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.
On the other hand, there are signs that some in the administration clearly prefer a more hawkish approach, especially national security adviser John Bolton, who has been lobbying Pompeo and other officials trying to build support for his views. The administration has also taken several steps to lay the groundwork for war. First, the administration has also made quite a show of sharing intelligence to hype the threat from Iran and its proxies. Second, the administration has called back nonemergency government employees from Iraq, certainly an ominous sign that the country will be too dangerous for Americans in the near future. Finally, the administration has sent some additional firepower to the Middle East while revealing its plans for a massive force deployment. On top of all of this, given Trump’s tendency to change directions without warning, it would be foolish to assume there is no way that Bolton – or other events – couldn’t change Trump’s mind. When asked by reporters if the administration was considering regime change, Trump answered, “We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it would be a very bad mistake.” He also told reporters that if the United States did sent troops to the Middle East, “it would be a hell of a lot more” than 120,000.
For Iran’s part, things are also somewhat uncertain but for different reasons. On a purely logical level, Iran cannot possibly seek war with the United States. Regardless of how Iran interprets Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, despite the pain caused by the reimposition of economic sanctions, and in spite of recent American rhetoric, the worst possible outcome for Iran is war. A sustained campaign of American air strikes would be terribly painful; a full-scale invasion would be catastrophic. What remains to be seen, however, is how far Iran will go to avoid war. If the United States is considering war, Iran needs to figure out what to say and do – and what not to say and do – to avoid tipping the American decision toward war.
This is where Iran’s behavior is hard to gauge. The words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, on the one hand, lead us to worry less about war. In March he gave a speech in which he called for patience, with a plan to continue complying with the JCPOA and hanging on until 2020 when Trump might lose the election and Iran could restart its relations with the United States.
On the other hand, more recent Iranian actions look more foolish than patient. If Iranian proxies have been planning or carrying out attacks on Americans in Iraq and Syria, and if Iran was in fact responsible for carrying out the attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, then it appears that Iran is willing to run the risk of giving the Trump administration the necessary excuse to escalate. Likewise, Iranian officials have repeatedly said they do not seek war with the United States, but at times the same officials say things that suggest they might not be trying very hard to prevent war, such as when Iran’s foreign minister Zarif said, "There will be no war because neither we want a war, nor has anyone the idea or illusion that it can confront Iran in the region." Unless Iran believes that the United States has already decided to strike, or believes that the United States has no intention to attacking Iran, this approach is playing with fire and definitely raises the prospects of war.
Based on this analysis, I would spit ball that the current probability that the United States will attack Iran is above zero but well below 50%, let’s call it 25%. On Iran’s side, I rate the current probability that Iran decides to attack the United States directly at 0%, unless Iran determines that an attack by the United States is imminent, at which point Iran might well launch some sort of preemptive strikes at American or allied targets.
Before we decide where to put our money, however, our estimate also needs to take in to account the high level of uncertainty in the analysis and the fact that events have been moving quickly. News reports are often not very reliable guides to the inner workings of the U.S. government, much less what is really going in Iran or elsewhere. As a result, we cannot know just how determined Trump is to avoid war, nor what the Iranians might consider their red lines. And with tensions running high, the risk of accidents and misinterpretation is also high. Just months ago, remember, few people imagined war might be imminent as this point.
Thus, if I were betting today, I would put my money on war not occurring, but I wouldn’t bet too much…