Contrary to what you may have heard from Washington’s chattering classes, the United States is not imminently moving to declare war on Iran. “Iraq War, Part Deux” is not in the offing. Unless Tehran commits a particularly egregious strategic blunder and provokes the entire international community, Washington and the ayatollahs will remain in their respective corners for the foreseeable future.
Yes, National Security Adviser John Bolton is, to put it mildly, a staunch critic of the Islamic Republic. He has spoken frequently in harshly critical and some might say even bellicose rhetoric about the (legitimate) threats the regime poses to both the United States and the region. And yes, in 2015, he even authored an article advocating bombing the country.
But there are a number of reasons why armed conflict with Iran is unlikely, starting with scale. Simply put, an Iraq War-style conflict with Iran would be a massive undertaking, requiring months of logistical preparation.
Iran has more than twice the population of Iraq, greater than three times the area, and the Tehran metroplex is even bigger than Baghdad, which is itself the second largest city in the Arab world after Cairo. So if Iraq was a heavy lift—and it was, despite the premature triumphalism of the time—Iran would be about twice as big a job.
But forget the military challenge for a minute. The fact is that the administration’s sanctions appear by most accounts to be having the desired effect. And the Iranian populace, young and already weary from 40 years of dictatorial rule, are fed up with the regime’s endemic and increasingly obvious corruption.
As the grip of sanctions tightens, functionaries within the Iranian government have started to point fingers at one another over the Iran deal implementation and damage to their economy resulting from U.S. sanctions. It’s a bit early to declare that the regime is unraveling, but there is definite fraying at the edges.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been particularly hard hit by the sanctions. This is significant, because the IRGC has vast power over key parts of the Iranian economy. It is also politically influential, with IRGC veterans serving throughout the I government. To the extent that the IRGC has benefited from the country’s economic growth over the last decade-plus, it has been at the expense of ordinary Iranians. But sanctions that hurt the IRGC will have a magnifying effect on the country due to its outsize power (and they know this).
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and others in Tehran have signaled that they intend to wait out the Trump administration, going all-in on the expectation that he will be replaced by a more flexible after November 2020 It’s quite a gamble, as the Iranian economy drifts further toward ruin. Is it sustainable for the next 16 months? Do they have a Plan B for the next four years, in case he wins?
Critics of the aAdministration’s Iran policy, mostly alumni of the Obama administration’s “Echo Chamber,” usually fall back on the allegation that the current White House is making war with Iran inevitable. Think of it as the “this or war” argument, also deployed during the debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, too: “If we didn’t make this (admittedly flawed) deal, the only alternative was war.”
A friend of mine used to say, “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who create ridiculous false dichotomies to serve their own rhetorical purposes, and those who … don’t.” JCPOA negotiator Wendy Sherman and Echo Chamber architect Ben Rhodes are two such members of the former camp. They were wrong in 2015 and they’re wrong now. They haven’t even articulated what the supposed casus belli would be (and sorry, but “Trump is crazy” or some variant thereof doesn’t qualify).
There are always alternatives to war. Indeed, last year Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly offered eight times to re-open negotiations with the Rouhani government. Each time the Iranian side declined. But both sides are still talking, albeit through intermediaries.
But what if Iran restarts its nuclear program? American foreign policy is full of double standards and internal contradictions, but look at it this way: Even if had restarted the program yesterday, they’re still financially hobbled and miles from developing a usable weapon. Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not only developed a weapon, but also tested it during the Trump administration.
But we’re not at war with North Korea. In fact, POTUS has even waxed poetic about his “love affair” with the tubby tyrant of Pyongyang. (To be clear, I’m not advocating a Trump-Rouhani summit, far from it.)
What about the tanker “sabotage” in the Arabian Gulf last month? All signs point to Iran, and the Gulf Arabs have not been shy about their enmity toward the hated Persians. But they’ve also been explicit in saying they don’t want a war.
Recent reporting suggests Bolton may be out over his skis, not just with Trump, but also with Pompeo and Brian Hook, the Trump State Department’s special representative for Iran. If it’s true that the State Deparment is intent on using sanctions to force the Iranians to the negotiating table, Pompeo is likely working to get Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on his side as well (which may not be hard given the other option is the notoriously difficult-to-work-with Bolton).
Finally, there is POTUS himself. Like it or hate it, his “America First” foreign policy was predicated partially on getting the United States out of foreign conflicts, not into more of them. His base jas loved it. And, however inartful or ill-advised that policy may have been, he has largely delivered on it.
Even most non-Trump supporters generally agree that the last thing America needs is another unforced long-term military conflict. Sending American servicemen & women into a war with Iran as he is trying to get re-elected is a bad look. And Trump knows bad looks, believe me.
It suits the rhetoric of the Iranian regime to howl about the warmongering Great Satan and America’s erratic Tweeter-in-Chief, but the facts on the ground—both in Washington, D.C. and Tehran—don’t support the hand-wringing in either place.