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Why Iran Could Launch a Limited Attack

Iranian Army in 2016. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Think we’re out of the woods on war with Iran? Think again. Both sides may have said they don’t want a conflict. Yet wars do not only happen when we seek them out. Two paths to hostilities remain open: bad luck and bad policy.

The first path to war is by accident or miscalculation. As the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz pointed out, rationality isn’t always the driving force in war. Emotion and plain chance come in as well—and it isn’t even predictable which will be dominant at any moment. While we may not want war, the tinder on which the sparks of chance fall remains rich and dry.

U.S. and Iranian forces are arrayed across the Middle East. In Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf, they brush up against one another. Neither party trusts the other. Each side must be prepared for the other to unexpectedly strike, taking steps to prepare defenses and get retaliatory options in place. The other sees these defensive preparations and fears an attack even more, creating a cycle of escalation that neither intended—the classic security dilemma.

That appears to have happened in May’s U.S.-Iranian crisis. On Friday May 3, the United States yanked sanctions waivers tied to international work at Iranian nuclear sites—work that had been authorized by the 2015 nuclear deal. At the same time, other sanctions waivers that had allowed Iran to sell some of its oil abroad expired. Iran has long warned that if it is unable to export oil through the tight Strait of Hormuz along its southern coast, no other state would be able to do so. Worries spread that the sanctions might trigger this warning. That Sunday May 5, citing an imminent threat from Iran, national security advisor John Bolton issued an unusual statement that the United States was rushing a carrier strike group and a clutch of bombers to the region.

Within days, vague reports emerged of missiles being placed on Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called off a trip to Germany for an unscheduled trip to Baghdad. The White House announced new sanctions on the Iranian metal industry, and claims by unnamed U.S. officials emerged that Iran had given friendly militias clearance to attack American troops. Washington dispatched an amphibious assault ship (along with defensive land-based missile systems) to the region.

America’s European partners began scrambling to head off a conflict. On May 12, explosions hobbled four vessels off the Emirati port of Fujairah on the Gulf of Oman as Iran-linked fake news claimed the incident had been much larger. The next day, news broke that Bolton had ordered a review of military plans against Iran. The day after, drones from Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement temporarily knocked out a Saudi oil pipeline that brings crude from the Gulf to the Red Sea. (The net message of these two attacks: Iran can strike oil flows that bypass the Strait of Hormuz.) A rocket landed near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, supposedly fired by Iraqi Shia militias with close ties to Tehran, and the Pentagon prepared options for the President to send up to ten thousand more troops to the region.

Things cooled down for a few weeks after that —but they may be heating up again. On June 12, the Department of the Treasury announced new sanctions on an Iraqi firm alleged to be moving weapons for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Early on June 13, two petrochemical tankers just outside the Strait of Hormuz experienced an apparent attack. Pompeo, offering no evidence, blamed Iran in a tweet Friday afternoon.

It is the assessment of the U.S. government that Iran is responsible for today’s attacks in the Gulf of Oman. These attacks are a threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable escalation of tension by Iran.

Throughout this, leaders from both sides have insisted they don’t want war and that they were merely reacting to the other side. Every move after the initial U.S. escalation (the oil sanctions) was a reaction to prior moves. Each side believed the other was gearing up to fight. We now know they weren’t. But remember that each side was acting under great uncertainty about the other’s intentions. Each side has elements within its system that can independently escalate the conflict.

And each side made its moves under the shadow of chance. Imagine luck hadn’t been a lady in these incidents. Maybe the Emirati coast guard stumbles upon the Fujairah attackers and a few Emiratis are killed in the resulting exchange of fire. Maybe the Emiratis capture a few Iranians and parade them on TV. Maybe that rocket in Baghdad kills an American who stepped out for a smoke. Maybe one of the U.S. ships near Hormuz misreads an Iranian vessel’s intentions and fires on it. Bad luck would have put the May crisis on a path to war.

And the high emotions of the crisis can make bad luck’s effects worse. We need not look outside the U.S.-Iran relationship for evidence of this: the events that led to the 1988 shootdown of Iran Air 655 by the USS Vincennes were exacerbated not only by a tense international context (including the Vincennes firing on Iranian gunboats moments before), but also by chance factors like flickering lights, time zone confusion, and a gun jam. The hostile context also contributed to Iranian interpretations of the shootdown as a deliberate act signaling potential U.S. entry into Iran’s war with Iraq. Bad luck at Fujairah could have gone the same direction. It seems to have been a calculated escalation – the international investigation suggested the explosives were carefully placed to disable the ships without sinking them. A more serious result that came by accident could have been read as intentional.

