2020年1月3日 星期五

The Interpreter: Iran war risks, explained

Could it happen?

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: America, Iran and risks of war.


The Risks of Wider War with Iran, Explained

“We are near you, where you can’t even imagine,” Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani once warned the United States.Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

In the hours after an American drone strike in Iraq killed Iran’s most important military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a question has dominated discussion in the Middle East, in Congress and on social media. Could this lead to war between the United States and Iran?

In a sense, it already has. Mr. Suleimani’s killing meets virtually any definition of an act of war, a categorical difference from the shadow conflicts that the United States and Iran have engaged in for years. To Iranian eyes, it is akin to Tehran ordering the death of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


But it remains uncertain where this attack, which follows weeks of tit-for-tat escalations between the two countries, will lead.

Most analysts call an outright shooting war between the United States and Iran unlikely, if impossible to rule out. Most also see little hope for the United States’ stated aim: that this will deter future attacks, forcing Iran to finally back down.

But there is a wide range of possible outcomes between those two, many of them far bloodier and more volatile than the proxy conflicts of recent months. What follows is a guide to the risks of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, how the killing of Mr. Suleimani plays into those risks and what might come next.

Does This Increase Risks of Conflict?

  • Mr. Suleimani’s killing all but forces Iran to retaliate, most analysts say. That’s not primarily out of national pride or saving face, but because of the fundamental drive of any state: self-preservation, which includes preserving its top leadership.
  • Iran has an extraordinarily difficult needle to thread. It will likely aim for counterattacks damaging enough to convince the United States that killing Mr. Suleimani was not worth it — a high bar, given his value and the United State’s far superior strength — but not so damaging as to trigger further conflict.
  • The past month suggests that both the United States and Iran are already failing to properly calibrate their counterattacks. Each cycle of tit-for-tat escalations has, rather than forcing the other side to back down, instead led the other to ramp up, triggering another round more costly than the last.

Is Escalation Inevitable?

  • Another dynamic makes this cycle even harder to control: American intentions have at times been unclear. Official statements have described limited aims, such as deterring Iranian attacks. But senior officials have also described more sweeping goals like expelling Iran from the wider region or even toppling its government.
  • Faced with a potentially existential threat, any state has two options: stand down and negotiate or hit the source of that threat hard enough to make it back down.

What Could Escalation Look Like?

  • Iran is a regional power with far more sophisticated military capabilities than any country that the United States has gone to war with since World War II. It is a far cry from Saddam Hussein’s crumbling Iraq or armies of North Vietnamese irregulars. And it has invested years of preparation into enduring a possible war.
  • Iran’s escalations are expected to be asymmetric, which means using proxies or small attack groups to target American forces, allies or economic interests. That might mean attacking one of the American military bases scattered throughout the Middle East, for example, or using its navy to close oil shipping lanes. Iran has also shown a willingness to target civilians.
  • The greatest risk may be that asymmetric Iranian warfare reaches a point where the United States feels compelled to strike Iran directly. Analysts fear that this could lead to a direct, sustained war, but no one can say for sure how easily that might happen. And while the United States often seeks to wage wars purely from the safety of the air, virtually every air war has quickly sprawled to a ground war.
  • Iran’s nuclear program appears dormant, according to international inspectors. Even if Iran attempted to sprint for a working warhead, estimates say it would not acquire one for a year or more. Still, the mere possibility of a nuclear breakout heightens the odds of unintended escalation. The United States might feel pressure to strike nuclear infrastructure early. And Iran might feel pressure to restart development while it still can.
  • While the possibility of an unintended slide to war is impossible to rule out, fears of World War Three — a phrase that trended overnight on social media — are overblown. Russia and China might strenuously object to American attacks, but they are no more likely to join the fight than they were when the United States invaded Iraq or helped to topple Libya’s government.

Is Either Side Ready for What’s Next?

  • The suddenness of this escalation makes it difficult to know how fully Mr. Trump’s administration has thought through and planned for the potential consequences.
  • Iran’s willingness to take risky actions — perhaps driven by a perception that the scale of the American threat leaves it with no other choice — increases the danger to all sides. But, under any conflict, Iran is exposed to far more harm than the United States. Violence is likely to center on its borders or in its territory. It is already under tremendous economic strain.

What We’re Reading

  • Let us be the 100th people to recommend “The Shadow Commander”, Dexter Filkins’ excellent 2013 New Yorker profile of Mr. Suleimani. It is, shall we say, newly relevant.
  • We are both partway through The Recovering, Leslie Jamison’s memoir of alcoholism and sobriety. She manages to capture, with uncanny specificity, what it’s like to be the product of the pressure-cooker tournament of American upper-middle-class expectations, in which everything from SAT scores to self-harm becomes an opportunity for achievement and perfection. Pair it with Whiplash, the 2014 film about the codependence of ambition and cruelty.
  • Speaking of movie pairings, if you aren’t planning to see Greta Gerwig’s rapturously reviewed new adaptation of Little Women, read The Male Glance, Lili Loofbourow’s 2018 essay on the subtle ways we are taught to assume women’s stories are unimportant and uninteresting, and consider the reasons why. Her description of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, is the whole thing in a devastating nutshell: “the same writer praised as ‘a top-notch journalist and fiction writer [who] braids keen and provocative observations about the American frontier, the myth of the mountain man, and the peculiar state of contemporary America with its ‘profound alienation’ from nature into her spirited and canny portrait’ was subsequently lampooned for writing ‘chick lit.’”

How are we doing?

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