Last night, around the time Iranian missiles were dropping on U.S. bases, a friend from the Pentagon texted me saying, “Oh, well, it appears they will do something dumb, and we may go to war.” Any crisis leads to paranoia, hysteria, and essentially all other basest instincts in a human being. What differentiates a realist or a strategist from an ideologue or a cultist is how one thinks in a nuanced fashion during a crisis situation.
The question is not if something is right, moral, or legal, but of prudence and smartness. Given the state of the debate about the ongoing crisis in Iran, one can’t help but feel even more depressed. Nevertheless, as Iran targeted U.S. bases in Iraq, and as an international security crisis escalates, where British Royal Navy warships are massing in the Strait of Hormuz, there needs to be a debate, and for a debate, there needs to be clarity about a few common misconceptions.
A Face-Saving Gesture from the Ayatollahs
In foreign policy, and during fogs of war, signaling is everything. Consider the recent Indian – Pakistani crisis, where both powers bombed the other’s territory. In one of the key factors, both targeted regions and bases with zero casualties.
The Iranian attack seems to follow the same modus operandi. When the strikes happened, I noted on Twitter that given the number of missiles in a volley, it is unlikely that this was a precursor for a greater assault. The largest operational Iranian missiles can reach Haifa, Saudi oil factories, or even Poland and India, given their range.
But it was curious that a mere ten missiles dropped dumb pay loads in a U.S. base where the majority of the soldiers were Iraqi. That meant the mission was strictly targeted for a domestic audience and regime stability. Within hours, confirmations started to pour in.
One can logically deduce that there is no appetite for greater conflict in Iran. The actions are strictly an act of retaliation for what is considered restoring deterrence. Was United States restoring deterrence when it struck Gen. Quasem Soleimani? In strict international relations terminology, no.
The use of the word deterrence is wrong in this context for two reasons. One, deterrence is not deterrence if there is a need to restore it. It is then an escalation, for good or for bad. A valid act of deterrence, for example, would be to plant a Hellfire missile 500 yards ahead of Soleimani’s car, to demonstrate the capability and act as a warning. The moment the missile hits the car, it no longer is deterrence or denial, but a decapitation strike.
In broader theoretical terms, it might be called an act of “compellence,” wherein an act of aggression is used to compel an adversary to think differently. If the reports are to be believed, Soleimani grew more reckless and rash and started to believe in his invincibility. He even told his followers that Americans wouldn’t dare touch him. He was apparently also planning more attacks, and he masterminded the recent demonstrations in front of the U.S. embassy.
Iraqi citizens, especially Sunnis and Kurds, were getting tired of Iranian meddling, and Soleimani devised a plan that would make America act aggressively, and therefore channel Iraqi anger against Americans. What he failed to calculate was that the aggressive action would be against him personally.
However, as international relations follow Newton’s Third Law of reaction to every action, Soleimani’s death has managed to at least temporarily unite the Iranians. Decapitation strikes against a top official usually does not empower moderates, but unite a country, and suppress moderate voices. Historically it is the extremists who then claim that they had been right all along, in what is known as a “rally round the flag” effect.
Also, this has a possibility of opening a Pandora’s Box, with other great powers taking unilateral actions. In the future, one can similarly expect a Russian decapitation strike against a Chechen, Georgian, or Ukrainian, or Chinese unilateral action somewhere in Africa. One needs to remember, as Gen. George Patton once said, that the enemy gets a vote.
The Russians used Kosovo and Iraq as a justification of their own interventions in Georgia and Syria. There’s no reason to think they are not paying attention to the Soleimani strike.
Will Iran Go to War with the United States?
Again, the answer is not likely, so far. There are several reasons for that. First, autocratic regimes are usually rational in foreign policy. There are of course historical instances of massive miscalculations and overreach, the commonest example being Adolf Hitler’s Germany, and more recently an expansionist Islamic State, but overall autocratic regimes are restrained, as their primary motivation is the survival of their crony system. From Deng’s China, to the late-stage Soviet Union, to countless other middling powers in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, the historical evidence on that is overwhelming.
Second, Iranians have known since 1979 that they are overwhelmingly inferior in simple arms count going toe-to-toe with the United States. So the Iranian strategy has been to keep the proxy war fire burning and bog the West down in the Middle East, an area where the primary existential interests are of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and British and American interests are strictly peripheral.
The Iranian leadership knows that any war with the United States would mean the end of their regime. Just like North Korea, the Iranian drive for the bomb was also to achieve deterrence, from what they consider overwhelming Saudi and American power. The Iranians and the North Koreans learnt from the death of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and the recent strike on Soleimani would reinforce their paranoia.
But that doesn’t mean war cannot happen. Even when the chances are statistically minimal, and neither Iran nor the United States wants a full-scale war, there is a thing called “escalatory spiral.” In this model neither side wants war, but inches towards it anyway, due to several variables, like domestic pressure, regime stability, signaling, show of force, and other structural reasons.
Most of our current punditry is a simple rehashing of the Second World War, where there were clearly defined good and bad guys. But history is more complex. A better example is the First World War, which resulted not because of a single incident, but because of decades in a breakdown of the balance of power, and increasing paranoia on both sides.
The key question here is, as always, how strong Iran is domestically. Is Iran domestically enough strong to absorb this, wait, and carry on, or is it extremely fragile, and its regime stability depends on retaliation and diversionary escalation? Do we even know and have reliable data on that?
The fear is not that Iran will start a hot war. The fear is that Iran will continue a proxy war. Or worse, the regime is too fragile and collapses, resulting in our perpetual involvement in a region with peripheral interest to our nation, as other great powers and peer rivals enjoy us getting bogged down once again in the quicksand.
The United States and the West can win a hot war within months, like they won in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It is what comes next that is the issue. A third of the Middle Eastern population are Shiite. Any war or collapse of the Iranian regime will make Iraq and Libya look like a walk in an autumn rain.
In international relations, increasing chaos is much more dangerous than brutal but localised tyranny. The reality is that we will be stuck in this cycle, in a region which is at best a peripheral interest, when old Great Power rivals return to form elsewhere.
War with Iran Is a Political Choice
Ultimately, this remains a political decision. Iran might signal as much as it wants that it wants to restore deterrence and leave it at that, but if our side wants to take this opportunity for a regime change, and gives the president the options that would almost certainly lead to a war, then that’s not what anyone can predict.
A war with Iran would not look like one with Iraq and Libya. Iran is four times larger than Iraq, and twice the size demographically, and surrounded by mountains that will make the Afghanistan ground invasion look like a knife through molten butter. And the law of “security dilemma” dictates that the escalation spiral will have its own momentum. Personnel is policy, and who advises the president is the most important question now.
Conservative realism isn’t about “good guys and bad guys.” Those definitions are for simpletons. It is about choosing which regions to prioritize. It is a game of chess, not whack-a-mole. Realists are neither pacifists nor isolationists. They are focused on a greater existential threat of rival great powers like China and to some extent Russia, in regions where we have strategic interests, which are the Asia-Pacific and Atlantic, not some strategic hellhole that won’t change in another 100 years no matter how many gallons of blood we lose or how many trillions we spend.
The question is, are we ready for another 20 years of wasting blood and treasure if the proverbial excreta impacts the rotary cooling device?