A Path to War With Iran – Philip H. Gordon | Foreign Affairs

A Path to War With Iran

How Washington’s Escalation Could Lead to Unintended Catastrophe

Philip H. Gordon | Foreign Affairs

When President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last May, many critics argued that he risked setting off a chain of events that could lead to war.The nuclear deal wasn’t perfect, supporters of the deal acknowledged, but if the United States precipitously walked away and the deal collapsed, Iran might resume its nuclear enrichment program; and to stop it, the United States would end up with no option but to use force. This in turn could ignite a wider conflagration. But administration officials and other opponents of the deal dismissed such concerns — even as they insisted that in the agreement’s absence, the best way to block Iran’s nuclear program was with a “credible military option”.   

Now the inevitable escalation cycle seems well under way. As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, in the past month alone the United States has designated the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist group; ended the waivers that allowed a small number of countries to purchase Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions; announced additional sanctions designed to cripple the country’s economy; and even deployed an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region to send “a clear and unmistakable message” to the Iranian regime not to challenge the United States.

Predictably, Iran has responded not by caving to U.S. demands – let alone collapsing – but with a pressure campaign of its own. On May 8, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would suspend compliance with parts of the nuclear deal and would withdraw entirely if Europe did not find a way to deliver economic benefits to Iran within 60 days — something nearly impossible to achieve.

Four days later, four Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were sabotaged with explosives, and two days after that drones crashed into Saudi oil facilities, causing explosions and shutting down a pipeline. No Iranian role in these events has been proven, but the IRGC has resorted to similar asymmetrical and untraceable attacks in the past — which is exactly why U.S. military and intelligence officials had warned that such retaliation was possible.

The Trump administration has now responded to Iran’s response by leaking intelligence that Iran was preparing potential missile attacks against American interests and warning Iran publicly about potential military action. Washington even went so far as to evacuate the staff of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and to put out word that the United States was preparing contingency plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the region.

Trump himself described reports of the military preparations as “fake news”, but also said that he would deploy “a hell of a lot more troops than that” if needed, and that Iran would “suffer greatly” if it attacked Americans. For his part, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that “if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion.” On May 16, a state-aligned newspaper in Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the Trump administration, called for “surgical strikes” against Iran, while a Trump supporter and occasional foreign-policy adviser, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, confidently predicted that the United States could win a war with Iran with just two strikes: “the first strike and the last strike.”

Avoiding further escalation will be difficult, given both sides’ determination not to back down. A new nuclear negotiation, which Trump claims to want, would be one way to avoid a clash. But Iran is not likely to enter talks with an administration it does not trust, and even less likely to agree to the sort of far-reaching deal Trump says is necessary: One that bans all enrichment, lasts forever, allows for even more intrusive inspections than the old agreement, restricts ballistic missiles, and constrains Iran’s regional behavior.

Then there’s the scenario in which Iran just hunkers down and hopes that President Trump is voted out of office in 2020. But eighteen months is a long time to endure the sort of economic pressure that Iran is under; and in any case, Iran appears to have closed the door on that option by threatening to violate the nuclear deal if it does not get rapid economic relief.

Further escalation, on the other hand, is quite easy to imagine: Should Iran leave the deal entirely, expand its nuclear program even gradually, or sponsor direct or proxy attacks on U.S. troops, the United States will be confronted with only two choices — a humiliating climb-down or the use of military force.


That the Trump administration’s approach to Iran could lead the United States into an inadvertent conflict should not come as a surprise to anyone. Indeed, from the day Trump took office, many feared that his impulsive behavior, blustering rhetoric, inability to think ahead, disrespect for policy process, and determination to “win” could lead to war.

In a spring 2017 essay for this magazine – “A Vision of Trump at War,” May/June 2017 – I raised concerns about his potential to stumble into conflict with Iran, China, or North Korea. Two years later, the good news is that none of these wars have happened. But the bad news is that Trump continues to display the characteristics that made such developments plausible in the first place.

