• (No) World War III with Iran

    January 15, 2020

    Tags: , , , , ,
    Posted in: Iran, Iraq, Military, Trump

    History will judge the long-term impact of the death of Qassem Soleimani. In the short-to-medium term, let’s step back from the fear-mongering to remain purposefully agnostic towards the meaning of Soleimani strike itself to instead focus on the geopolitical factors which make the large-scale war many fear unlikely.

    For Iran to provoke a large-scale war is suicide. They have no incentive to escalate to that level, though they may conduct attacks consistent with the last decades. Those attacks, and the U.S. responses, will in the current political and media climate (#WWIII was trending on Twitter and frightened youngsters crashed the Selective Service website worried a draft is forthcoming) consume our attention far beyond their actual impact, but they will in reality cycle inside the rough rules of what diplomats call escalation dominance, the tit-for-tat trading of controlling the moment, trying to stay under the victims’ threshold of response. Emotion is for amateurs.

    The most recent series of events bear this out. Iran and/or its proxies have fired on U.S. bases in Iraq multiple times, initiating the current escalation that included Soleimani’s death and this week’s missiles launched from inside Iran at American bases at Al Asad and in Erbil. Yet according to one long-time regional observer, “This doesn’t yet feel like a major escalation. Iran can claim it took revenge. Feels more like an escalation to deescalate.” Among other signals, the missiles’ long flight time, over some 200 miles, gave obvious warning to areas already on alert.

    Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted Iran was finished fighting and was not actively pursuing further escalation. Trump undertook no immediate counter-attack, and in a speech spoke only of further economic sanctions alongside some vague thoughts on future agreements. The two countries’ actions add up to a collective “We’re done if you’re done” for this round.

    This was all to be expected. Iranian leaders know theirs is a developed, industrialized nation, unlike places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq (and Vietnam before those.) It does not need to be invaded or occupied, it can be destroyed from the air. As only a regional power, it suffers from a massive technological disadvantage in any conflict the U.S., a nation, perhaps sadly, now long past the calculations of “kill a few Americans and watch them run” that drove it from Somalia in 1993 after “Black Hawk Down,” or out of Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks by Iranian-proxy Hezbollah. Unlike years past, America is willing to take a punch to throw back two. Iran’s political leaders are aware of the limits of asymmetric warfare in this world, especially because America’s lack of dependence on Persian Gulf oil means 2020 is not 1991.

    Iran, under sanctions, is near totally dependent on what oil it can export. Oil requires massive infrastructure, all of which can be bombed. Iran’s military operates in large part out of fixed sites. Its navy is small and its bases can be destroyed from the air, its harbors mined from above and below the water. The Iranian military is ranked globally below Brazil and Italy.

    I’ve been to Iran. I saw the martyrs memorial outside the main marketplace in the holy city of Mashhad, with the names of Iranians who died fighting the U.S. in Iraq from 2003 forward; Soleimani is respected by many Iranians, but he is neither the first nor the last soldier to die in this ongoing long war.

    Iran’s government meanwhile is a tense coalition of elected civilians, unelected military, and theocrats. None would stay in power following a major war. They face an almost schizophrenic population, happy to chant Death to America but equally open to the idea, albeit on more liberal terms than five American presidents, Republican and Democrat, have been willing to offer, of finding a way out from under sanctions that would release their potential and open them to the world.

    Iran understands its limits. Think about the provocations Iran has been forced to endure without escalation: U.S. troops landing in-country in a failed hostage rescue in 1980, U.S. support for Iraq in using weapons of mass destruction and the provision of intelligence which allowed the Iraqis to rain missiles on Iranian cities in 1980s, the U.S. shooting down an Iranian civilian aircraft, killing some 300 innocents in 1988, U.S. invading and occupying Iran’s eastern border (Iraq 2003) and western approaches (Afghanistan 2001) and maintaining bases there. In 2003, when Iran reached out following initial American military successes, George W. Bush flippantly declared them part of an Axis of Evil. U.S. forces then raided an Iranian diplomatic office in Iraq and arrested several staffers in 2007. The U.S. has kept crippling economic sanctions in place for decades, conducted the Stuxnet cyberattack in 2010 destroying Iranian nuclear centrifuges, and another 2019 cyberattack, never mind what the Isarelis have done covertly. Nothing led to a wider war. Soleimani died in context.

    Iraq, politically and geographically in the middle, has every reason to help calm things down. Despite the rhetoric, the Iraqi government needs the U.S. in situ as a balance against Iranian hegemony and as a hedge against the rebirth of ISIS. The recently passed, non-binding resolution for U.S. troops to leave Iraq carries no weight. It was passed by a divided government in caretaker status, applies only to the withdrawal of the anti-ISIS joint task force, and lacks both a timetable to happen and a mechanism to enforce it. Even that symbolic vote was boycotted by Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish (so much for losing the Kurds as allies) legislators, illustrating the difficulties a coalition Iraqi government faces in getting anything done.

