Belmont Club

The Low Chance of War with Iran

Demonstrators burn representations of the U.S. flag during a pro-government rally denouncing last week’s violent protests over a fuel price hike, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

With everyone wondering if Iran and the U.S. will go to war, it’s pertinent to understand that both nations are already in an undeclared conflict going back more than 40 years. “And often, it’s been a war that our political and intelligence elites have denied exists.”

It began on November 4, 1979, when “radicals” loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran … On April 18, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon … Iran has also targeted U.S. soldiers on the battlefield, killing more than 1,000 U.S. troops with specialized improvised explosive devices in Iraq, placing a bounty on U.S. service personnel in Afghanistan, and most recently targeting U.S. forces in Syria.

The obvious question is why this conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives, has remained in a state of limbo and why elites are at pains to deny its exists. One possible answer is that the combatants prefer it that way. Iran, for its part, is heavily engaged in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in far-flung theaters including Syria, Yemen, Iraq, the Bahrain uprising, Lebanon and even Afghanistan. It can scarcely afford the additional cost of open conflict with the United States if it is to escape overextension. It is in Iran’s interest to keep its war with America undeclared so that it can pick and choose when to engage.

For analogous but different reasons, Washington preferred it secret too. Undeclared conflicts are the only way to fight “forever wars,” where the object is not the destruction of the enemy but rather its management and containment in such a way that the global public and markets don’t notice.

In being undeclared, the attacks have allowed the countries in which they occur to ignore them, to claim they never happened, or were of unknown origin, which avoids conflict escalation. Some analysts assert this approach ensures the societies of the attacked countries are not enraged and mobilized. The attacks can be portrayed as conflicts between states, not between peoples.

Hidden wars allow Western politicians to avoid World War 2-type political choices that might lead to binary outcomes like victory or defeat in favor of a chronic conflict flying just beneath the media radar. That way, deal-making can continue with minor interruptions. From this perspective, the really disruptive effect of Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian IGRC chief Qasem Suleimani was not the kinetic act itself, but in forcing what past administrations and Iran wanted hidden out into the open.

All of a sudden, the issue of Iran can no longer be locked up in a dark closet. To the question: “What will the IRGC do now that it has not already done? Kidnap foreigners? Strike military bases? Sack embassies? Assassination attempts? Target GCC oil interests? Send out militias to crack down on adversaries?” the answer is simple. They have to own up to it.

This creates some painful dilemmas for Tehran. Given the strain on Iran’s military resources, it is unlikely it can mobilize any more combat power to throw at America. The most significant effect will be political. Western leaders can no longer sit on both sides of the fence. Already the anti-war movement, which until only a few days ago was comparatively oblivious of Iran, was out in force across the nation.

“No justice, no peace. U.S. out of the Middle East,” hundreds of demonstrators chanted outside the White House before marching to the Trump International Hotel a few blocks away.

Similar protests were held in New York, Chicago and other cities. Organizers at Code Pink, a women-led anti-war group, said protests were scheduled on Saturday in numerous U.S. cities and towns.

Protesters in Washington held signs that read “No war or sanctions on Iran!” and “U.S. troops out of Iraq!”

If Trump’s goal was to drag the secret four-decade war out of the shadows, he has succeeded spectacularly. Suddenly, Iran can no longer pick and choose when to engage. Suddenly, politicians can no longer indefinitely fight this “forever war” without accountability. Pressure will mount in Congress to vote on what to do about it: win, surrender or initiate a negotiated settlement. If nothing else, it will force them to articulate the alternatives. But they can’t hide it under the fold anymore.

Whether intentional or not, Trump’s actions have eliminated secret war with Iran as an alternative. “President Trump has warned the US is ‘targeting’ 52 Iranian sites and will strike ‘very fast and very hard’ if Tehran attacks Americans or US assets.” If Iran tries to dive into the murky waters of deniable conflict again, the Donald has 52 charges to bring it to the surface. This puts enormous pressure on Tehran to either open another front against America or negotiate a ceasefire in its secret war against the U.S. As Shadi Hamid of The Atlantic put it, nobody really wants open war, but Iran can stand it least of all.

Initially I was on the fence, but the more I consider different scenarios, the more the original alarmist takes seem even more wrong than I first suspected. The WW3 stuff is obviously silly, but even the risk of “mere” war seems increasingly unlikely.

Of course, this doesn’t mean killing Soleimani was good or right. But the evidence that this will lead to significant escalation seems lacking. Iran will likely escalate and retaliate in some way, but that’s not the same as war. Moreover, Iran has *already* been escalating…

What’s striking to me is that Middle East experts, including (importantly) those from the region, have tended to be *less* alarmist. There’s probably a good reason for this—they’re less fixated on Trump and less likely to be US-centric in their analysis

That’s because the Middle East experts know how thinly the Islamic Republic is stretched. There may have been enough resources to launch covert ops against America, but there is way too little to confront it openly.

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