Does the US have the stomach for a fight with Iran?

Published: Fri 21 Jun 2019, 9:17 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Jun 2019, 11:18 PM

When Barack Obama was preparing his fight for a second term as U.S. president in 2012, his administration was preoccupied with two big foreign policy crises.
The first was the potential unravelling of the euro zone, which his team worried could cause an economic shock and cost him the White House. The second was the possibility that Israel would launch a military strike against Iran over its nuclear programme and trigger a regional conflict with politically damaging consequences for Obama.
It was, in many respects, an uninspiring, managerial approach, a criticism that has been levelled at his administration's overall foreign policy. But unlike Donald Trump's presidency, Obama's administration unambiguously tried to keep the United States at the heart of broad, consensus-based coalitions - and nowhere was that more clear than in its dealings with Iran. Under Trump, and particularly since the appointment of long-term hawk John Bolton as National Security Advisor, the United States has been taking a tough line with Tehran. Washington has withdrawn from the agreement between six world powers and Iran on curbing Tehran's nuclear programme, has listed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation and made high profile military moves in the Middle East.
What is less clear, including to Tehran, is what the current administration truly means to do, or what effect it means to have when it comes to Iran. There is little doubt that Bolton and many of those around him would like to oust the government in Tehran. Conducting an Iraq-style invasion and "regime change", however, is not a reasonable prospect. The United States is simply stretched too thin, Iran is too large and the record of the Iraq and Libya interventions means few believe it would make the region a better and more stable place.
US forces remain the most powerful military in the region and it would be tempting to give Iran receive a bloody nose. A limited strike, perhaps against Iranian nuclear facilities is also possible.
What such action would achieve, however, is hard to say. Any loss of Iran's military or nuclear capability would be limited, and such action would almost certainly do more to boost hardliners in Tehran and sideline more moderate voices.
The May tanker attacks also serve as a potent reminder of the likely costs of any such action. Tehran has spent much of the past decade building the capability, with missiles and small boat attacks, to close the Gulf to shipping during any major conflict, a move that would bring chaos to global markets, dealing a potentially devastating blow to Trump's re-election hopes.
For now, the signs are that Tehran intends to counter, and retaliate for, any punitive move by Washington, especially any designed to freeze Iranian oil exports. The announcement of resumed uranium processing is a clear indication that Tehran no longer feels bound by the nuclear deal it concluded with world powers now that the United States has withdrawn from it.
Burned by the example of military intervention in Iraq, and with their electorates highly distrustful of Trump, governments in continental Europe clearly wish to avoid entanglement. The Trump administration's actions on Iran could be largely about demonstrating that it is taking action, helping shore up Republican votes for the 2020 US presidential election. But escalating tensions without a strategy would be dangerous, particularly if Iran chose to do the same. Therein lies perhaps the greatest risk of miscalculation. As Iran believes the United States lacks the stomach for a fight, Tehran will almost certainly take much greater risks - at worst igniting the war all sides have been so desperate to avoid.
Like Obama seven years ago, Trump may be just realising that conflict with Iran could cost him a second term. To handle the current situation, however, America will need both a plan and range of global friends. Right now, it is unclear whether it has either.
- Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs.

By Peter Apps (Geopolitix)

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