If anything, he appears readier than ever to break with norms and antagonize allies and adversaries alike. Moreover, the advisers who now surround him are less willing and able than their predecessors to constrain his most provocative tendencies — when they are not actually determined to encourage such tendencies for their own purposes. Iran is by far the most dangerous contingency in the near term, but it is hardly the only place where Trump could stumble into accidental war.

Trump seems to have painted himself into a corner with China in much the same way as he has done with Iran: By imposing unilateral sanctions, misreading his opponents, and misleading the American people about the costs, risks, and consequences of his approach. The tariffs he initially imposed on $50 billion in imports from China were supposed to produce a “better deal”, but instead — and unsurprisingly — provoked Chinese counter-tariffs.

The United States responded by increasing the rate of the tariffs and preparing to expand them to cover the entirety of China’s $540 billion in exports to the United States. Even as the costs to U.S. farmers, producers, and consumers mount, Trump is now speculating that he will be better off politically if he continues to confront China at least until the 2020 elections.

A trade deal with China is, of course, still possible, just like a new nuclear deal with Iran. But further escalation is also a real possibility, as is a dangerous spillover from the economic domain to the political one. Indeed, in my fictional scenario I imagined the slippery slope toward military conflict having been preceded by a “trade war that escalated beyond what either side had predicted,” and an extreme nationalist China denying the United States cooperation in North Korea and challenging it in the South China Sea.

China’s state media is now calling the United States an “all-out bully”, a “paper tiger”, and a “colonialist”. At least one prominent Chinese scholar has suggested that Beijing hit the “anxious and arrogant” United States by banning the rare earths on which U.S. industry relies and selling U.S. treasury bonds, moves that would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy. Trump seems to have failed to anticipate that other countries have domestic politics, too — not to mention leverage to use against the United States. 

Trump’s approach to North Korea began with bluster, name-calling, and threats, yielding in 2018 to a surprising rapprochement; Trump even claimed that he and the dictator Kim Jong Un “fell in love.” This courting of Kim was a welcome alternative to a possible nuclear war, but Trump could easily revert to hostility, given his penchant for turning suddenly and brutally on anyone whom he believes has turned on him. North Korea’s recent testing of a “new type of tactical-guided weapon,” its resumption of short-range missile tests, and the U.S. seizure of a North Korean smuggling ship that Pyongyang is demanding be returned are all recent reminders that relations could deteriorate quickly if Trump’s professed love for Kim proves unrequited.

And now we can add Venezuela to the list of countries about which U.S. miscalculations could lead to deadly conflict. Trump boldly threw in his lot with the Venezuelan opposition and called for regime change, confident that U.S. pressure could dislodge the corrupt regime of Nicolas Maduro. He seems to have failed to anticipate that Maduro would use violence to cling to power, and that he would do so with Russian, Chinese, and Cuban support. Now Trump finds himself caught between accepting an embarrassing failure or escalating in a way that could involve U.S. military intervention, an “option” he does not rule out.


With all the public talk about the potential for conflict with Iran, Trump appears to be looking for a way out. He said last week that he would “like to see Iran’s leaders call me,” and he reportedly told the Pentagon that he did not want to go to war. His continued outreach to Chinese Leader Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un, despite their defiance, also suggests that he may well understand the risks of escalation. Perhaps Trump has, after all, envisaged a future that includes inadvertent U.S. military conflict and doesn’t like what he sees.

Less reassuring, however, is that the Trump administration’s overall approach to these issues — and the president’s personal approach to deal-making — has not changed and risks ending in catastrophic failure. The pattern seems to be one of hoping that threats, sanctions, and bluster force an adversary to concede or accept a “great deal”; then, having failed to anticipate the actual results of such tactics, the United States finds itself backed into a corner with no obvious way out.

