Politics & Policy

Making Sense of the Iran Chaos

An oil tanker after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran, June 13, 2019. (ISNA/Reuters)
Iran’s harassment should not be permitted to provoke an escalation.

One would prefer that correct decisions be made according to careful, deliberate plan. But a correct decision made impulsively, through a troubling process, is still nonetheless correct, and so it is with Donald Trump’s decision to refrain from military action against Iran. The proposed strike would represent a serious escalation without providing material military benefit, American forces are more vulnerable than the American people understand, the American people are not prepared for war, and — finally — America has options short of war to maintain crippling pressure on Iran.

First, it’s hard to imagine the true military or diplomatic benefit of the planned strike. Let’s be clear, despite the fact that Trump balked at the projected casualties — an estimated 150 Iranians — a small attack on three targets is a pinprick strike. The mullahs don’t care about those casualties, and a small attack does not materially impair Iranian striking power. Pinprick strikes are often seen as displays of weakness, not strength.

A small attack would, however, grant the pretext for yet another Iranian escalation — perhaps one that would claim American lives, thus generating a much larger American response.

Second, a larger conflict with Iran could inflict serious losses on American forces. While I see many commentators (mainly on the right) correctly note the large imbalance of power in favor of American forces, I see too few reckon with the very real ability of the Iranian military and Iranian allies to inflict greater harm on American forces than has any major combatant since 9/11.

Iranian missiles can reach American bases. Iranian naval forces can create extreme risk for merchant shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, impacting (at least for a time) the American economy. Iranian-backed militias can kill American troops in Iraq and in Syria. In fact, they proved to be deadly foes throughout the Iraq War.

Yes, our response to any of these events would be devastating, but unless we’re ready for a conflict that would dwarf Operation Iraqi Freedom in scale and scope, we could not dictate regime change. And the Iranian regime proved long ago that it will disregard casualties that number in the hundreds of thousands to preserve its Islamic Revolution.

Third, there is zero evidence that the American people are prepared for a potentially deadly conflict with Iran — and there has been no real effort to prepare Americans for war. If the administration seeks to strike Iran, it must go to Congress for authorization, initiating a process that would inevitably entail a very public debate of the costs and benefits of military action. Given the facts as we now understand them, it’s highly doubtful that Congress would approve a strike — nor should it.

If the facts change, this analysis may well change. America has vital national interests at stake in the region — including preventing Iran from making additional concrete strides towards building a nuclear bomb, protecting the lives of American soldiers in the region, and maintaining the free flow of commerce through the Strait of Hormuz.

Fourth, there is a better way. The far better course (for now, at least) is to pursue those national interests through diplomacy and economic sanctions. Remain calm and maintain pressure. America’s sanctions are hitting Iran hard. Its economy is in shambles. Substantial economic losses are far more painful to the Mullahs than the loss of a missile battery, a radar station, or even 150 troops.

Right now, Iran feels pain while the United States does not. Our economy is robust. Our military forces are intact. We’re enjoying the fruits of victory over ISIS.

In fact, we have such a substantial advantage that Iran may calculate that it can obtain American concessions only if it makes the American people feel a degree of anxiety and uncertainty. American casualties can cause such anxiety. Economic disruption can cause such uncertainty. We can’t be sure that Iran won’t lash out again.

I make no pretense of believing that there is a clear, risk-free path of confronting (or engaging with) Iran. It’s a hostile regional power full of enemies who are consumed with jihadist zeal. It has engaged in a long, low-intensity war against the United States, and it has proven that it will endure incalculable hardship to preserve its revolution and maintain its enmity. We are their “Great Satan,” and there is no obvious solution to their anti-American resistance.

Unless circumstances materially change, Iran’s harassment should not be permitted to provoke an escalation. At the same time, however, Iran has to know that it ultimately faces the same risks that it faced in 1988 — when, at the height of the so-called “tanker war,” the mining of an American ship led to a crushing American response that sank or crippled a significant portion of the Iranian navy.

Let’s end with a word about presidential leadership. I want to reiterate that Trump made the right decision not to strike Iran, but it is deeply troubling to hear that he did not truly ponder the costs of the strike until minutes before its execution. A White House official reportedly told CNN that the president had the casualty estimates “earlier in the day.” He could and should have made his decision when he saw the proposed plan.

Moreover, given the reportedly small size of the strike, the president’s very public indecision doesn’t even communicate to the Iranians that they dodged a bullet. As I noted above, they dodged a pinprick, and jihadists are generally unimpressed with pinpricks. He unnecessarily communicated confusion and weakness (the Iranians would chortle at his concern over casualties) when he could have demonstrated consistency and resolve.

There is a cost to alternating between bluster and restraint, and that cost is obvious. Threats that once seemed frightening in 2017 seem increasingly empty in 2019, and we steadily lose the ability to deter. Trump is inverting Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim — “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Bluster followed by inaction is far worse than the calm pursuit of serious strategy.

There are multiple reports that the president is quite pleased with himself after his on-again, off-again strike decision. He should be pleased at the outcome, not the process. In a time of potential crisis, America needs a steady hand at the helm. In the meantime, we should be relieved that the president made the right call, ten minutes before it was too late.

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