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An Immediate Threat?
by Mark Armstrong
with Iran Soon?
by Michael Burkert
The Growing Danger of War With Iran
by Paul R. Pillar
A combination of circumstances has increased the risk that armed
conflict will break out between the United States and Iran. Such a war
is no certainty, but the chance that one will occur is greater today
than it has been in years. Some of the relevant circumstances, such as
the first two mentioned below, have been around in some form for a
substantial amount of time, while others are more recent.
Anti-Iranism in American discourse
The vocabulary has become so repetitive and widely used that it rolls
off tongues automatically: Iran is a “theocratic autocracy” and the
“largest state sponsor of terrorism” that engages in “nefarious,”
“malign,” and “destabilizing” behavior as part of its “drive for
regional hegemony,” etc. The verbiage has become a substitute for
thought and for any careful examination of exactly what Iran is and is
not doing and how it does and does not affect U.S. interests. Such a
commonly accepted mantra means that anyone making a focused attempt to
stir up trouble with Iran starts with a built-in advantage in mustering
public and political support.
The lobby pushing hostility against Iran
There indeed have been, and still are, focused attempts to stir up
trouble. Politically potent interests have their own narrow reasons to
keep U.S.-Iranian relations bad and to keep Iran isolated. Foremost
among those interests is the right-wing government of Israel, for which
Iran as chief bête noire serves to cripple a competitor for regional
influence, to explain all regional trouble in terms that do not relate
to Israel, to distract attention from matters (especially the occupation
of Palestinian territory) the Israeli government would rather not
discuss, and to keep the United States wedded to Israel as supposedly
its only reliable regional partner.
Given the obvious impact of the Israeli government’s preferences on
American politics, this factor weighs greatly on the current
administration’s policies toward Iran. Donald Trump has tilted heavily
to those Israeli preferences, as reflected in his appointments and in
his rhetoric since midway through the presidential campaign. Trump still
aspires to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, which would
require sharp breaks with the Netanyahu government’s current course. But
that might make aggressiveness and confrontation with Iran seem all the
more necessary, as a form of compensation to Netanyahu while pressing
him for concessions toward the Palestinians.
Anti-Obamaism and the nuclear agreement
The preceding factor was one of two major reasons for opposition to the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral agreement that
severely restricts Iran’s nuclear program and closes any possible path
to a nuclear weapon. The other major, and very partisan, reason was that
the accord was probably Barack Obama’s biggest single achievement in
foreign policy. Trump, who scathingly denounced the accord during the
campaign and whose administration only grudgingly acknowledges that Iran
is complying with its obligations under the agreement, still shows a
strong inclination to do the opposite of whatever Obama did. Now that
the Republican effort to undo Obama’s signature domestic achievement,
the Affordable Care Act, has run aground on the realities of health
care, the urge may be stronger than ever to undo Obama’s signature
foreign policy achievement. If it can be undone not through direct U.S.
renunciation but as a casualty of some other confrontation with Iran,
then so much the better from Trump’s point of view.
Weak voices of restraint in the administration
There are press reports of debate within the Trump administration on
aspects of policy toward Iran, and real debate is much better than
policy made through wee-hours tweets. But it is doubtful whether the
sober reasons why armed conflict with Iran would be folly are getting
adequate attention. This is not only a matter of the dominance of
non-sober voices, such as that of self-declared Leninist
destroyer-of-worlds Stephen Bannon, who demonstrated his clout with
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement. The problem
also is that visceral anti-Iranism infects even some of those looked to
as adults in the room, most notably Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Respectability given to regime change
Another of the adults, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recently told
the House Foreign Affairs Committee that regime change is part of U.S.
policy on Iran. This comment resurrects a malevolent concept that amply
deserves a place on the trash heap of U.S. foreign policy history,
especially given the disastrous results under the previous two
administrations of regime change in Iraq and Libya. The concept is no
more suitable to Iran, where there is not some political movement in our
own image that is just waiting to be freed from the yoke of theocratic
autocrats through a new revolution.
Those with other reasons for promoting hostility toward Iran also have
been promoting the regime change idea. Shortly after the inauguration,
for example, the Sheldon Adelson-funded Foundation for Defense of
Democracies was pushing a paper at the National Security Council
centered on regime change. The specific notion usually being pushed is
that forms of subversion short of armed conflict would do the job, but
the fantasy outcome of a new and attractive regime in Tehran can easily
become an objective of military operations initiated, or ostensibly
initiated, for other reasons. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of regime change
adds to tension and distrust between Tehran and Washington that make
destabilizing incidents increasingly likely.
Mission creep in Syria
The crushing of the so-called Islamic State’s caliphate is close enough
to completion that the difficult and deferred question of what becomes
of its diminishing territory in Syria now must be faced directly. Much
commentary on this question in the United States is advocating what
amounts to a significant expansion of U.S. objectives in Syria by
confronting the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian backers.
U.S. actions on the ground and in the air already have moved in this
direction. Incidents have included shooting down Iranian drones and a
manned Syrian aircraft, as well as U.S. attacks on what were described
as “Iranian-supported” militias.
It is remarkable how much the mission in Syria already has creeped and
evolved. As Josh Wood puts it, “Over the course of his short tenure, Mr.