In an apparent effort to assuage fears of war with Iran, one senior U.S. official said to The Washington Post this week, “because we are applying levels of pressure that don’t have any historic precedent, I think we can expect Iran to increase its threats and to increase its malign behavior.” That such a response from Iran might be explicable does not make it reassuring.

While Trump may not want war, moreover, he is no longer surrounded by advisers who can help him avoid it. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, someone who had seen war up close, was a voice of restraint, but he has now been gone for six months, and his acting successor has neither the stature nor apparently the willingness to challenge Trump. The president’s two closest foreign policy advisers are now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — an uber-hawk on Iran who seems to tell Trump only what he wants to hear — and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has long advocated the very sorts of wars Trump apparently seeks to avoid.

Bolton has argued that the only way to stop Iran’s nuclear program is to bomb it and advocated supporting Iranian ethnic and internal resistance groups in order to accelerate regime change. He has also called on the United States to revisit the “one China” policy and “see how an increasingly belligerent China responds”; refused to rule out the use of U.S. forces in Venezuela while insisting that the Monroe Doctrine is “alive and well”; and written that “it is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”

In 2017, when I imagined various ways the United States might stumble into a conflict, I got some things right and some things wrong. What I certainly failed to anticipate was that two years further on, we would be relying on the instincts of Donald Trump to keep us out of war.

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  • kamtanblog  On 06/20/2019 at 3:55 am

    Absolute “speculation” here.
    Russia is assisting Iran with its nuclear
    development. Trump and Putin are bedfellows
    (Politically)…the military are always playing
    their war games (technology testing).
    Beg the question
    If oil prices escalate who are winners and
    loosers ?
    USA oil reserves stockpiled can last 6+ months
    …won’t need topping up until autumn/winter
    …higher prices will benefit “oil investors”…

    Always view politricks with scepticism and economics more seriously/real.
    Saber rattling is mostly political…
    War is mostly military…
    Economics is reality…

    My spin
    Go figure


  • michael hawkins  On 06/20/2019 at 5:11 am

    Sad but true as the USA at this moment in time is very pro Israel, as we know Israel has always wanted to have a go at Iran mainly I think that Iran has a lot of power in the middle east. But if their is war, would the USA and Israel be fighting only Iran or will out side powers come into play. Also will other middle east countries stay out of this westarn attack on Islam ?

    guyaneseonline posted: ” A Path to War With Iran How Washington’s Escalation Could Lead to Unintended Catastrophe Philip H. Gordon | Foreign Affairs When President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last May, many critics argued that h”

  • Trevor  On 06/20/2019 at 11:31 am

    Further to add that ExxonMobil already has exclusive rights to 5.5 billion barrels of offshore oil, that they are mysteriously fast-tracking to drill, despite defying logic of increasing supply.

    Even a school boy knows that increasing oil production from 100,000 barrels to almost 1 million by 5 years increases supply, and lowers the price of oil. OPEC knows this which is why they are cutting supply and oil prices still keep falling.

  • kamtanblog  On 06/20/2019 at 7:47 pm

    Oil prices can go up or down….
    It is the “speed” at which it does that
    really matters. Like water it will eventually
    find its own level.
    Market forces determine the price influenced
    by supply/demand statistics.
    As alternative sources of energy are developed and there is less dependency on oil as the
    energy source am sure like water it will find
    it’s own level.
    We can but speculate on its price but in the
    long term it will remain a valuable energy source…like any other renewable energy source. Market forces will determine its price.


    • Trevor  On 06/21/2019 at 9:30 am

      OPEC has cut almost 1,000,000 barrels of oil production daily to prevent oil prices from ever falling again like what happened back in early 2016 when oil was at US$25 a barrel.

  • Clyde Duncan  On 06/20/2019 at 9:05 pm

    Iran Says ‘Hell No!’ to Trump’s Aggression

    Iran is doing exactly what we would do in their situation and we should change course before it gets worse.

