for nearly a decade. US forces within Iran would presumably be exposed to such guerrilla tactics, which while not decisive, drive up the cost of intervention and weaken public support for the war at home. The disorder created by a US invasion would leave Iran open to internecine warfare among its ethnic minorities—Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis, Zoroastrians, and Arabs—portending the fragmentation that worried US intelligence during the Iran–Iraq War. Furthermore, the Marxist guerrilla movement Mujahideen-e Khalq would likely angle for increased influence in a new political situation. Displaced persons within Iran or crossing into neighboring countries as refugees would present a humanitarian challenge comparable to Syria’s. US military planners think in these systematic terms, and they need to keep reminding the president, who has declared that a war with Iran would be short, that long wars begin with the conviction that they will be short.
Only effective resistance to and evasion of US sanctions by European countries, which they are unable to marshal, could induce Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal. Even so, they still oppose Trump’s Iran policy and would not support military operations, especially if they believed the war was instigated by the US. Washington would find it hard to cobble together a coalition of the willing worthy of the name. Even if the Pentagon were to pull General David Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual off the shelf and acquire a taste and talent for nation-building that it has never really had, prospects for successfully forging a stable, US-friendly government in Iran would be less than dim. And the conflict wouldn’t wind down until long after it had caused chaos in the region and strategically isolated the United States.5
This crisis, like others involving Iran, was made mainly in the US. Moreover, the Iranian responses the Trump administration has provoked will make it harder for Democrats keen on reestablishing better relations with Iran to support rejoining the nuclear deal without requiring additional concessions on Iranian missile development and regional activity, which Iran in turn is less likely to consider. Thus the Trump administration has not only adopted an inflexible and destabilizing posture with no easy alternative,6 it has also significantly limited the options of its successor.
At this point, even senior Israeli officials—who have backed the United States’ aggressive courtship of Saudi Arabia and confrontation with Iran—have become concerned about American bellicosity and myopia, and are loath to be seen as encouraging a US–Iran military confrontation.7 The Israelis have no doubt started to consider the long-term regional impact of a war between the US and Iran. Their change of heart should be a warning that US policy is spinning out of control.
—July 17, 2019
1 During the surge in the Iraq War, Shia militias killed over six hundred American soldiers, many with explosives made in Iran. Since these were battlefield attacks on uniformed combatants, most analysts do not define them as terrorism. ↩
2 See, for instance, Edward Wong, “The Rapture and the Real World: Mike Pompeo Blends Beliefs and Policy,” The New York Times, March 30, 2019. ↩
3 At his confirmation hearing for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 11, General Mark Milley indicated that assembling a coalition to conduct escort operations to enforce freedom of navigation would take a matter of weeks, and that such operations would extend to all commercial shipping rather than just US-flagged vessels. ↩
4 See Steven Simon, “What Trump Can Learn from Reagan About War with Iran,” Politico, June 18, 2019. ↩
5 See Robert Gaines and Scott Horton, “Attacking Iran Would Unleash Chaos on the Middle East,” and Ilan Goldenberg, “What a War with Iran Would Look Like,” Foreign Affairs, June 4, 2019. ↩
6 Former national security adviser Susan Rice has decorously offered a sensible option involving robust bilateral diplomacy that would establish reciprocal steps toward deescalation, culminating in direct talks on extending and strengthening the JCPOA, but there is virtually no chance that the Trump administration would follow her advice. See her “How Did We Get 10 Minutes from War with Iran?,” The New York Times, June 23, 2019. ↩
7 See, for instance, Amos Harel, “Oman Attack: Why Israel Remains Mum as Accusations Against Iran Abound,” Haaretz, June 16, 2019. ↩