The Coming Iran War (that could have been avoided) – Wes O’Donnell
From a foreign policy perspective, the United States has always been a stabilizing and unifying force in the global quest for liberal democracy. And yet today, America and her permanent ally the UK are at their lowest points since perhaps before The Great War.
Without this stabilization, many nations, both allies, and adversaries, turn inward, and the fervent nationalism that we defeated at great cost in 1945 comes creeping back in.
It is precisely this absence of American and British leadership that has led us to the brink of war; yet another Middle Eastern conflict that, this time, threatens to set the world ablaze. But unlike America’s foolish expedition into Iraq in 2003, which was primarily an American affair, the coming conflict threatens to involve no less than a half dozen nations, including Israel and Russia.
The alarm bells have been ringing for months. Numerous chances for an off-ramp have been ignored. We are mindlessly stargazing on the eve of a regional war with truly global consequences.
So how did we get here?
The Road to War
Since its 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been labeled a threat to America and both her western and regional allies. There’s a good reason for this: Iran is the state sponsor of numerous terrorist groups whose mission is to foil American interests through asymmetric warfare.
Let’s not kid ourselves… Iran has a bad regime.
President Bush, using language from the 20th Century and speaking to the country in January of 2002, named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, among his Axis of Evil. This Axis would go on to inform much of Bush’s foreign policy. As he put in in his 3,900-word address:
“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.”
He wasn’t wrong, as such. Even though no WMDs were found in Iraq and the invasion was built on faulty intelligence, there was a history of Saddam Hussain using chemical weapons against 40 Kurdish villages and thousands of innocent civilians in 1987–88. The photos are horrifying.
Still, the selfless employees of America’s intelligence community had ample evidence that both North Korea and Iran were intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. As of this writing, it is feared that North Korea has achieved some level of success with nuclear weapons and has stockpiled a significant quantity of chemical and biological weapons.
It’s because of this that President Obama, in partnership with some of America’s oldest European allies (and adversaries), signed the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015. This deal, which was by no means perfect, stated that Iran would shut down thousands of centrifuges and export almost all of its bomb-making material.
Perhaps most important, Iran agreed to a strict monitoring program, permitting international inspectors to gain access to sites suspected of nuclear weapons-related activities.
Iranian citizens started to feel relief for the first time in decades.
The Art of the Deal
Enter President Donald J. Trump. Future historians will no doubt ponder why President Trump has such venom and animosity for President Obama. Regardless, Trump has made a concerted effort to dismantle nearly every single achievement that represented Obama’s legacy.
From the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Paris Agreement on climate change, no president in history has been so obsessed with taking a chainsaw to their predecessor’s work.
According to Tommy Vietor, a former national security council spokesman under Obama: “The whole thing that animates and unites his policy views is antipathy towards Obama. It’s fucking pathetic. He’s a vindictive person so there is an element of this that is about sticking it to Obama.”
In May of 2018, Trump ripped up the Iran nuclear deal. And while the deal wasn’t popular with conservatives to begin with, it’s unlikely that Trump would have axed it if it didn’t have Obama’s fingerprints all over it.
In attempting to hurt Obama, Trump created a rift between America and stalwart U.S. allies in Europe. Instead of listening to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, Trump took the advice of his now-discredited former national security adviser, John Bolton.
Iran reacted immediately. Military and clerical hardliners have now seized control and have begun acting out internationally. From shooting down U.S. drones operating in international waters to harassing merchant vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran is attempting to use force as a path back to the negotiating table.
Iran has also, presumably, restarted its uranium enrichment program to build a nuclear weapon.
To make matters worse, Trump made Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman his new best friend. According to Politico, the Trump administration has approved the transfer of nuclear technical expertise to Saudi Arabia seven times — including twice since the Saudi-orchestrated murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The First Shots in a New War
Old geopolitical fault lines between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Muslim Iran have been shifting under the weight of Saudi Arabia’s perplexing war of choice in Yemen.
But the first real shots may have just been fired. As of this writing, an oil facility in Saudi Arabia was attacked with kamikaze drones that U.S. intelligence states came from Iran. This would represent the first non-proxy attack between the old adversaries in recent times.
President Trump responded, not in a televised statement to the American people, but on his medium of choice, Twitter:
“[We] are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] as to who they believe was the cause of this attack and under what terms we would proceed!”
Speculation From This Point Forward
The next step in escalation dictates that the Saudi’s perform an airstrike deep into the heart of Iran, perhaps at a nuclear facility, with the help of U.S. intelligence.
A full-scale conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia isn’t far behind and will, without a doubt, draw in Israel as Iran performs strikes against Jerusalem as targets of opportunity present themselves.
The tenuous Iraq government has stated that they plan to sit this one out. Who can blame them? The last thing Iraqis want is for the Americans to come back after a decade of occupation. But this is precisely what Trump suggested last year: to use Iraq as a staging area for an invasion of Iran.
In the early stages of this regional conflict, two extremely unlikely allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia will exchange airstrikes and cyber-attacks with their mutual enemy in Tehran.
At this point, the global oil markets will be in crisis and the economic recession that we have been flirting with for the last several months will finally be upon us.
Now we are presented with a fork in the road: Does Russia come to the aid of their allies in Iran as they did in the shameful, ongoing Syrian civil war. If Saudi Arabia appears to be struggling, it is very likely that the United States would intervene directly with military force. After all, Saudi Arabia is a key strategic U.S. ally and fundamental to global oil stability. An Iranian-directed terrorist attack on American soil would seal the deal.
Taking advantage of the chaos, Kim Jong-un may take the opportunity to unite the Koreas. Russia would make more land grabs in Eastern Europe; perhaps annexing even Poland. And China, content to play the long game, may sit idle and await the conflict’s end only to assume its role as the planet’s newest and last superpower.
Fortunately for Western Europeans, the next world war won’t be in their neighborhoods. But the global consequences could be just as dire.
If incompetence got us into this mess, we need competent leaders from both parties to get us out.
And Now Some Good News
Until now, Trump has been very averse to using the significant military capability available to him. I served in two branches of the U.S. military across ten years; I know full well the power and lethality of the American military.
Strangely, Trump has a history of threatening to use force; words like “Fire and Fury like the world has never seen” aimed at North Korea but is extremely slow to commit troops to combat. On Twitter, Trump has threatened Iran with destruction numerous times but lacks any real strategy on dealing with Tehran.
And while this indicates that the American Commander in Chief might be all bark and no bite, this might be a good thing.
Maybe Trump is a secret pacifist?
His war-aversion may keep us out of the next major inferno, even if he’s responsible for supplying the kindling and lighting the match.
After all, as the peerless Michael Caine once said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Wes O’Donnell is a journalist and filmmaker who served in both the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. With degrees in international relations and business, Wes is passionate about nonproliferation. Reach out to Wes on LinkedIn.