Trump and his administration went from talking about potentially
partnering with Damascus and Moscow against [Islamic State], to
appearing absolutely disinterested in the civil war, to bombing Syrian
government targets.” The evolution of objectives in the next five months
could be just as rapid as in the last five. Given Iran’s significant
role in Syria, and the expanding U.S. role there, Syria is one of the
places most likely to spark direct warfare between the United States and
Displacement from Russia
Incidents with the Syrian regime’s other major backer, Russia, certainly
are worth worrying about along with incidents involving Iran. But some
of the very reasons for special worry about direct armed conflict with
Russia—a nuclear-armed ex-superpower—are also reasons to expect special
restraint, along lines similar to what the United States and the USSR
displayed throughout the Cold War. Moreover, under the Trump
administration, Russia does not play the sort of automatic,
take-for-granted-as-an-adversary role that Iran plays. We have yet to
fathom the full reasons for Trump’s more qualified and even benign
posture toward Russia, but there clearly are such reasons. If the
administration needs to strike at one of the beasts involved in the
Syrian war, that beast will be Iran, even though Russian support
probably has been at least as important as Iranian support in shoring up
the Assad regime.
Delegation to the military
Trump’s practice of delegating to the Pentagon major decisions, even of
a more strategic than tactical nature involving deployment or use of
military forces, could in some circumstances be an encouragement of
restraint, given the disinclination of experienced military officers to
be thrust into new conflicts in which the United States is not already
involved. But the United States is already involved in places such as
Syria and the Persian Gulf where confrontation with the Iranians is
possible, and with such involvement the military bias is in the
direction of doing more rather than doing less. The bias is toward being
more aggressive to accomplish presumed objectives and especially to
protect American forces. At least one U.S. attack so far in Syria has
been justified in terms of protection of U.S. forces. Military decisions
taken for military reasons may spark an expanded conflict.
Heightened bellicosity in Arabia
The tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is especially high right now,
and most of the initiative for making it so has come from the Saudi
side. The ascent to power of the Saudi king’s inexperienced son,
Mohammed bin Salman, has something to do with this. The young crown
prince has talked about how “we will work so the battle is there, in
Iran.” He has used the relatively minor link between a Yemeni group and
Iran as the excuse for prosecuting a war that has turned Yemen into a
humanitarian disaster. His most recent destabilizing move has been the
fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council for the sake of bashing
Qatar, one of whose listed offenses is to have more-or-less normal,
peaceful relations with Iran. The potential for the United States being
dragged into an escalation of this mess is significant, especially given
Trump’s inclination so far to go all in with the Saudis.
Brinksmanship in the Persian Gulf
Even without the added recklessness of young princes, the Gulf is the
other most likely place, besides Syria, for an incident involving U.S.
and Iranian forces to escalate out of control. The U.S. forward presence
in what the Iranians regard as their maritime backyard is more than
matched by the sometimes reckless and unsafe maneuvers by small craft of
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The recent fatal collision of
a U.S. Navy destroyer with a merchant ship in Japanese waters shows what
can happen in crowded sea lanes even when there is no international
conflict or animosity involved. Imagine something similar happening in
the Persian Gulf amid the current hostility in U.S.-Iranian relations,
with no apparent interest by the Trump administration in restoring a
diplomatic channel for defusing incidents.
The nature of the person in the White House
In his congressional testimony, James Comey mentioned “the nature of the
person” as a reason for meticulously documenting his conversations with
President Trump. He meant that Trump is a serial liar. The first five
months of Trump’s administration is sufficient to see that the lying
extends not just to individual falsehoods but to large segments of his
policies. On domestic and economic policy, the populism he voiced and
that won him decisive votes last year has been revealed to be
fraudulent, with health care being only one of the indications of this.
There is no reason to suppose that what Trump has said about foreign and
security policy, including vote-winning rhetoric about aversion to more
foreign wars, is any less fraudulent. With the rhetoric being next to
meaningless, other aspects of the nature of the person will be
influential, including Trump’s impetuosity, his dwelling on the
immediate at the expense of longer-term consequences, and his insatiable
appetite for personal approbation at the expanse of broader national
interests. None of these qualities augurs well for avoiding
conflagration with Iran.
Diversion from difficulty
These personal qualities of Trump make him a prime candidate to turn to
the time-honored tactic of using foreign conflict to divert attention
from domestic troubles and to win rally-round-the-flag popular support.
His current support, according to the latest poll on the subject,
continues to fall.
Consequences of War
Armed conflict with Iran would be an enormously negative event for U.S.
interests on several grounds, beginning with whatever expenditure of
American blood and treasure was involved. Other consequences would
include giving a gift to the most hardline elements in Iranian politics,
possibly leading to renunciation of the nuclear agreement and the
opening of a path to an Iranian nuclear weapon. There would be
collateral damage to U.S. good will and relations with many others,
beyond some hardliners in other places who would welcome the spilling of
American blood as long as it was done in the service of attacking Iran.
One can hope that that there will be enough thinking about such
consequences to prevent such an armed conflict from coming to pass.
But war is a possibility, with a likelihood that is somewhere above
trivial levels. It is an uncertainty. Also uncertain is the extent to
which any conflict that did break out would be fully intended, as
distinct from an unintended consequence of aggressive and
confrontational policies and postures.
Citizens and members of Congress need to be fully aware of the
possibilities and the associated dangers. They should be alert to any
new signs that the United States may be headed toward such a war, and
they should ask the toughest of questions every step of the way as to
whether this path is in U.S. interests.
About the Author
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security
Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva
Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in
the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National
Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of
the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director
of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired
officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from
Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His
books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign
Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why
America Misunderstands the World (2016).