Given his offers to talk its leaders, President Trump is serious about avoiding a war with Iran—he rightly recognizes it would be bad for America, and his presidency. But the risk of war is higher than ever.
On Thursday, a “sophisticated” attack using torpedo-like weapons hit two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, a body of water next to the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic chokepoint through which much of the world’s oil is shipped. Later that day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for the attack.
If Iran was indeed behind the attack, it was a brazen act—one of the tankers hit was Japanese-owned, just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran to attempt to smooth relations between Iran and America (Japan imports a good deal of Iranian oil, and thus has skin in the game).
Tensions Were Already Escalating
Tensions between America and Iran were already running hot. More than a month ago, America sent a carrier group and B-52 bombers to the Middle East to counter a threat from Iran against U.S. troops in the region. That threat, relayed by Israeli intelligence, turned out to be a misunderstanding—Iran thought that America was about to strike, so it readied its military to strike back.
But once Iran had a U.S. carrier group offshore, on May 12, four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were hit by mines. Two of those damaged tankers belonged to Iran’s mortal enemy, Saudi Arabia.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton blamed those attacks on Iran—and again, while plausible, no evidence has been publicly released to tie Tehran to the attacks. Days later, drone-attacks by Houthi rebels—Iran-backed Shiite Muslims fighting Saudi-led Sunni forces in Yemen’s civil war—attacked two Saudi oil-pumping stations. In response, President Trump—who campaigned on getting out of the Middle East—is sending at least an extra 1,000 troops to the region, in addition to the carrier group.
The backdrop to all this is the White House’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions on Iran—after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal—which includes sanctions on Iranian oil, by far that country’s primary export. Europe has tried to salvage that deal, dubbed the JCPOA, but the far reach of U.S. sanctions has prompted Europe’s companies to pull away from doing business with Iran.
As Iran’s economy has come under immense strain from the sanctions, it has allegedly begun to quadruple its uranium enrichment, ostensibly moving closer to weapons-grade production. This has our European allies, who normally take a conciliatory view toward Iran, concerned about Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA.
Iran is a bad actor, but the problem is that America’s squeezing of Iran, and especially the troop buildup in the region, increases the chances of war with Iran. Ironically, Tehran will probably continue to respond to America’s sanctions and military buildup by upping its nuclear program further, and by orchestrating proxy attacks—the exact opposite of the stated intent of “maximum pressure.”
And there are foreign policy establishment types in the U.S. who are pushing for further escalation, which further risks pulling America into a war.
Don’t Lower the Standard for Starting Wars
Being pushed is an attempt to lower the threshold for war with Iran. Many say that Iran restarting its nuke program in and of itself justifies a military response, with so-called “preventive” military strikes. Rather than defending against an actual or imminent attack, preventive war employs military strikes because a disfavored regime merely possesses a weapons capability. That’s a dangerously low threshold for war.
Normally, threats are defined as “capability” paired with “intent.” Preventive war turns threat analysis on its head and ignores intent. That thinking glosses over America’s immense conventional and nuclear deterrent capabilities—peace through strength—and opts for minimally controlled chaos. Unsurprisingly, wars of this nature hardly turn out well, because war carries far-reaching consequences that are impossible to control or predict, even against a weak opponent—think of the Iraq War.
Nobody wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. But a “preventive” war over Iran’s nuke program would escalate quickly, and U.S. troops would likely need to move in on the ground and attempt regime-change. The result would be a quagmire that lasted decades.
The American public gets this instinctively, and polls show the public overwhelmingly favors defensive (preemptive) actions against Iran, but disfavors nakedly offensive (preventative) actions. Yet officials like National Security Advisor John Bolton are already flirting with a “preventive” war against Iran. Those calls will only grow louder as Iran lashes out against U.S. pressure.
America Risks Provoking Iran Further
The other push by the foreign policy establishment is, whether purposeful or not, almost guaranteeing the escalation of tensions. Whether the intelligence was good or not, the United States now has a carrier group off of Iran’s coast, and is increasing its military capability in the region. Proponents of these measures say it is important to show Iran that we are tough.
But Iran already knows that we are tough, and fears us. That’s why these actions make Iran more likely to restart its nuclear program—Libya’s dead former dictator Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nukes, and look what happened to him. The Iranian program was likely prioritized in the first place after the Bush administration’s regime change campaigns in the Middle East, which happened to encircle Iran on its eastern and western borders (Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively).
Aside from giving Iran more reasons to build nukes, there are other associated risks. Given our troop buildup, there is a very real risk of something akin to the Gulf of Tonkin incident—where American military presence so close to Iran triggers an event, and possibly the loss of American lives, which causes calls for swift military action versus Iran and regime change in Tehran. Then, the United States gets sucked into another war that will further deplete American resources and harm our national security.
By employing “maximum pressure” and a troop buildup in the region—we currently have more than 20,000—we are ultimately giving Iran two choices: they can either capitulate, or they can lash out by pursuing more weapons and by attempting to harm U.S. interests in other ways. How likely is it that Iran, akin to a cornered animal, chooses the former?
Think About the Consequences Here
None of this excuses Iran’s behavior, but Washington should think before it acts. Sending more U.S. troops is a response to Iran’s predictable response to our initial actions. In other words, given our current policy, there are few diplomatic off-ramps for Iran’s leadership, who like all autocrats are desperate not to look weak. We can play hardball, but we should give the Iranians room to save face and come to the table.
The current approach is contrary to Trump’s repeated objective to not start war in the Middle East, and to seek talks with Iran. Instead, Trump is tinkering with the Middle East balance of power, as Obama and Bush did. It endangers his presidency.
Common sense, and the American people, demand that we stick to our historical commitment to deterrence, and peace through strength. Too much of our foreign policy establishment is engineering the conditions that make war more likely. That doesn’t respect our service members, or the will of the American people.