Is war with Iran on the horizon?
Will the United States have war with Iran? A) Yes. B) No. C) It depends on what the Saudis want. D) All of the above. This is how things have shaped up since the drone attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia last weekend. Houthi insurgents in Yemen took responsibility, and Saudi officials claimed that Iranian weapons were used. It is possible that the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps provided the training and materials.
The response from President Trump has been, well, put on a neck brace. On Sunday, he tweeted that the United States was “locked and loaded” for action against Iran. He later said that he was waiting to hear from the Saudi government and “under what terms we would proceed.” On Monday, he then told reporters that he would “like to avoid” a military conflict with Iran and spoke about the virtues of using diplomacy.
There is recent precedent for this hem and haw towards Tehran. This summer, he approved a military strike following its downing of an American drone then reversed course at the last minute. Our national security postulated the Monroe Doctrine that European nations should not interfere in the American continents. The Truman Doctrine said that democratic nations should be protected from internal or external proponents of authoritarianism. The Bush Doctrine reserved the right of the United States to act preemptively in order to protect itself.
Now we have the Trump Doctrine of maybe or maybe not. We have gone from shock and awe to seesaw. Trump allies say that his paltering is shrewd dealmaking. It is the wildly abstract art of the deal. He is the New York City real estate tycoon who leaves the negotiating table in feigned bluster, slamming the door and then waiting for someone to reopen it. He is the guy who likes to play head games with competitors and colleagues, leaving them in the dark, maintaining the advantage.
But this is not an episode of the HBO series “Succession.” This is the national security of the United States. It is about the possibility of a cascade of miscalculation that ignites yet another war where people, including Americans, will die. Using psyche and bluster to acquire a building could lead to the worst case scenario of not owning the building. The same tactics, if they mislead Iran into doing something crazier than it already does now, could lead to a bunch of buildings coming down.
Iran has plentiful options in a war. it can conceivably activate terrorist attacks within the United States at shopping malls and office buildings. It can disrupt global markets, but despite the president tweeting “plenty of oil,” prices spiked by 10 percent. (Can someone please convince him that panicked messages are not exactly soothing?) Iran and its allies can inflict major cyberattacks on our energy grids and banks. It can do other things that caused me to lose sleep after classified briefings when I served on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee in Congress.
So what will happen? The most common title in the White House is “former national security adviser.” It is unclear whether Trump is rehashing the restraint of former national security adviser H.R. McMaster or the counsel of former national security adviser John Bolton, who wrote an editorial a few years ago in the New York Times with the headline, “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.” It is also unclear whether we may go to war because the people he listens to on Fox News think it is a ratings winner.
In the swirling contradictions and shifting of gears came one cleareyed assessment from an unlikely source, Mohammed Alyahya, editor of the English website of a Saudi owned news channel. He told the New York Times, “If there is a military conflict, Iran will inevitably be the biggest loser, but the reality is everybody will lose. A conventional war will take its toll on everyone.” That is the most accurate prediction you can count on.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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