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The Coming Storm

This May, the United States military moved the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, a large aircraft carrier, into the Persian Gulf, just off the coast of Iran. Later that month, the White House announced that it planned to send an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East. In order to justify both of these decisions, the Trump administration cited increased tensions with Iran. Though hostilities between the U.S. and Iran have run high for decades, the conflict between the two countries has steadily intensified over the past three years. In 2015, the Obama administration agreed to lift sanctions on Iran while allowing it to develop its nuclear energy infrastructure under U.N. supervision. In the intervening years, however, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the nuclear deal and re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Fascinatingly, recent developments in U.S. foreign policy closely resemble the escalation of U.S. aggression in the lead-up to war with Iraq in 2003. However, the U.S.’s current hostility toward Iran is especially concerning because a conflict with Iran could potentially be even more devastating than the Iraq War.

The similarities between the escalation of U.S.-Iran animus today and that of U.S.-Iraq animus in 2003 are rhetorical as well as tactical. From calling a branch of the Iranian military a terrorist group to threatening to make Iran “suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before,” President Trump has adopted an increasingly aggressive tone with Iran. Certain U.S. allies have also influenced the hawkish turn in American foreign policy by exaggerating Iran’s threat. For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently made the unsubstantiated claim that Iran is hiding a nuclear weapons facility. Other allies are more cautious—the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini recently urged the U.S. to use “maximum restraint” in dealing with Iran.

Mogherini’s concerns are informed by American foreign policy failures of the not-so-distant past. In 2003, the Bush administration based its argument for invading Iraq on intelligence reports that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Evidence to the contrary later discredited these intelligence reports and suggested that the Bush administration had fabricated many of the claims relating to the Iraqi threat. Because the pretense for the American invasion of Iraq was predicated on these fabrications, it is clear in retrospect that the war did not serve the security of the U.S. or of the Middle East.

Like Iraq in 2003, Iran neither poses a significant threat to American national security nor does it threaten to become a hegemon in the Middle East. For one, the U.S.’s $693 billion annual defense budget dwarfs Iran’s defense budget of between $10 billion and $12 billion. Furthermore, Iran’s efforts at military modernization have lagged significantly behind those of its neighbors like Israel and Saudi Arabia, two countries whose military budgets far exceed that of Iran. Additionally, the position of American foreign policy experts like former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey is that the Iranian regime is a rational actor and thus is unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack.

Because Iran does not represent a real threat to the United States, the human cost of a war between the two countries would significantly outweigh any benefit. The American invasion of Iraq caused the deaths of 288,000 people, including between 184,000 and 206,000 Iraqi civilians. With three times the population of Iraq in 2003, Iran would suffer even more horrific casualties in the event of a war with the U.S. But the damage that war inflicts extends well beyond the numbers. War tears apart communities and shatters social bonds. It destroys physical infrastructure and erases the historical artifacts of societies. The tremendous cost of a war with the U.S. is completely unjustifiable.

Those unpersuaded by the human costs of a conflict with Iran may be moved by the impracticality of a military solution in Iran and the geopolitical imbroglio that is sure to result. For one, Iran has an area three and a half times larger than Iraq’s; research by the Dupuy Institute suggests that the U.S. would need 10 times as many American troops in Iran to control the territory as were ever in Iraq. Secondly, because Iran is surrounded mostly by enemies, it has built up a defensive network of more than a hundred proxy militias across the Middle East. Some of Iran’s larger and better-funded proxies include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, all of whom are fighting against a coalition backed by both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Since these militias stand ready to defend Iranian interests, a provocation against Iran by the U.S. would engulf several Middle Eastern countries in conflict. Finally, it is unlikely that a new Iranian regime created in the wake of a war with the U.S. would garner sufficient popular support. Many Iranian citizens harbor negative feelings toward the American government because they see it as Iran’s enemy; this makes for a political structure that satisfies all parties improbable at best.

The immense difficulty of establishing a state in the wake of regime change should call to mind the aftermath of the Iraq War. The destabilization of Iraq after U.S. troops withdrew was in many ways responsible for the escalation of conflict between non-state actors in Iraq and Syria, which notoriously included the rise of ISIS. American political leaders on both sides of the aisle have admitted that the power vacuum created by the Iraq War in the Middle East made the war unjustifiable. Not only would a war in Iran lead to a loss of civilian life greatly exceeding casualties in Iraq, it would create a vast and complicated power vacuum that could launch the region into utter chaos.

Finally, the Iranian government is acutely aware of the consequences of a war with the U.S. and has demonstrated a significant willingness to reach compromise through diplomacy. In the absence of a real threat, the U.S. has no just cause to pursue anything other than a diplomatic solution to its antagonism toward Iran.

Photo: Image via Blondinrikard Fröberg (Flickr)