What’s Behind the Simmering Conflict with Iran?

The confrontations with Iran have far more to do with domestic U.S. politics than they do with any intention to go to war, says a Tufts expert
A speedboat racing in water with machine gun and Iranian flag  near a large oil tanker. Confrontations between the U.S. and Iran have far more to do with domestic U.S. politics than they do with any intention to go to war, says a Tufts expert
Iranian Revolutionary Guards patrol a British-flagged oil tanker in July. “A critical question is whether U.S. allies will continue to go along with the Trump administration or set their own course with Iran,” said Monica Duffy Toft. Photo: Sipa/AP Images
August 21, 2019

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The long-simmering conflict between the United States and Iran threatened to boil over into direct military clashes earlier this summer, as Iran shot down a U.S. military drone on June 20, and announced it would begin enriching uranium beyond the levels spelled out in the 2015 nuclear deal.

Escalating tensions, Iran seized some oil tankers traveling through the Strait of Hormuz and the U.S. responded by calling for an international military coalition to protect commercial shipping in the region—a move that Iran claimed would increase the “risk of combustion.”

But make no mistake: the U.S. doesn’t want to enter a war, said Monica Duffy Toft, a professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “Much of the confrontation with Iran is about President Trump burnishing his re-election resumé by showing he can be tough on what his constituents think of as radical Islam.”

Still, Toft cautioned that Iranian leaders would not distinguish between President Trump’s rhetoric and actual U.S. intentions, especially since they have watched the U.S. go to war against two other Muslim-majority nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, over the last two decades.  

Tensions rose in May when the Trump administration ordered the deployment of more military resources to the Persian Gulf, saying it had intelligence that Iran planned to attack Americans in the region. Some U.S. lawmakers expressed concern that the military build-up—which included an aircraft carrier strike group, bombers, and Patriot missiles—could lead to an accidental confrontation.

Meanwhile, the conflict between the U.S. and Iran continues. Top-level diplomatic relations have been weakened by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear pact with world powers, its tightening of economic sanctions on Iran—including adding Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, to the sanctions list—and its move to designate part of Iran’s military as a terrorist group.

Tufts Now spoke with Toft to learn more about what might happen next.

Tufts Now: In recent months, the Trump administration’s main strategy toward Iran seems to be focused on tightening already strict economic sanctions. Is that strategy working or, from Iran’s perspective, backing the country into a corner?

Monica Duffy Toft: Short-term, the strategy is undermining Iran’s moderates, strengthening the Russian Federation—because Persian Gulf tension increases oil prices, thus easing Russia’s economic and financial stress—and hurting the Iranian people more broadly. Long-term, it is incentivizing Iran to look for innovative ways to avoid further sanctions—in particular what we might call the “North Korean” model, in which Iran begins seriously moving toward a nuclear weapons capability.

“So war, if it happens, is not wanted by either side,” said Monica Duffy Toft . Photo: Anna MillerThis could result in a costly, indeterminate war or nuclear-armed Iran. The conflict is not simply a matter of Iran versus the United States. The situation involves regional and global concerns, not least of which is the continued flow of essential energy supplies through the Strait of Hormuz. A critical question is whether U.S. allies will continue to go along with the Trump administration or set their own course with Iran.

Is the U.S. headed toward a war with Iran?

Much of the confrontation with Iran is about President Trump burnishing his re-election resumé by showing he can be tough on what his constituents think of as radical Islam. There’s no evidence the president wants war with Iran and no question that Iran has been a bad actor in its geographical region and beyond for years—via supply of weapons, military advisors, and so on, to non-state actors.

So war, if it happens, is not wanted by either side, but likely our president over-estimates how much control he has over the actual status of forces in the Persian Gulf. His military advisors have likely been reminding him, privately, of the risk of inadvertent war, with the exception of National Security Advisor John Bolton.

President Trump has said he hopes to avoid war with Iran. But after the country announced its nuclear enrichment plans, he tweeted “Iran better be careful.” Earlier this spring, he tweeted, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.” How do you interpret the president’s messages?

The president’s “message to Iran” was really a message to his constituents. This was similar to his “message to Kim Jong Un” after North Korea’s missile launches in 2017. President Trump has demonstrated a clear and predictable pattern in both domestic and foreign policy: Saber rattling to gain a concession—sometimes a concession may be insignificant; sometimes it’s invented—and then declaring “the best deal/outcome ever!” Regardless of whether it works internationally, this rhetoric seems to be for the consumption of his constituents.

How are John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo either escalating U.S.-Iran tensions or defusing them?

It’s hard to say. My sense is that Bolton is genuinely committed to the idea that the United States has the most powerful military on Earth and that, therefore, a sound strategy is to use that military to decisively beat up North Korea and Iran. Bolton worries that the gap between U.S. capabilities and increasing North Korean and Iranian capabilities puts real time pressure on the soundness of his decisive, direct, military engagement strategy. The White House, with help from the Joint Chiefs, is holding him back.

Pompeo is serving his president as best he can, attempting to allay ally fears of escalation, while at the same time trying to make the president look strong and dynamic where Iran is concerned. He may be using back channels to also allay Iranian concerns that the United States wants to change the status quo in the region by force, but that would be a dangerous line for Pompeo to take.

Some observers see parallels between the current situation with Iran and the run-up to the U.S. war in Iraq. How similar are the two cases?

The parallels are only superficial between the Iraq War run-up and current policy in the Gulf. In the first case, the George W. Bush administration decided on war, then looked for justifications—many of which proved inaccurate—such as yellow-cake uranium, and weapons of mass destruction programs that were “near completion”—to gain just enough public support to go ahead. Most allies did not bite, though Britain famously followed us in anyway.

In the current case, with the possible exception of Bolton, the administration does not want war. The verbal bullying is meant mostly for domestic consumption.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.