Dalia Dassa Kaye | Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation
The Trump administration’s Iran policy has increased the risks of military conflict, but it is not inevitable. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran one year ago triggered events that led to the current escalation. Over the objections of his advisors at the time, and even before more hawkish advisors such as John Bolton joined the administration, President Donald Trump pursued the most strident pullout of the agreement possible. He reimposed the broadest possible sanctions on Iran and ratcheted up a “maximum pressure” campaign that has backed Iran into a corner with no off-ramp.
Even if escalation has given the president second thoughts, it’s not clear he can roll back over two years of hostile measures with a few conciliatory tweets or statements. After all, a confrontational approach toward Iran is the linchpin of his regional policies and aligns closely with the approach of influential leaders such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This does not suggest that the United States is about to attack Iranian territory. But just as Israel regularly hits Iranian targets in Syria, it’s conceivable that an escalation, even one that is inadvertent, between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, for example, could lead to American retaliatory strikes in the country. Despite his stated distaste for military conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. president has demonstrated a willingness to use force with limited military strikes in Syria in spring 2018. As a result, the prospects for military conflict, even if the intention is to keep such a conflict limited, are much higher than they were a year ago.
Elijah J. Magnier | Al-Rai chief international correspondent
The mountain gave birth to a mouse. There has been a lot of noise coming from the United States about Iran, but little has changed. The U.S. seems to believe that its severe sanctions and its new “intimidation propaganda war” against Iran, will drag the country’s officials to the negotiation table, asking for a meeting with President Donald Trump. This campaign started with the announcement of a build-up of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf—as if there were not already over two dozen U.S. bases in the eleven countries encircling Iran—followed by the leak of an “unusual top intelligence meeting at the CIA to discuss Iran.” The Trump administration is deliberately amplifying the information about its own military movements, but is failing to frighten Iran.
The Trump administration still fails to understand that Iran reads the situation differently. First of all, Iran has no trust in the administration, which excludes the possibility of negotiations from the outset. Second, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent announcement that Iran would withdraw partially from the nuclear deal concluded with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany has managed to absorb calls by Iran’s radicals for a return to military-grade production. In the next 60 days, tension is expected to increase further. However, war does not appear to be on the horizon because, at least until today, none of the parties concerned has any intention of starting a real war.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has said that if the U.S. failed to honor its commitments, Iran would “tear [the nuclear agreement] up.” He never said that Iran would attack the U.S.
Judith Miller | Adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter formerly with the New York Times
President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has increased economic pressure on Teheran and tensions in the Gulf, but it does not make war inevitable. White House hardliners may argue that enhanced American pressure will either bring about regime change in Iran—their unarticulated goal—or force an end to Iran’s aggression toward its neighbors and the United States. Just as the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini eventually relented under pressure and drank the “poisoned chalice” to end the barbaric Iraq-Iran war launched by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the hawks argue, his successor will eventually yield to American pressure.
This is wishful thinking, not a strategy.
The administration has never explained how withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran—however flawed it was—would stop Iran from supporting terrorism abroad, threatening U.S. regional allies, or continuing its theocratic oppression at home. The answer to the agreement’s flaws was not unilateral withdrawal, but diplomatic and economic pressure on Teheran to improve the deal.
The administration’s recent doubling down on forcing Iranian oil exports to zero is also further dividing Washington from its European allies and undermining what has been a major goal of both Republican and Democratic predecessors—stopping nuclear proliferation in the world’s most strategic region.
Iran, and Iranians, will undoubtedly be hurt by the latest U.S. measures, but war is still not “inevitable” for one key reason: neither Trump nor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei want a military confrontation. Despite his in-house hardliners, Trump knows that wars are bad for business—and the Dow Jones—and rarely go as planned. Iran’s rulers, in turn, would prefer to seek economic relief from the other partners in the nuclear deal, particularly European countries, while awaiting the end of Trump’s first term in office and his possible replacement by a more compliant Democratic successor. That, too, may be wishful thinking, but Iran well knows the cost of war. It also knows that resorting to terrorism could trigger the American military retaliation it is eager to avoid.
Jarrett Blanc | Senior fellow in the Geoeconomics and Strategy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Inevitable? No. Our reality may feel like a television show, but this still is not Game of Thrones, with plot and character development propelling us to a terrible and pointless climactic battle.
More likely and harder to prevent? Unfortunately, yes. President Donald Trump may not want a war, but he has surrounded himself with people who do, and he appears to be paying only sporadic attention to their machinations, allowing his national security adviser John Bolton to hype both intelligence about possible Iranian threats and reportedly pre-planned U.S. military deployments. On Iran’s side, there are also hawks who would profit—quite literally—from confrontation with the United States, as well as professionals who may struggle to differentiate between defensive and offensive U.S. preparations.
This tense situation means that lower-level commanders and perhaps even partially-controlled proxies can, intentionally or unintentionally, spark a conflict that more senior leaders will struggle to control.