As Austin Bay pointed out in last week’s podcast, Iran has been at war with the United States for 40 years, ever since the 1979 revolution. It has been low-grade, “unconventional” war, but war nonetheless. As a rogue state, Iran has the initiative, choosing its means and times of action. In other words, Iran gets to calibrate the level of conflict intensity.
Most of the time Iran acts through “covert” actions (meaning everyone knows they are responsible while everyone goes along with the fiction of their denials), but its recent attacks on Persian Gulf ships and especially shooting down a U.S. drone says something else: Iran wants to be attacked by the United States.
Iran likely believes that the United States lacks the political will, and maybe even the means (aside from unusable nuclear weapons), to conquer the regime. A singular retaliatory attack of limited effect, however, serves Iran’s purposes, which include destabilizing the global oil market, raising the price of oil, roiling its neighbors in the Middle East, and causing domestic political trouble for Trump. Maybe there is even a plan that involves unleashing Hezbollah to attack Israel. Throw in some assassinations and terror in other Sunni Arab nations and Iran can accomplish a lot.
Everyone today is saying that Trump looks weak, foolish, or vacillating for calling off a retaliatory strike and then talking so candidly and publicly about it. I think the opposite: Trump has laid out a clear red line that was not clear prior to the tanker attacks and drone shootdown: You kill Americans, you will be hit back. If Iran now makes a public attack in the Gulf that kills Americans, Trump will have the upper hand politically. Neither Iran nor our vacillating allies (and our Democratic Party) can say they weren’t explicitly warned.
Trump also said today that if there is a war with Iran, it would be “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.” If Trump means it (and I hope he does), it means that if Iran is determined to have a real, open war with us, we mean to win it. Or course we are not going to invade and occupy Iran like we did with Iraq. But it is a good thing for Iran to wonder whether the crazy man Trump might inflict serious damage beyond a mere pinprick retaliatory strike over a drone.
It reminds me of the simple clarity of my late professor of strategic studies, Harold Rood:
All those ponderous words and phrases like “sufficiency,” “deterrence,” “qualitative superiority,” “essential equivalence,” and the rest are obscure in meaning and even when explained, leave the ordinary sensible mind with the impression of flim-flam. To be tempted into asking some simple question like, “who’s going to win if there’s a war” is to brand yourself pitifully naive at best, or at worst, a throwback to some earlier days when wars were won or lost by the side that was strongest and best prepared to wage war.
As a “throwback to some earlier days,” I suspect Trump is giving the Iranians some reason to worry about their next step. This is one of those moments when Trump’s brash, crude, and indiscreet style of governing-by-tweet actually serves the interests of the country very well.
P.S. As it happens, last night I happened to meet and speak at length with someone who had worked for several months recently in the White House; not someone you’ve ever heard of, but one of those third-tier persons who do a lot of the detailed grunt work. He said that “Trump reads more than you think he does.” But he also said Trump called him, more than once, a “f—— moron” for his candid contrarian opinions. I find this reassuring for many reasons.
P.P.S. President Reagan approved—but then also canceled at the last minute—several planned retaliatory attacks on Hezbollah after the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing, and for the same reason as Trump: too many civilian casualties. But this never became publicly known until much later.