President Trump campaigned on the promise of no new wars in the Middle East — but the current state of affairs between Iran and the United States is putting that commitment at risk.
Not long ago, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the United States was sending a carrier strike group to the Middle East to “send a message” to Tehran and deter any threats; that move was followed up shortly after with the additional deployment of additional Patriot missiles to the region, a deployment of bomber assets, and more recently an increased fighter jet presence. The recent actions of the Trump Administration that almost resulted in strikes against Iranian surface-to-air capabilities have made Americans and other members of the international community rightly nervous.
No one disputes the fact that Iran and the United States were working at cross purposes long before the current administration. Iran supports terrorism in the Middle East, has sent its proxies to fight U.S. troops in Iraq, threatens American interests elsewhere, and brings general instability to the region. But these provocative actions — and the rhetoric that has accompanied them from Bolton, the president, and others within the cabinet like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — are putting America on a path to another long, bloody conflict in the Middle East.
Knee-jerk reactions and aggressive rhetoric with Iran are dangerous due to their risk of escalation. We have seen this firsthand as the president decided to cancel the planned strikes on Iran just minutes before they were supposed to launch. With minimal communication and even less trust between the United States and Iran, there is a real concern that an accident, or misread of intentions like Iran’s recent shooting down of an unmanned U.S. naval drone in international waters, could lead to a chain of escalation in which the intensity and scope of conflict was gradually increased until it was too late to stop. When allies who are long-time foes of Iran are added into the mix as well, the risk increases even more; from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, plenty of people in the Middle East wouldn’t mind seeing the United States come down hard on Tehran.
Such a conflict could become very costly very fast, for America and our allies. As devastating as the Iraq War has been, a conflict with Iran would be far worse; Iran is a larger, stronger, and, even given the Trump Administration’s sanctions, wealthier country to fight. For some perspective, the United States, Russia, and China would be considered ‘Tier 1’ militaries, India, France, and South Korea might be considered ‘Tier 2,’ and Iran would be considered a very strong ‘Tier 3.’ Put in less geek-speak: The U.S. military knows a war with Iran would be no walk in the park.
In addition, Iran’s asymmetrical attack capabilities — or in other words, their ability to strike U.S. and allied interests throughout the region, from Israel to oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz — far outpace Iraq’s. As horrific as a deployment of 120,000 U.S. troops sounds, any invasion-scale war with Iran would doubtlessly require many, many more personnel, ships, aircraft, and ground equipment.
The right answer for U.S.-Iranian relations right now isn’t more tension, but less. However, since President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal last year, tensions have already been high and Iran has just announced they have crossed the enriched uranium cap the deal held them to. This deal may not have been perfect (the economic breathing room gave Tehran room to beef up their forces, for instance), but it was preventing Iran from further nuclear development, while having the added benefit of their people beginning to hold the government accountable on economic growth. Ultimately, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and causing chaos in the region can only be done with diplomacy and negotiation. The military plays an important role in “backing up” the diplomatic and economic instruments of power, but it is not the only tool in the kit. Unfortunately, many current administration decision makers seem to think it is. Everyone from administration advisors, to elected officials, to concerned citizens should be advocating for a whole of government approach.
The United States is still suffering the consequences of the devastatingly wrongheaded decision to invade Iraq. We don’t want, and our men and women in uniform cannot afford, another war of choice in the Middle East. It’s time to ratchet down tensions with Iran and return to diplomacy — before circumstances remove that choice from the table.
Jason Baker is a Major in the Air Force and a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. His views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Air Force or Department of Defense.