Benjamin Hart and Intelligencer writer Heather Hurlburt discuss the rising tensions between two longtime adversaries and whether war is on the horizon.
Ben: Tensions with Iran have ratcheted up to their highest level in a long time, as the U.S. tightens its vise around the country. A year after President Trump terminated American involvement with the Iran nuclear deal — even though Iran was fully cooperating with it — severe American sanctions have taken a major toll on the Iranian economy. This week, Iran said it will stop complying with some sections of the agreement. The announcement came days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent warships to Iran’s coast in response to an unspecified threat to American interests, then skipped a meeting with Angela Merkel to go to Iraq and attend to this supposed threat. How likely do you think it is that all this saber-rattling will lead to a violent conflict in the near term?
Heather: Some of the commentary on this has been very breathless.
Ben: I’m happy to be disabused of my fears on this one.
Heather: My worries are first, that anytime you put U.S. and Iranian forces in closer proximity, the risk of mishap or misunderstanding leading to conflict rises. So that’s real. It’s also important to stress that the Pentagon is not anxious to get into a shooting war with Iran. National-security adviser John Bolton and even H.R. McMaster before him were frustrated with the Pentagon’s desire to cool tensions with Tehran, and even stay in the Iran deal. So the fear is real but not inevitable.
The second worry is what the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, IRGC, does in retaliation for being named a terrorist group by the U.S. They could target U.S. forces. But they could also target Saudis or Israelis, and then Saudis or Israelis would potentially pull us in.
Ben: Saudi Arabia is Iran’s chief geopolitical rival. Israel is no fan of the country either. But are either of these countries — or anyone else in the region — actually rooting for a violent conflict here? Or would they prefer the maximum-pressure campaign already under way?
Heather: Israel definitely not — it has all it can handle right now between the escalating fight with Hamas and Netanyahu’s legal woes. I do not pretend to know what MBS, the prince who is leading Saudi foreign affairs, thinks, though he has much higher risk tolerance than prior Saudi leaders. Iranian hard-liners and their various proxy forces would actually prefer war — they’d benefit from increased tensions. So playing into their hands is worrying.
Ben: How would it benefit the hard-liners, exactly? They’ve been saying that the Iran deal was a terrible miscalculation from the beginning, so all this American aggression is a validation of their philosophy. But wouldn’t a war also be ruinous for the country — even more so than the sanctions are?
Heather: As they control the guns, even more power would flow to them, which in their calculations outweighs the harm that would befall the Iranian people. This is not unique to Iranian hard-liners by any means.
Ben: If America did want to strike Iran or its interests, what form would that be most likely to take? Would it be more likely a hit on Iran itself, or attacks on proxy forces in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere?
Heather: Keep in mind that you already have Israel regularly bombing Iranian proxies in Syria, and Saudis going after Iran-allied Houthis in Yemen. They are perceived as U.S. proxy attacks whether Washington knows about/green-lights them or not. So you could have a step up in intensity there — and that is likely if more reports of Iranian missiles heading toward Yemen, or higher-grade material going toward the Syria-Israel border, surface. The Pentagon will not want to just go after Iranian forces unless in response to a direct attack.
Ben: But will they be able to fend off the White House if Bolton, a notorious interventionist, convinces the president that taking action is a good idea?
Heather: I think the most likely scenarios are either misperception or IRGC provocation creates a situation where the Pentagon “has to” respond, or the U.S. or others use cyber or other unconventional methods.
Ben: While President Trump has no clear foreign-policy philosophy to speak of, he has not seemed instinctively to want to begin wars — just to threaten them. Do you think he may serve as a brake on his hawkish advisers’ more belligerent impulses?
Heather: As I often say, I think Trump does have a consistent approach — it’s a belief that threats and bluster work, that personalized authority is better than reliance on institutions, norms, and rules … and that the first two items are the signs of the kind of manhood that underpins normative (white male) American culture. So it’s not his intention to use force. And he’s not as in thrall to the cult of the good little war as some of his team. But the inherent small-c conservatism of the Pentagon really matters here too.
Ben: Do you expect Europe to defy the U.S. any more than it already has to keep the Iran deal alive, or will they conclude that it’s not worth it to evoke even more American wrath?
Heather: Both options are really bad for Europe. Either they are explicitly appeasing Iran or they are explicitly blowing off their treaty ally Washington. And given that Europe already tried to build a finance work-around but it’s not delivering much, Europe may be damned either way. Along with all of us.
Ben: On that optimistic note, thanks for chatting.
Heather: You’re welcome. Informed, sober pessimism is my specialty.