A major conflagration, whether intentional or not, is perhaps likelier now than ever.
In Donald Trump’s first term there is a serious possibility of a military conflict, whether intentional or inadvertent, between the United States or Israel and Iran. What follows is how it could unfold, and how it might be avoided.
Step 1: Provocations
“It is an undeniable privilege of every man,” wrote the acclaimed American diplomat and scholar George Kennan, “to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.” Few world leaders embody this ethos more than Donald Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
For Khamenei and Iran’s hardliners, the United States has been continuously committed to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its very inception in 1979. Everything from U.S. military bases in the Middle East to American celebrity culture is understood as a means to coerce and subvert the Islamic Republic. President Obama’s efforts to allay this paranoia—including numerous personal entreaties to Khamenei—were largely dismissed.
The distrust is mutual. While the 2015 nuclear deal successfully curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, it did little to moderate the country’s longstanding foreign and domestic policies. Internally, civil society arrests have increased and there has been a “staggering surge” in executions. Externally Tehran has continued to arm and finance Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who by one estimate is implicated in the death of over 200,000 civilians (including 45,000 children and women), and the displacement of over 13 million of his citizens. It has also significantly expanded its support for Shiite militias throughout the Middle East which unnerve longtime U.S. allies in Israel and the Persian Gulf.
Even after receiving $1.7 billion in its own frozen assets—at the same time it released U.S. citizens from years in captivity—Iran has continued to take and hold more U.S. citizens hostage. My friend Siamak Namazi and his 80-year old father Baquer, both outspoken advocates of engagement with Iran, have collectively spent nearly three years behind bars on evidence-free charges of espionage.
Since the deal was signed Tehran has violated UN Security Council resolutions (although not the nuclear deal) by reportedly testing at least 12 ballistic missiles, several of which were capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching Israel. Though Iran argues these tests are purely defensive, on at least one occasion the missiles have carried the gratuitously provocative inscription that “Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth.” The U.S. Navy has also recorded over 50 instances of "unsafe and/or unprofessional interactions" by Iran in the Persian Gulf, including the January 2016 capture of American sailors.
While the Obama administration sought to ignore and defuse such tensions with Iran, the Trump administration appears eager to confront them. As National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn simply put it, Iran is “on notice.”
Step 2: Sanctions
One of the fundamental disagreements about the nuclear agreement is whether it is permissible to further sanction Iran for non-nuclear behavior. Washington—including both Democrats and Republicans—says yes, while Tehran believes any additional sanctions constitute a violation. In an August 2015 letter to President Hassan Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei warned that “Any imposition of sanctions at any level and under any pretext (including repetitive and fabricated pretexts of terrorism and human rights) … will constitute a violation of the JCPOA and [Iran] would be obligated to take the necessary action … and stop its activities committed under the JCPOA.”
While the nuclear deal allowed for non-American companies and countries to resume commercial relations with Iran, U.S. sanctions largely remained in place. In contrast to the Obama administration, however, which actively encouraged global investment in Iran, the Trump administration has reversed course. Shortly after Flynn put Iran “on notice,” the Trump administration crossed Khamenei’s ostensible red line by imposing additional sanctions against 25 individuals and entities connected to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (who oversee Iran’s military activities and regional policies). Additional reports suggest the Trump administration may designate the entirety of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—the country’s most powerful political and economic institution—as a terrorist organization.
While unilateral U.S. sanctions will not be sufficient to moderate Iranian behavior, they are likely to trigger an Iranian response, and a process of escalation.
Read more from the source article published in the The Atlantic