The dogs of war are barking a little less loudly. While the risk of miscalculation remains, it is increasingly clear that neither the US nor Iran really wants a war in the Persian Gulf. After weeks of threats, incidents, and saber rattling, both President Trump and Iran’s leaders are slowly de-escalating.
President Trump, for all his digital eruptions, clearly does not want to fight. On his trip to Japan last week Trump explicitly disavowed regime change. Last Monday, he said that Iran has ‘a chance to be a great country with the same leadership’. Trump also suggested that Japan could serve as a mediator between the US and Iran, a role that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to embrace. (Iraq has also offered to mediate). In his erratic, intermittent manner, Trump has evinced a desire to talk to Tehran. That he thinks he can do so after withdrawing from the JCPOA nuclear deal may be foolish, but the desire for negotiations is there.
Fox News, that most reliable insight into the presidential world view, is solidly against war with Iran. Tucker Carlson, as always, has been a clear voice of reason and restraint. He has been joined by Laura Ingraham, who warned on Twitter that war with Iran is ‘one of the few almost certain paths for @realDonaldTrump to harm his re-election prospects’. Even Tomi Lahren, usually the most sanguinary of the she-hawks wants no part of this. Lahren urged the president to avoid war, unless he was willing to send enough troops to ‘wipe out Iran and turn it into glass’. As always with the Millennial MAGA crowd, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
While callow neocon epigones decry ‘a crawl to peace’, first-generation warmongers have the sense, or just enough contrition, to recognize the utter foolishness of a war with Iran. Even Iraq War cheerleaders like David Frum and the inveterately execrable, newly-woke Max Boot grasp the perils of war with a country triple the size of Iraq.
The president also seems to be increasingly sick of his own chickenhawks. He openly jokes about Bolton’s bellicosity, reportedly telling one official that ‘if it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now.’ The bushy-lipped bureaucrat’s act is probably far more fun on Fox than in person. The recent failed coup attempt in Venezuela also cannot have helped Bolton’s case.
Bolton appears to be facing off against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for access to the president’s ear and control of US foreign policy. Pompeo may be a conventional hawk who perverts America First in risible speechesbut, unlike Bolton, he has semi-realistic hopes of bigger and better things post-Trump. He doesn’t need his fingerprints on a war and its body bags.
Neither the Saudis nor the Emiratis want war either. The Saudis have watched their paper tiger army get exposed in the bloody stalemate of Yemen, while the far more competent Emiratis are aware that the Iranians outnumber them almost 60 to one. The same goes for the Israelis who have, after all, stomached Hamas control of Gaza for over a decade because the alternative is worse.
So the odds of war are dropping quickly, bar some mistake on either side. True, the US has now sent 1,500 more troops to the Middle East, along with a Patriot missile defense battery, drones, and strike aircraft. But 1,500 men is not enough to invade Qom, let alone a country. Aircraft carrier sprints to the Persian Gulf can be similarly discounted. Trump may not have heard of Millennium Challenge 2002, but ‘his’ admirals certainly know about the vulnerabilities of US Navy ships in the littorals.
Where, then, does this leave us? A North Korea-style volte-face is unlikely. Unlike Kim’s nasty little hermit kingdom, Iran has a sizable US lobby dedicated to defanging if not destroying it. GOP mega donors want to open mega casinos in North Korea, not nuke its hinterlands as a warning.
Iran has also killed Americans far more recently. Few Americans may recall the Mossadegh coup of 1953, but many remember the embassy hostages in 1979, and our servicemen remember that Iranian weapons and know-how helped kill hundreds of American soldiers and Marines in Iraq. The Islamic Republic also does not have the nuclear weapons that would move a ‘military solution’ from the realm of the merely idiotic to the truly insane.
The sanctions solution is unlikely to break Iran’s theocracy. The economic toll is real and worsening, with the economy contracting and inflation perhaps exceeding 50 percent. But as Christopher de Bellaigue noted, increasing Iranian self-reliance may be more than a regime talking-point. The men now running the Islamic Republic endured far worse privation and suffering during their war with Iraq than the US can inflict now. And lower and middle class Iranians would be happy to see austerity end the exploits of the Rich Kids of Tehran.
Perhaps we can hope for a reversion to a more measured containment. A long game favors America. The point is made often but it still bears repeating. Iranians, broadly, are young, well-educated, and pro-Western. It was barely two years ago that US wrestlers competing in Iran were being treated like rock stars.
So it’s probably back to the status quo ante-crisis, and a renewed campaign of not-quite-as-maximum pressure, designed to bring the mullahs back to the bargaining table for a ‘better deal’. Pompeo’s twelve demands of 2018 remain an invitation to humiliation, not the starting point for real negotiations. But perhaps Trump will surprise us. Surely a man who is his best self when surrounded by carpet swatches can find common ground with the world’s premier rug makers?