In the escalating, multi-dimensional conflict between Washington and Tehran, the growing risk of armed conflict centers around the same danger that plagues international relations in general: miscalculation.
President Donald Trump may believe that in sanctioning Iran’s central bank and sending more U.S. troops to the region in response to the recent suspected Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities, he’s sending a clear message to Tehran.
But Iran’s leaders may not hear it. Instead, they may think that they can push the envelope of military action further — in light of Trump’s insistence that he doesn’t want war, his failure to respond militarily to Iran’s attack on a U.S. drone in June, his earlier empty threats of military action against Iran and North Korea, and decades of U.S. reluctance to respond forcefully to Iranian and other provocations.
The danger, of course, is that Tehran will push too far, and Trump will feel compelled to take military action, which could escalate quickly into a tit-for-tat of exchanges that lead to all-out war.
Miscalculation. It’s the danger that JFK sought to avoid as he exchanged messages with Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that George H.W. Bush sought to avoid when he signaled Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War that Saddam’s use of chemical or biological weapons would mean the end of his regime.
Miscalculation by Europe’s leading powers is what caused a gruesome world war after Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914, and it’s what drove U.S. stalemate in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.
In the conflict between Washington and Tehran, a miscalculation by either is not hard to envision.
“There are many options” for Iran, Trump told reporters late last week, making clear that military action is one of them. “There’s the ultimate option and there are options that are a lot less than that, and we’ll see.”
In recent days, the president tweeted that the United States is “locked and loaded,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Iran’s suspected attack on Saudi oil sites “a state-on-state act of war.”
With his new sanctions on Iran’s central bank — and with his cyberattacks on Iranian computer systems after Iran’s attack on the U.S. drone in June — Trump may think that his “ultimate option” warnings and additional U.S. troops to the region will deter Iran from bolder military action.
Consider the likely view from Tehran, however.
“I asked, how many will die,” Trump tweeted in explaining why he cancelled the military strike in June after Iran downed a U.S. drone. “150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it.”
Trump’s reluctance to kill people may be laudable, but it likely reinforced Iranian suspicions that his threats are meaningless because neither he nor his country has the stomach for a bloody conflict.
Five days after cancelling that U.S. attack — and in response to a suspected Iranian attack on commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman — Trump warned of “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration” if Iran attacked “anything American.” That, however, is precisely what Iran had done when it downed the drone.
Besides, Tehran has witnessed earlier cycles of unfulfilled U.S. threats — many times. Notably, President Obama called off a military strike after Syrian strongman (and close Iranian ally) Bashar al-Assad crossed his chemical weapons “red line.” Decades earlier, President Reagan pulled back U.S. forces not long after suspected Iranian-backed terrorists blew up the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. personnel.
That Obama invited greater Iranian influence by withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq, and that many war-weary Americans want all U.S. forces home from Afghanistan, surely hasn’t escaped Tehran’s notice, either.
Nevertheless, Trump’s reluctance to pull the military trigger against Iran may have its limits. Tehran’s attack on the Saudi oil facilities of Aramco, the state-owned company, shut down about half of its production and caused the largest global oil price spike in about three decades. In a global market, anything that affects Saudi oil production will have direct repercussions for prices in the United States.
A broader Iranian attack that shuts down more Saudi facilities and sends world oil prices higher, and for a longer period, could force the President to strike at Iran in order to protect America’s economy.
Would such U.S. military action prompt a comparable Iranian attack on U.S. targets? Would a tit-for-tat cycle escalate invariably?
As tensions mount, are Washington and Tehran each miscalculating what the other will likely do?
Lawrence J. Haas, senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.