For weeks the Trump administration has been issuing warnings about increased attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria by Iranian proxies. Recently the administration revealed that it has satellite imagery of what it says are Iranian paramilitary forces loading missiles onto a small boat. In response, the Pentagon recently presented national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s national security team with an updated plan that would send 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran attacks American forces or ramps up its development of nuclear weapons. Though the plans apparently do not include a ground invasion of Iran, what scenarios they might encompass has not yet been revealed. Nor is it entirely clear what sort of Iranian action might trigger a response.
Considering John Bolton’s longstanding calls for a more confrontational approach to Iran and Trump’s desire to squeeze greater concessions from Iran through tougher sanctions and “maximum pressure,” tensions between the United State and Iran are certainly rising. As my colleague John Glaser has pointed out, it would be difficult to design a strategy more likely to lead to “accidental” conflict than the path the Trump administration is pursuing today. Thus, the question on everyone’s mind is: Will there be war? Though the risk is not zero, the smart bet – for now – is that there will not be war.
Though making predictions about complex political outcomes like war is fraught with peril, a reasonable approach is to start by asking two questions. First, how determined is the United States to start, or avoid, a war with Iran? Second, how determined is Iran to start, or avoid, a war with the United States? Though many other factors might be at work, such as what’s at stake for each country, the relative military capabilities of each, and so forth, most of those factors eventually get captured in those two questions. If either country desires war, war is coming. But even if neither seeks war, rising tensions, accidents, and the psychological dispositions of individual leaders could lead to war if both countries don’t take enough steps to avoid it.
So far news reporting suggests that the Trump administration has not yet decided on war, but the signals are certainly mixed. Trump himself has said that “we’re not looking to hurt anybody” and that “I’d like to see them call me” to continue talks. Even Iranian officials don’t think Trump wants war. Speaking on Face the Nation, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said “We don’t believe that President Trump wants confrontation.” More generally, given Trump’s historical opposition to military intervention and nation building, it is hard to imagine Trump’s instincts guiding him to launch a war with Iran. After all, during the 2016 campaign Trump called the war in Iraq a horrible mistake, and a regime-change invasion of Iran would be a far bigger challenge.