    Should Iraq somehow find a way to move against the U.S. troop presence, promised American sanctions on Iraqi oil would devastate the economy and likely topple a government already besieged by its citizens of all backgrounds for failing to provide necessary basic services. The $200 million in direct aid the U.S. paid Iraq last year is a tiny portion of billions flowing in from Washington via loans, military assistance, training funds, etc. That all would be missed. Iraq needs a relative state of peace and stability to hold on. It will make ceremonial anti-American actions to appease its Shia majority and make it appear it is not being ordered around by the Americans it loves to hate, but the U.S. is not be driven out of Iraq.

    America itself has no reason to escalate any of this into a real war. Iran is strategically more or less where it has been for some time and there is no U.S.-side driver to change that now. Chaos in Tehran serves no purpose, and war would spiral the nation into a series of internal struggles spiced with fissionable material that has no place in a foreign policy calculus in an election year at home. Trump gets the political credit (84 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents approve of the strike) from his base for a tough-guy move with none of the sticky problems a wider conflict would create. His post-missile attack remarks position him as open to new talks of some kind.

    To accept the U.S. will start a major war assumes a fully irrational actor unfettered. Many people want to believe that for political purposes, but the hard facts of the last three years say when it gets to this strategic level Trump has not acted irrationally. Same this time; he did not act irrationally, or even provocatively, in the aftermath of the Iranian missile launches.

    It’s hard to point to any irrational act, a decision made that is wholly without logic or reason, a choice Trump knew would have dire consequences yet went with anyway. Forget the tweets; they have never added up to much more than fodder for pop psychologists, impulsive remarks not followed by impulsive acts. Absolutely none of the apocalyptic predictions have come to pass. See North Korea, where Trump was supposed to start WWIII two years ago, or the trade wars that were to destroy the global economy, or any of the other pseudo-crises. In sum, no new wars. Economy chugging along. Trump manipulating Democrats into practically putting Che-style Soleimani T-shirts up on Etsy. The current commander-in-chief is likely to start a war? He’s the only recent president who hasn’t.

    If any of arguments above seem familiar, it’s because some are recycled bits and pieces from when Trump was in a Twitter fight with North Korea two years ago, and Democrats and the media insisted we were on the threshold of war.

    So forget the irrational actor argument. What is different going forward (Iran and the U.S. will clash again) is the risk that does exist with the post-1979 generation in the military and Deep State, those who remember the biggest red line of all, when the Iranians took 52 American government personnel hostage out of the American Embassy in Tehran. A lot of bad things happen out there in the world, good guys get chalked up, intelligence officers rolled, bombs go off in crowded nightclubs, drones shot down, but stone-cold taking hostages in diplomatic status right out of their embassy offices just isn’t done.

    The Nazis didn’t do it, the Communists didn’t do it, neither did dictators from the Kims to Pol Pot. Iran did, and the blood runs bad inside U.S. government old timers even today. Though they obviously failed this round, those people will try to get to Trump again after the next provocation with Iran. Revenge some say isn’t a policy. Maybe true; but revenge can be a goal and some will see their chance to use Trump’s willingness to act unilaterally and any miscalculation of over-reach by Iran as the excuse. There lies any real danger.

     

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    Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...

      1

      The Iranians will focus their attack on Trump and his properties. If you live in one of these properties, it would be wise to sell.

      The Iranians have said they dont have a beef with the American people.

      01/15/20 10:27 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      2

      Iran Biden its time

      Assume Biden is elected and the Iranians strike a Trump property or Trump himself, would Biden retaliate?

      Iran will look for the most opportune chance to strike back in a way that hurts President Trump personally,” Iran scholar Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution said on a recent Lawfare podcast. “I will assume security around any Trump property is enhanced.”

      On Jan. 5, an Iranian official who advises the country’s president hinted that Iran is, in fact, tracking Trump properties. Hesameddin Ashena, who runs the Iranian president’s research outfit, posted a tweet, without comment, linking to a Forbes web page on Trump’s personal wealth that lists 19 Trump properties, mostly in the United States. The Trump Organization owns those properties. Most of the firm’s international properties are owned by others, with the Trump Organization branding and managing them.

      “We have ZERO problems with the American people,” Ashena wrote, in English, in a separate tweet. “Our sole problem is Trump. In the event of war, it is he who will bear full responsibility.”

      01/15/20 11:19 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      3

      Am I the only guy that believes the “gods”, fate, nature or whatever intervened in 2016? I abstained from voting for POTUS in 2016 as well as 2012 when I feared a certain strange FSO (female shaped object) named Hillary was determined to best her Lotharioesque husband and become a warrior queen of historical imminence. First on her agenda- bomb Iran back to the “stone age” which would have meant I would not be writing this comment on PVB’s blog. I’d be radioactive clay.

      01/16/20 4:13 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      4

      JP,

      Given Demented’s stable genius you and the rest of Russia may still be radioactive.

      At least the US will be rid of Demented in 2020. You guys are apparently stuck with Putin as long as the dictator wants.

