War with Iran may be inevitable

The International Crisis Group has released a report comparing the situation between Iran and the U.S. to that just before World War I, saying that a provocation could spark a wider conflict today just as an assassination did then. It calls for third party mediation to de-escalate the conflict.[1]

The trouble with this report lies not in what it analyzes but rather in what it fails to analyze: First, it treats the Trump administration as a rational actor. [2] This is obviously absurd.

Second, it takes Iran and the U.S. at their word in saying they want to avoid war.[3] But these two countries are by no means the only actors in the region and it cannot be so safely said that all actors want to avoid a war between the two countries so much as they want not to appear to be provoking it. Further, given National Security Advisor John Bolton’s history, which includes deceit in advocacy of his preferred policies,[4] it cannot even safely be said that the Trump administration wants to avoid war.

Third, the report treats the U.S. and Iran as primary protagonists, failing to address the extent to which U.S. policy is driven by Israel,[5] which views any challenge to its treatment of Palestinians—the Iranians have been vocal about this—as anti-Semitic and as an existential threat.

The Israeli government therefore views Iran as an existential threat, quite regardless of Iran’s actual intent (which I will regard here as unknown), and thus treats Iranian troublemaking throughout the region as evidence of that threat. Here is where the report is useful:

Iran has spent years building a network of partners as part of what it calls its “forward defence” policy.[6] These relationships offer strategic depth that Iran’s leaders justify saying they are outgunned. Should a military confrontation occur between Iran and the U.S. or its allies, Tehran will likely add fuel to existing fires, including via its local allies, as a way of diffusing the threat to Iran itself.[7][8]

My suspicion is that we can view Iranian advocacy for the Palestinian cause partly—the full story is much more complicated and begins prior to the Iranian revolution[9]—cynically within this context of “building a network of partners.” On the one hand, the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories aren’t much of a military asset. On the other hand, the aggrieved Palestinian diaspora is widespread, including in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. Of these countries, Israel has only made peace with Jordan[10] and Egypt.[11]

The trick to reducing Iranian mischief then is much easier said than done: Iran needs to feel less threatened so it feels less need to develop this ‘forward defense.’ U.S. politics make this nearly as impossible as solving that other problem of extricating U.S. policy from Israeli capture.[12]

That simultaneously requires Israel to feel less threatened, when U.S. politicians weaponize the Holocaust nearly as shamelessly as do Israeli politicians against any and all opponents of Israel’s Palestine policy.

We can only hope the threat of war is exaggerated. Because its underlying causes seem intractable.

  1. [1]International Crisis Group, “Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment,” August 1, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/205-averting-middle-easts-1914-moment
  2. [2]International Crisis Group, “Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment,” August 1, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/205-averting-middle-easts-1914-moment
  3. [3]International Crisis Group, “Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment,” August 1, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/205-averting-middle-easts-1914-moment
  4. [4]Dexter Filkins, “John Bolton on the Warpath,” New Yorker, April 29, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/06/john-bolton-on-the-warpath
  5. [5]International Crisis Group, “Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment,” August 1, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/205-averting-middle-easts-1914-moment
  6. [6]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°184, Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle East, 13 April 2018. For a detailed description of what the authors call Iran’s “forward deterrence” policy, see Hassan Ahmadian and Payam Mohseni, “Iran’s Syria strategy: The evolution of deterrence”, International Affairs, vol. 95, no. 2 (2019).
  7. [7]Crisis Group interview, Beirut, May 2019. As an IRGC official noted, “we just need to cross our borders to the east or the west to find U.S. forces as sitting ducks”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, November 2018.
  8. [8]International Crisis Group, “Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment,” August 1, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/205-averting-middle-easts-1914-moment
  9. [9]Rachel Brandenburg with Cameron Glenn, “Iran and the Palestinians,” United States Institute of Peace, January 2016, https://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-palestinians
  10. [10]Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Peace with Jordan,” n.d., https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/AboutIsrael/Maps/Pages/Peace-with-Jordan.aspx
  11. [11]Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Peace with Egypt,” n.d., https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/AboutIsrael/Maps/Pages/Sinai%20Redeployment-%201980-1982.aspx
  12. [12]The Lyndon Johnson Administration, apparently seeking to bolster Robert Kennedy’s candidacy for the U.S. presidency, led the U.S. into this capture. See Thaddeus Russell, “Does U.S. Support for Israel Threaten American Safety?” Daily Beast, July 14, 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/thaddeus-russell-does-us-support-for-israel-threaten-american-safety

One thought on “War with Iran may be inevitable

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.