    Doug Bandow | The American Conservative

    President Donald Trump says he wishes Iran would call him. All he wants, he insists, is “a deal, a fair deal.” Apparently, he’s realized he was wrong to believe that the regime he’s attempting to overthrow would grovel before him. So now the White House has announced that it’s given the Swiss government his phone number to pass along to Tehran.

    Of course, Switzerland probably feels whiplash. In 2003, Tehran offered to negotiate with George W. Bush through a Swiss emissary. The neocon-heavy, war-happy Bush administration dismissed the proposal out of hand.

    BARELY A YEAR AGO, the president cavalierly took the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral nuclear agreement and product of a highly complex international negotiation and difficult give-and-take within as well as between nations.

    At 159 PAGES, the JCPOA was the most detailed nuclear inspections regime ever created.

    A MONTH LATER, President Trump cheerfully accepted the substantively meaningless TWO-PAGE Singapore summit statement as a definitive commitment by North Korea to disarm.

    Trump might enjoy posturing as negotiator-in-chief, but he has made it almost impossible for the Iranian government to engage him, let alone accept his demands.

    In truth, the administration’s confrontational approach has been a failure for America and a disaster for the Iranian people. The president’s policy has guaranteed continued tensions. His coterie of warmongering appointees are determined for regime change.

    The administration’s hypocrisy is staggering: They accuse Iran of meddling in the Mideast and of committing human rights violations — while America invaded Iraq, attacked Libya, and sought to oust the Syrian government; all this, while aligning themselves with autocratic Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

    The Trump administration has discouraged peaceful engagement in multiple ways.

    Tossing out the JCPOA and insisting on massive and unilateral concessions. This demand would be dismissed by any other country, including America. What government, absent total military defeat, would accept a public call for de facto diplomatic surrender and national humiliation? Real estate developer Donald Trump certainly would not react well if someone demanded the same of him.

    Misjudging the reason Tehran entered into negotiations with the Obama administration. Iran desired sanctions relief, but even more important was U.S. acceptance of the former’s right to continue enriching uranium, which the Trump administration rejects.

    Unilaterally tearing up the JCPOA, thereby making Washington an unreliable negotiating partner. Even if a new agreement were to be reached, what would prevent the president from declaring it to be insufficient later on, re-imposing sanctions, and making new threats of war absent additional Iranian concessions?

    What would stop a future administration from following his precedent? Iran has little incentive to reach any deal with the administration.

    Destroying a compromise promoted by more moderate factions in Tehran, dramatically discrediting those most interested in negotiating with Washington. The relative balance of power has now shifted toward those in Iran who preach distrust and confrontation.

    What intelligent Iranian politician today would endorse Donald Trump as a serious negotiating partner? Even President Hassan Rouhani is now playing the hawk, announcing that Iran will gradually leave the JCPOA if the Europeans fail to deliver continued economic benefits, as promised.

    Imposing sanctions, which hit hardest the westward-looking middle and commercial classes. While they may be dissatisfied with the Islamic government, their focus increasingly is on economic survival. And the main cause of their distress is Washington, NOT Tehran.

    Insisting that Iran abandon its primary means of defense by eliminating its missile program. The country’s conventional military forces have shrunk dramatically in capability even as the U.S. has bolstered the arsenals of Tehran’s enemies, most notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with modern arms. Because those nations remain essentially amalgams of city states in the desert, the one thing Iran can do is hit them with missiles.

    Expecting Iran to abandon an independent foreign policy. At Baghdad’s request, Tehran helped its Shia neighbor defeat the virulent Sunni Islamic State insurgency, which had been loosed by America’s invasion. Similarly, answering Damascus’s call, Iranian forces assisted in defeating multiple insurgents, many aided by Washington.

    With good reason, the Islamic Republic views the U.S. as its enemy — plotting the 1953 coup, supporting the repressive Shah, backing Iraq’s invasion of Iran, constantly threatening war. Yet the Trump administration expects Tehran to accept being treated as a veritable puppet state within Washington’s sphere of interest.
    Expecting Shia Iran to also accept the de facto suzerainty of Sunni Saudi Arabia.

