Should We Be Anticipating War With Iran? No, but It Could Get Nasty.
Posted July 23, 2018 9:54 p.m. EDT
Updated July 23, 2018 9:55 p.m. EDT
The escalating invective between President Donald Trump and Iran’s leaders, reminiscent of the president’s bombastic exchanges with North Korea, have raised fears of a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf — a vital conduit for global oil supplies — or perhaps even something bigger.
In a late-night Twitter message, Trump warned President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in all-capital letters of apocalyptic consequences if his country threatened the United States, increasing tensions to a new level. “BE CAUTIOUS!,” Trump wrote. Oil prices surged briefly on worries about potential supply disruptions.
Many analysts of Iranian politics viewed Trump’s message as part of an intimidation gambit, more than an actual threat. Few said they were predicting a war between Iran and the United States, partly because Iran’s hierarchy is well aware that its forces are vastly outgunned by a U.S. military that would have air and naval dominance. Still, nobody is ruling out an armed clash or another form of Iranian response, like a cyberattack, to send Trump a defiant message.
“I don’t think either side wants war,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington. However, Kupchan said, “the Iranians are playing with a different fish — this guy bites — and that means we’re entering a potentially escalatory phase, and that’s a real risk.”
Here are answers to some basic questions about the latest faceoff between Iran and the United States:
— What is the Trump administration’s goal?
Trump’s critics say he has surrounded himself with like-minded right-wing ideologues, most notably John Bolton, his national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, who would like to see regime change in Iran and were happy in May when he scrapped U.S. participation in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Some political analysts say Trump believes his threats of escalation against Iran may force Iranian leaders to seek negotiations with him to address what he considered fatal flaws in the nuclear deal, in which Iran pledged to never acquire atomic bombs. Trump has repeatedly congratulated himself for — in his view — having successfully executed such a pressure strategy against North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, describing it as critical to Kim’s decision to halt testing nuclear bombs and missiles and engage with Trump in a summit meeting last month in Singapore.
— How did we get here?
Relations with Iran have been combustible ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah. But the basis for the current spike in tensions lay at least in part in the 2016 election of Trump, who has embraced the position held by Israel and Saudi Arabia, the United States’ closest Middle East allies, that Iran is an implacable enemy bent on becoming a nuclear-armed state.
In repudiating the 2015 nuclear agreement, Trump has reimposed and intensified nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran, warning other countries to stop buying Iranian oil, the country’s most important export, or risk economic penalties from the United States. He has included Iran on a list of mostly Muslim countries subject to a U.S. travel ban. He has placed Iran’s central bank governor on a terrorism blacklist. His administration has described Iran’s clerical hierarchy as an irredeemably corrupt kleptocracy, and has cheered Iranians who have protested Iran’s political repressions and increasingly dire economic problems.
The U.S. threat to Iran’s oil exports has hit a particular nerve in Iran’s leadership, which has said it may close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway to the Persian Gulf that accounts for up to 40 percent of oil tanker traffic, if Iran’s oil sales are curtailed.
Sunday, Rouhani told Iranian diplomats in Tehran that Trump risked “the mother of all wars” with Iran and admonished him not to “play with the lion’s tail," which may have been the catalyst for the ferocity of Trump’s Twitter response hours later.
— Could Trump’s strategy with Iran succeed?
Opinions about U.S. relations with Iran are so polarized it is difficult to speculate. But analysts who have long studied Iran expressed strong doubts that its leaders would capitulate to U.S. pressure.
“A regime that for 40 years has said ‘Death to America’ cannot, in the context of President Trump’s aggressive policies, back down,” said Houchang Hassan-Yari, a political-science professor at Queen’s University and Royal Military College in Ontario, Canada. “They have to stand against the American position.”
Others said the Trump administration might be underestimating the tenacity of the Iranian system, which has an extensive apparatus for quelling internal political threats. There is little sign that dissidents in Iran can do more than carry out scattered protests. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the paramilitary force that is intensely loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, wields enormous economic and political influence.
— What if there were a war between Iran and the United States?
There is little question that the United States would prevail in a conventional war, an outcome not lost on the Iranians when the United States quickly toppled the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and routed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.
Just judging by statistics, the conventional U.S. military dwarfs Iran’s in every way. There are roughly 1.3 million active U.S. military personnel, nearly triple that of Iran. Annual military spending by the United States exceeded $600 billion last year, versus about $16 billion in Iran. The Americans have nearly 6,000 tanks, versus fewer than 1,700 in Iran. The aerial and naval forces of the United States — more than 13,000 aircraft and nearly 300 battle vessels — vastly outnumber Iran’s.
That does not mean Trump is ready to back his threats by invading Iran — such a possibility, on the contrary, is seen as nonexistent. Trump has said he wants to get the United States out of foreign military entanglements, and Americans have shown little appetite for another war.
“I don’t see an actual war — it’s not in anyone’s interest,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research group. “Trump doesn’t even want to keep boots on the ground in Syria.”
— Where, if anywhere, could a confrontation happen?
A possible point of conflict is the Strait of Hormuz, where speedboats of the Revolutionary Guards have occasionally harassed U.S. 5th Fleet warships that patrol the waterway. In an emailed advisory to clients, Kupchan said, “War is not imminent, but the probability of an escalatory incident in the Strait of Hormuz is increasing.” The strait has been the backdrop for violent confrontations before. In April 1988, U.S. naval forces sank three Iranian warships and destroyed two oil platforms after a U.S. frigate was struck by an Iranian mine. Three months later, the U.S. warship USS Vincennes fired missiles that downed a civilian Iranian jetliner that the Americans say they mistook for a warplane, killing 290 people aboard.
Some analysts speculated privately that Trump might be eager to avenge what he saw as an American humiliation in January of 2016 — a few days before the nuclear agreement took effect — when Revolutionary Guards seized 10 U.S. sailors from two patrol boats and disseminated photos of them in captivity before they were released.
For their part, Iranian officials have shown no sign that Trump’s latest Twitter threat has frightened them. Rather, some have treated it with sarcasm.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s American-educated foreign minister and a frequent Twitter user himself, offered this retort Monday afternoon: “We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”