Whatever Happened to That Rush to War With Iran?

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) with military leaders / Getty
June 7, 2019

Remember when the Trump administration was hell-bent on starting a war with Iran? It was last month, and the United States said it received intelligence suggesting Iran and its proxies were planning to attack American personnel, facilities, and equipment in the Middle East. So the administration deployed the Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier, and its strike group to the Persian Gulf, in addition to other military assets. The deployments were meant to deter Iranian aggression, to prevent tensions from escalating to the point of conflict—not to rush to war. But that obvious point did not stop former officials in the Obama administration, bolstered by their like-minded allies in Congress and the media, from decrying the Trump administration's so-called efforts to push the United States into a war with Iran, repeating, in their view, the George W. Bush administration's lies and mistakes that led to the Iraq war in 2003.

These forecasts for war quickly spread everywhere, almost as if there was an echo chamber—where have we heard that phrase before?—trying to drown the American people in fear, hoping Washington will revive the nuclear deal with Iran to avoid a conflict. "White House reviews military plans against Iran, in echoes of Iraq war," read a headline in the New York Times. "Escalating Iran crisis looks a lot like the path U.S. took to Iraq war," reported USA Today. "Democrats are raising alarms about Trump 'inching' toward war with Iran," noted Business Insider. The Washington Post published an opinion piece titled, "The White House builds a path to war with Iran," and a letter to the editor with the headline, "Let's not rush into war with Iran."

And who was the shadowy puppet master pulling the strings on this march to war? The mustache, of course, who, as President Trump's national security adviser, is apparently like the tiny devil sitting on the commander in chief's shoulder, whispering the most nefarious advice. As the Washington Free Beacon's editor in chief, Matthew Continetti, wrote at the time, Obamaites and the media (but I repeat myself) made John Bolton out to be a bloodthirsty madman driving Trump, and the country, toward war.

"It's John Bolton's world. Trump is just living in it," write two former Obama officials in the Los Angeles Times. "John Bolton is Donald Trump's war whisperer," writes Peter Bergen on "Trump's potential war with Iran is all John Bolton's doing. But it might also be his undoing," says the pro-Iran Trita Parsi on "Is Trump Yet Another U.S. President Provoking a War?" asks Robin Wright of the New Yorker. Guess her answer.

"We cannot repeat the days before the Iraq war when even many of our most reliable news outlets repeated and amplified what was, in fact, a flimsy case for war," Wendy Sherman writes in the New York Times.

And yet, here are we are one month later, and there has been no war with Iran. In fact, "military tensions appear to be easing," CNN reported Wednesday, citing "several" American officials. "It seems tensions have dropped some, but we are still watching very closely, we haven't relaxed, we remain vigilant," said one of the officials.

How do all of those voices raising the prospect of war—and remember, none of the principals in the Trump administration ever mentioned a preemptive strike or full-scale war—explain this shift? Is it possible that the Trump administration's show of strength actually worked to deter an Iranian attack? The Obamaites, who support a rapprochement with Iran through appeasement, would never say so, but the Trump administration's tougher rhetoric and more robust posture surely changed Tehran's calculus.

For those who have studied the Islamic Republic's history, this result should not be surprising. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamist regime in Tehran has generally adopted a cautious approach to its foreign and defense policies. Yes, the mullahs are ideological, and yes, Iran's activities across the Middle East are belligerent, expansionist, and imperial. But, through the years, the regime has shown that it is also pragmatic, willing to weigh costs and benefits rationally. Michael Eisenstadt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, elaborates on this point in an essential report on Iran's strategic culture.

Within the context of a relatively activist foreign policy, Iranian decision-makers have generally shunned direct confrontation, and have tended to act through surrogates (such as the Lebanese Hizballah) or by means of stealth (Iranian small boat and mine operations against shipping in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War), in order to manage risk. Such behavior is evidence of an ability to engage in rational calculation, to accurately assess power relationships, and to identify means to circumvent adversary "red lines." Indeed, this is one of the striking paradoxes of the [Islamic Republic's] leadership: while it has demonstrated a pronounced tendency toward paranoia and conspiratorial thinking, it has also frequently shown an ability to engage in fairly subtle calculation.


Iran has generally sought to avoid direct involvement in costly conflicts and quagmires with its enemies, even at the cost of overlooking the revolution's fundamental ideological tenets.

In 1991, for example, Iran did not intervene when Saddam Hussein brutally crushed a Shi'ite uprising, instead sending members of the Iraqi Badr Corps. In 2011, to cite another example, Iran abandoned Shi'ite protesters in Bahrain who suffered at the hands of a government crackdown. Instead, the Iranian leadership tried to hire someone to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington as revenge. More recently, the regime has done almost nothing to respond to Israel's constant airstrikes against Iranian targets inside Syria. In each of these cases, Iran did not want to risk a wider conflict, understanding the risks involved in doing so.

How can the regime be an Islamist theocracy that supports some of the most radical terrorist groups in the Middle East while also being cautious and pragmatic? The answer is simple: the principle of the "expediency of the regime." For everyone in the regime, ensuring the survival of the Islamic Republic, a theocratic, revolutionary system in which a supreme leader has ultimate political and spiritual authority, is the main priority. So, in the 1980s, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, articulated this principle, explaining that Tehran can effectively take any action if it is in the interest of the regime. In other words, preserving the Islamic Republic is the most important religious duty, and all other duties can be compromised in service of it.

Iran's leaders are not stupid; they know they would lose a full-scale war with the United States. The supreme leader is not going to risk his regime's survival in a hopeless brawl with the Americans. Moreover, Trump certainly does not want war with Iran either, just as his predecessor, Barack Obama, did not want war. So the media, pundits, and politicians need to calm down about the storm clouds of war forming every time there is increased tension—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—between Washington and Tehran.

But these same voices need to remember that Iran has been at war with the United States for the last 40 years, even if Washington has been oblivious most of the time. The regime is fundamentally anti-American and responsible for the deaths of at least hundreds of Americans. Moreover, the regime has made clear that part of its mission is to oppose American power. It should not be so shocking or terrible that, at some point, the United States would want to defend itself, its allies, and its interests.