    The aggressive Saudi crown prince has pushed the U.S. to actively join the Sunni-Shia struggle. Thus has America become an ally in Saudi Arabia’s brutal war of aggression against Yemen. Riyadh also wants the U.S. to wage war against Iran. Accepting the administration’s demands would deliver the Mideast to Saudi Arabia’s not so gentle mercies without a shot being fired.

    Attempting to foment revolution and regime change by starving Iran’s population. Doing so is not only inhumane but counterproductive. Sanctions have stoked internal dissatisfaction while allowing the regime to blame America. Moreover, violent crises and implosions rarely yield liberal, pro-Western regimes.

    Notably, the administration has had no better results elsewhere — Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, North Korea. If Washington does succeed in wrecking Iran’s existing government, the winners in any resulting power struggle probably won’t be our friends.

    Of course, Iran would be better off freed from radical Islamic rule. But for all its sanctimonious rhetoric, the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care about Iranians’ human rights. Moreover, its general approach to Iran is almost entirely wrong, driven by both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

    Policy should instead reflect America’s interest in minimizing regional tensions, reducing our number of adversaries, and shifting security responsibilities onto friends and allies.

    This requires engagement. So far, President Trump has used but one tactic: SANCTIONS.

    The Obama administration was correct in thinking that the JCPOA could help transform Iran. The process was never going to be easy or simple, especially since Islamist factions understood the West’s appeal to many Iranians, including younger urbanites.

    Before President Trump inadvertently helped Islamic hardliners by junking the nuclear accord, Tehran’s internal political struggle was sharpening. Creating additional foreign economic opportunities would have increased pressure on the regime to expand outside cooperation. And that pressure would have steadily grown. While there was never a guarantee that a democratic Iran would have emerged, the chances would have been much better than they are today.

    The U.S. also needs to acknowledge and respect Iran’s security interests. Yes, the regime is malign. However, governments do not voluntarily dismantle themselves and they do not willingly weaken their defenses. Every American military threat increases the case in Tehran for building more missiles and restarting the nuclear weapons program.

    Insisting that Iran accept American and Saudi domination makes it imperative that the Islamic Republic maintain and deploy unconventional forces and foreign proxies. Washington would do much better to encourage its well-armed partners to seek détente rather than permanent sectarian conflict.

    Imagine a foreign power imposing harsh economic sanctions on and threatening war against the U.S., attempting to starve Americans into revolt, insisting that Washington accept Mexican domination of the continent, and demanding that America yield its principal defensive weapons.

    No doubt a few Americans would advocate surrender. But the vast majority would shout not only “no!” but “hell no!” In this respect, foreigners are a lot more like us than we might like to think.

    The U.S. and Iran should talk. But contrary to the president’s hope, giving Tehran an economic ultimatum will not bring it to the negotiating table. Trump has destroyed the possibility of normal diplomacy between his administration and the Iranian government. Unless he dramatically changes direction, the Middle East will become a much more dangerous place.

    • kamtanblog  On 06/20/2019 at 10:14 pm

      The Middle East is a “market place”
      for arms deals…”guns and drugs” for oil.
      A testing ground for hi-tech weaponary.
      ..including WMD. Bush and Blair invaded
      Iraq under the pretext Sadam was developing
      nuclear capabilities…WMD’s. Sadam
      did not want to trade oil in USD$ was the
      obvious reason. My suspicion is Putin is
      helping Iran to develop its nuclear capabilities
      and Potus is either blind or stupidly naieve
      in not realising this. Not to mention his schizophrenic tendencies is very unpredictable. Untrustworthy ?
      Only fools would make deals with a schizophrenic Potus. Obama was a trusted
      and reliable Potus ..trump is not !

      Now go figure


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