The noises from the Middle East are increasingly bellicose. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says that his country could withdraw from parts of the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J-CPOA). US President Donald Trump has responded by ordering reinforcements to the region; reduced non-essential diplomatic personnel in Iraq; and is reportedly firming up attack plans.
In the four decades since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the US has always tried to contain Iran rather than confront it directly through decisive military action.
But Trump has steadily ratcheted up US tensions with Tehran since withdrawing from the 2015 agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This feels like the final end game.
Trump has an extremely hawkish team in place headed by national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Bolton has long-argued that the US should bomb Iran to stop the Islamic Republic from gaining a nuclear weapon while Pompeo also has the Tehran regime in his crosshairs despite his inability to find European allies who could help lend legitimacy to such a conflict. At the same time, the US is coming under sustained pressure to act on Iran from within the region. Its three key regional allies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have long championed strikes on Tehran.
Iran too is not afraid of war. Its leadership may even believe that war is in their best interests. More than anything, US economic pressure has pushed Iran to the brink of economic collapse. Trump’s decision last month to end exemptions from sanctions for countries still buying oil from Iran was the final turning of the screw. Not only does less oil revenue mean falling living standards at home it also severely limits the amount of largesse that the Tehran regime can distribute to regional allies like Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and proxies such as the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
New sanctions have allowed the Iranian regime to blame the US for the current economic crisis. But Rouhani put his reputation on the line to negotiate the nuclear deal, and the US withdrawal has damaged its supporters in Iran. Moderate Iranian support for rapprochement with the US has dwindled. Now the hardliners in Tehran are calling the shots. All of this makes Iran more likely to seek conflict, not capitulation. It is still pushing the Europeans to do more to help its ailing economy and threatening if they do not then it will go ahead and withdraw from the nuclear deal.
Bolton would most likely advocate a military response to such a move. But Trump may well be more cautious. He would dearly love the Iranian regime to crumble on his watch, and he would probably be forced to respond if US forces or facilities were attacked. But Trump has shown in his dealings with North Korea that while he likes to win, deal-making rather than war is his preferred option.
Trump may also have decided that a war with Iran is one that’s just not worth fighting. After all, Iran is a very different proposition to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Crucially, it’s a key Russian ally, and as we have seen with Assad in Syria, Putin’s Russia is prepared to stand by its allies in the Middle East, whatever the cost in treasure and prestige.
Iran’s close military ties with Russia also make war less likely. Even the US’s military advantage in the air could not be taken completely for granted given that Tehran possesses a state-of-the-art S-300 missile defence system purchased from Moscow in 2016. Iran and Russia have also announced plans for a joint military exercise in the Persian Gulf this summer.
What this means is that a full-scale invasion of Iran is not going to be on the cards. If fighting does break out it would most likely be a series of asymmetrical air and sea battles while Iranian proxies in the region would seek to cause the US maximum casualties. That’s not the kind of war that results in a clear victory and it’s also not the kind of war that plays well with the US electorate – and with a second term up for grabs in 2020 it would likely cost Trump votes against Democratic Party challengers such as Joe Biden, Kamala Harris or Bernie Sanders.
Trump knows this. He has already said that he would talk to Iran’s current leadership, without advocating for a change in the government first. This view has been echoed by Pompeo. And it probably should be taken at face value. Trump could like nothing more than to emerge with a better Iran deal than his predecessor Barack Obama.
The downside to such a strategy is that it is high-risk and could lead to misjudgements on both sides. Trump’s base might not want war but it also wants Trump to show that the US won’t be pushed around. Senator Richard Durbin is already worried that it could result in a “Gulf of Tonkin moment” that could draw America into war, referring to the mysterious naval incident that led to the United States engaging more directly in the Vietnam War.
“America has lost a great deal of credibility in the Middle East with its recent wars where it has gone in with all guns blazing and lofty intentions only to leave a few years later under a cloud and with the job half done. The question is does the US really have the stomach for another war?” said Iranian-American filmmaker Tina Gharavi.