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Will the Iran-US confrontation spiral out of control? Even the experts don’t know

Escalation poses major risks for both Tehran and Washington — and they both know it

January 6, 2020

4:51 AM

6 January 2020

4:51 AM

Politicians and policy experts tell us, with confidence, that America’s targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani makes the world safer — or more dangerous. Take your pick. Whatever answer they give, the talking heads sound very certain. They shouldn’t be. However deep their understanding of Iran, the Middle East, and US foreign policy, nobody really knows what will happen next.

The problem is simply too complex. It depends on a sequence of difficult decisions, first by Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and then by President Donald Trump, each responding to the other’s choices, each calculating the risks of going too far — or not far enough.

The next decision is Tehran’s. Khamenei and his advisers face enormous pressure to strike back after Soleimani’s death, both because he was so important and because the United States openly took credit for the killing. The Revolutionary Guard and its elite Quds Force, which Soleimani led, will demand decisive action. They work directly for the Ayatollah and are essential to the regime’s continuation. Their demands will surely resonate with the supreme leader. He knows, too, that a weak response would undermine the regime’s authority at home and its reputation across the region.


So, Khamenei is almost certain to act and to go beyond the opportunistic announcement that Iran will resume its nuclear enrichment program. The most fundamental question he faces is how far to go. Is he willing to risk a major military escalation, which could put the regime itself in jeopardy? The choice involves several related questions: should Iran act with its own military forces or rely on proxies and terrorist cells? How big should its actions be? Should it use its navy to block oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz? Does Iran dare undertake the riskiest escalation of all, directly attacking American targets?

Those are hard questions because Trump has made clear he will strike back if Iran hits US targets or kills US citizens. Although Trump frequently speaks with hyperbole, his threats against Iran don’t seem like bluster. His actions as president prove he is ready and willing to use force as long as that doesn’t require ground troops. He is believable, too, when he says he holds Iran responsible for its proxy forces, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), whose deputy commander was killed alongside Soleimani. What Trump has not said is how the US would respond if its partners, such as Saudi Arabia or Israel, are attacked. Both are on high alert and are well aware Trump did not respond militarily to Iran’s earlier attack on the world’s largest oil refinery in Saudi Arabia.

Escalation poses major risks for both Tehran and Washington — and they both know it. In fact, they hope to use those fears to force the other to back down. For Iran, the most pressing fear is the loss of its oil depots and refineries. They are the crucial source of its hard-currency earnings and easy targets for American air strikes. Without those revenues, Iran’s economy could collapse and possibly the regime with it. The economy is already teetering on the brink, thanks to Trump’s powerful economic sanctions. The loss of oil revenues would be dire.

For the United States, the risk is that its threats fail to deter Iran, that it exchanges military strikes which spiral beyond contained events into a wider war. That could happen, not only because of mistakes are commonplace in conflict but because Iran’s best hope of getting America to back down is to confront it with the credible threat of a costly ground war.

There is simply no appetite in America for another long, far-away fight. Trump has not only said so himself, he has made it the centerpiece of his foreign policy. His oft-stated goal is to get America out of its endless wars. Launching yet another one would rip America apart. For Trump personally, it would jeopardize his reelection. Iran’s leaders will surely try to convey that dangerous prospect if Washington escalates the fight.

Tehran’s own appetite for risk should be visible over the next weeks. If it wants to limit its exposure, it will act through proxies and avoid direct attacks on Americans. If it is willing to risk a major war, it will encourage attacks on US bases and embassies and perhaps try to block international oil shipments.

This tit-for-tat escalation would put the world on the verge of another major war, with Iran rushing to become a nuclear power and daring the US to stop it. Whether we reach that perilous point depends on a sequence of hard decisions yet to be made in Tehran and Washington. Until they are, we simply won’t know if killing Qasem Soleimani has made the world safer or more dangerous.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.

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