Strategic misalignment and the risk of war with Iran

Strategic misalignment and the risk of war with Iran
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Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argues that strategic uncertainty and budget constraints require the U.S. military to maintain a “boxer’s stance — with the strength, agility and resilience required to fight and win against any potential adversary.” Unfortunately, the Trump administration may be leading with its chin by creating a strategic misalignment that increases the risk of a major conflict in the Middle East. Specifically, Washington appears to be goading — or perhaps being goaded into — a fight with Iran at the same time that the U.S. is prioritizing great-power competition with Russia and China in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

To be clear, the Trump administration deserves credit for making difficult strategic choices and establishing clear priorities. This has not always been the case in previous administrations. Moreover, the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) correctly assesses that “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by … revisionist powers.” The post-World War II international order is under strain that is exacerbated by Moscow and Beijing sowing confusion and taking advantage of the turmoil to advance their own interests. Accordingly, the strategy calls for “increased and sustained investment” to address “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia.”

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Meanwhile, President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE is pursuing a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The administration apparently believes that Tehran will either change its behavior and renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal on more favorable terms for the United States, or that growing domestic unrest in Iran eventually will cause its people to oust the regime and usher in a more U.S.-friendly government.

In the Middle East, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and reimposed U.S. economic sanctions; assisted Saudi Arabia in its controversial military campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen; defeated the ISIS “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria; moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and formally recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Most recently, it designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a Foreign Terror Organization and eliminated all waivers to countries that import Iranian oil.

In May 2018, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoLatest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong 63 killed in blast at Afghan wedding as Taliban, US negotiate troop withdrawal Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE described 12 specific demands that must be met before the administration would consider renegotiating a deal with Tehran, some of which are unlikely ever to be met. That said, there is evidence that the “all sticks, no carrots” maximum pressure campaign is working.

For example, Pompeo estimates that sanctions have denied the regime more than $10 billion in oil revenue and effectively cut off shipments to Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. The IMF estimates that Iran’s economy shrank by 3.9 percent last year and could shrink by 6 percent in 2019. The Iranian rial lost more than 60 percent of its value last year, and there are concerns that inflation could reach 40 percent. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani recently acknowledged “the country is facing the biggest pressure and economic sanctions in the past 40 years.”  

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Iran has a relatively young, educated population, one that is suffering under the sanctions. Protesters have chanted “Death to Khamenei,” which must be concerning, if not unsettling, for the regime.

When asked by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace if the Trump administration is seeking regime change, national security adviser John Bolton replied that “the people of Iran, I think, deserve a better government. … The trouble is, it’s not just a theological dictatorship. It’s the military dictatorship, too. That’s a very difficult circumstance.”

But, what if the Trump administration’s strategic calculus is wrong? Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared that U.S. efforts to “bring Iran to its knees so that we would succumb to pressure is doomed to failure” and, instead, would “make Iranians more determined to resist that pressure.”

What if Zarif is correct about Iran’s resiliency and, instead of a domestic implosion, the maximum pressure campaign creates a regional crisis that includes armed conflict? Given the exceptionally high stakes for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the powerful IRGC, it is unlikely that they would willingly — or quietly — be removed from power.

Gen. Joseph Votel, former commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently warned that “instability is contagious. It does not respect national borders and grows and spreads if left unchecked.” Without doubt, Iran has the ability to foment instability across the region. In addition to possessing the largest military (an estimated 700,000 troops, between the Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Forces and the IRGC) and largest ballistic missile force in the region, Tehran has demonstrated the effectiveness of its proxy forces, such as Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, to advance its interests. Moreover, Iran presents an increasingly sophisticated cyber threat and is well-positioned to threaten maritime choke points at the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz to impede commercial traffic and disrupt the global energy supply.  

Over the weekend, Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants reportedly launched more than 600 rockets into Israel, which responded with airstrikes. In response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” of possible attacks against U.S. forces in the region, the Trump administration announced the deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group and a bomber task force to the region.

This presents a conundrum in which strategic risk resulting from the NDS’s prioritization complicates the operational challenges for CENTCOM. For almost two decades, CENTCOM led the nation’s fight against terrorism following the 9/11 attacks; however, it is transitioning from the main effort to a supporting role as military warfighting and other resources are redirected to address great-power competition in Europe and Asia.  

This begs the question whether the United States truly is prepared to engage in (another) war in the Middle East. Specifically, does CENTCOM have the force posture and capabilities to defeat Iran and its proxies, if required? Are regional and international partners such as Europe ready and willing to support the United States in an armed confrontation with Iran? How would Russia and China react?

While one hopes that cooler heads prevail, questions about military readiness and whether the Trump administration is picking the wrong fight are a consequence of Washington’s focus on great-power competition with Russia and China and concerns that it is doing so at the expense of U.S. national interests in the Middle East.

The U.S. national security apparatus should address this strategic misalignment and establish the correct balance of military forces and capabilities to more effectively respond to these challenges. If this is infeasible because of resource constraints, the administration should proceed cautiously in implementing its maximum pressure campaign — or President Trump could find himself engaged in a war in the Middle East that candidate Trump campaigned to avoid.

James L. Cook is an associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he specializes in strategy, military force planning and the Middle East. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he has served in a variety of command and staff assignments in the United States, Europe and the U.S. Central Command region, most recently in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.