      01/16/20 6:41 PM | Comment Link

    • beobachter said...

      5

      But I’ll bet these porcine neocon chicken hawks will suddenly remember international law when those drones start reaping their minions in the West. Since the tech genie won’t go back in its bottle, it’s just a matter of time. I expect we’ll hear them squealing a very different tune then!

      01/17/20 8:59 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      6

      Bauer- are you sure you weren’t down wind of Chernobyl when it blew? Ukraine as an ally of the US? Nobody believes that cover for the Pentagon. Did you lose a fortune at the crap table in a Trump Casino? You’re paranoia about others here being Russian assets is a puzzlement. If Trump is indeed convicted of racketeering who in the senate will cast the first stone. Pelosi has been running a political racket for decades-Trump does his racketeering in the private sector.

      01/17/20 9:11 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      7

      JP,

      Just to show US your true colors, state for the record that Putin and his cronies have been robbing Russia blind, and that little KGB piece of shit should be investigated. Of course you wont because Russians who complain about Putin often dont live to regret it. So fuck off comrade troll. Solve your own problems.

      01/17/20 9:24 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      8

      Of course the little KGB rat would have you believe his cellist friend and his tomato farmer friend were brilliant investors.

      Mossack Fonseca will tell you that song is rotten tomatoes.

      01/17/20 10:17 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      9

      “ … a lot of bad things happen out there in the world, good guys get chalked up, intelligence officers rolled, bombs go off in crowded nightclubs, drones shot down, but stone-cold taking hostages in diplomatic status right out of their embassy offices just isn’t done.”

      Funny stuff, right?

      Fun Fact: Soleimani had not sneaked into Iraq but rather took a commercial flight and went through passport control with his diplomatic passport. Not signs of a covert operation. He alleged that the Iraqi government had invited him.

      US did not increase embassy security in the past week, which allowed the embassy to be invaded. If they thought there was a dire such threat in the offing, wouldn’t they have sent in some Marines? Only after they received a stronger than expected reaction to their assassination campaign did they finally take the security of the embassy seriously.

      Hostages? Hell, diplomats are fair game, boys. We are way past such diplomatic niceties.

      01/17/20 11:23 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      10

      So the Pompous Pig’s legacy is he okayed killing diplomats as strategic. Better make a separate wall at Main State for his legacy.

      01/17/20 11:33 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      11

      Donald Trump aka Damn Turd Pol and Putin are turds of a feather

      These conmen have something in common: they are among the five percent who are thinking how to steal money from the 95 percent who only use 5 percent of their brains.

      01/17/20 6:17 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      12

      File under so FUCKED:

      Derek Harvey

      Devin Nunes

      Sick Pence none the wiser

      Rudy G

      and the Don

      Thank you Lev Parnas aka Plan Saver. He saved fucking everything.

      01/17/20 9:34 PM | Comment Link

    • teri said...

      13

      The ’79 hostage crisis? You mean the one where they took some diplomatic hostages because we overthrew their government? Actually, we freaking overthrew their government more than once.

      Pretty cheeky of them to have some objections to that. The US is always supposed to choose other peoples’ heads of government for them, and be able to do so without any complaint from the coup’d country.

      And the hostage crisis was extended because the CIA wanted Jimmy Carter to lose his re-election bid.

      Nah, Trump hasn’t started a new war yet, not a conventional one. He has just sanctioned the people of Iran, Cuba and Venezuela to death, which some (such as the international community) might consider acts of war. Oh, wait, assassinating top governmental officials is also an act of war.

      Each president is responsible for his own actions. Trump owns this as surely as Obama, Bush, et al own their world-domination schemes. Glossing over the illegality of this assassination and bringing up a hostage crisis from ’79 that was caused by our own illegal interference in another country’s governance is a lazy and trite way to defend the indefensible.

      01/18/20 1:44 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      14

      Teri,

      Peter is caught between Iraq and a hard place- we fucked over Iran more times than Trumpie did Stormy. Only this time Iran will be looking for payback. To think Peter really thinks Trumpie is the rational actor here is the theater of the absurd. To be kind Peter is merely trolling or the Deep State has his family hostage.

      01/18/20 9:34 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...

      15

      “History will judge…”

      You know the author has a losing position when he trots out this meaningless line. History is written by the winners, everybody knows that.

      The Dems win- Trump is a war criminal.

      The Trump cult wins- Iran is over”real fast.”

      01/18/20 9:47 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      16

      Teri: Bauer wants us all to give him an award for being the sole Paul Revere of our times- “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” (and their gangster point man plant Trump is going to lower the drawbridge into the palace-White House).He demands we recognize his analytical brilliance. His rants are unbearably pointless. We get it Bauer. Move on.

      01/18/20 11:09 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...

      17

      Bauer- have you yet decided where the American killing fields should be located? Remote prairie land in Nebraska? The marshlands of New Jersey? Who have you designated America’s Pol Pot? Surely you have one in mind.

      01/18/20 11:15 AM | Comment Link

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