The second path to war is an intentional and serious Iranian escalation. That seems illogical on its face: why would the Islamic Republic start a war with the United States? Iran is far weaker than America. Why would a state with a per capita GDP that rivals Belarus and a military whose equipment belongs in a museum take on the world’s sole superpower? One might say that “no rational Iranian could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.” Yet swap in the word “Japanese” for “Iranian” in that last sentence, and you’ve got a verbatim quote from Dean Acheson, pooh-poohing worries that the tensions of late 1941 could end in some sort of sudden and deliberate attack. Starting a war isn’t the sole province of the stronger.

So why on earth would Iran hit America? Our maximum pressure policy, to the extent it is effective at achieving its goals, is dangerous. To borrow from Clausewitz again: “War is always the shock of two hostile bodies in collision, not the action of a living power upon an inanimate mass.” Or, to put it more bluntly – the enemy gets a vote. We should not expect Iran to go along with our plan to crush them. They are not “an inanimate mass” upon which our plans can work their magic. Instead, they are a living force, reacting to our efforts and desperately seeking to avoid being crushed.

And our plans are indeed a crushing. Hawks have presented the twelve demands Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made of Iran as a modest call for Iran to become a “normal nation.” The demands are inoffensive on their face: they include things like not proliferating ballistic missiles, not enriching uranium, not supporting terrorist groups, allowing Iraqi militias to be subordinated to the Iraqi state, leaving Syria, and backing off partnerships with militant groups around the world.

It would indeed be wonderful if Iran did these things. Yet we are not trying to convince ourselves that these are the best ideas for Iran—we are trying to convince Iran that these are the best ideas for Iran. We thus need to look at our demands through Iran’s eyes. That doesn’t mean endorsing Tehran’s worldview or accepting its goals. But it does mean taking seriously the needs of the Iranian regime.

The first thing any state requires is a measure of security against potential enemies. Without security, no other goals can be achieved. This holds true whatever those other goals may be. Even if Iran is a revisionist power, well, it can’t do much revising from beneath a conqueror’s boot. Because security is essential, states will use any tool that works to get it – and they’ll place great value on keeping those tools. This is why the history of international relations is so often marked by brutality, skullduggery, and bloodshed.

Worse, there is no international 911 that nations can call if they’re attacked. They’re on their own and must be ready to defend themselves. Iran’s leaders know that better than most. They remember that the United Nations Security Council barely lifted a finger when Saddam Hussein attacked them in 1980 – indeed, the resolution it passed calls on both sides to stop fighting each other, as though one was not invading the other. The rest of that war only amplified their sense that Iran was on its own in an ugly world – they were subjected to chemical attacks and missile strikes on cities, yet arms and cash flowed to Saddam. The war was the defining life experience for virtually all of Iran’s leaders today. For many, the lessons were straightforward: the Islamic Republic cannot trust some “international community,” but can only survive by wit, resourcefulness, and steadfastness in the face of adversity.

The world seen from Tehran today squares with those lessons. Iran is on bad terms with many of the neighborhood’s key players —and with the world’s strongest country. The latter has a network of bases in the region and the ability to quickly surge in more power. It has used all that to overthrow the governments of Iran’s neighbors to the east and west and once used internal subversion to overthrow Iran’s own government. (Sure, today’s leaders in Tehran are no fans of any of the overthrown, but they’ve seen what can happen to those America opposes.)

Yes, the United States seems war-weary, but its leader’s top advisor, John Bolton, has explicitly called for war. And America backed out of a deal they’d made with Iran, turned up the pressure, threatened war —and now they want to negotiate? Worse, Washington wants Tehran to give up its most crucial security tools. That can only happen if Tehran deeply trusts Washington —and Washington just backed out on the last set of promises to Tehran. Without trust, we’re asking Iran to stand defenseless against their strongest enemy. Good luck.

And that shows the radical idealism at the heart of the “normal nation” goal. We are asking Iran to root its security in promises and norms, not power—and to do so in a region where promises and norms have been as stout as a puff of sarin in a stiff breeze. Iran’s leaders are terrible, but they are not idiots.

So if they’re not going to make a deal, what will they do if the sanctions and pressure begin to work? Rather than agree to negotiate its surrender to Pompeo’s twelve points, Iran might seek to escalate the situation with the United States under any of several theories:


  • Demonstration: A use of force to back America off by showing that Iran means business and can threaten key U.S. interests. (This may have been the basis for the Fujairah attacks.)
  • Now or never: If the regime’s condition is eroding with no sign of improvement, leaders may prefer to run the risk of conflict while they’re in a stronger position at home.
  • Fear of looking weak: Iranian leaders may fear that a show of weakness abroad (such as by cutting a deal) would make opponents at home smell blood and demand more.
  • Balancing concessions: Similarly, Iranian leaders may seek to placate regime opponents at home by making concessions to them, while taking a hard line with the United States to mollify hardliners furious with the domestic deal.
  • Rally round the flag: By provoking an outside attack, Iranian leaders could hope to raise popular support for the regime.
  • Loss of control: If the regime begins to lose its grip, elements below the top authorities may try to initiate conflict abroad to shape events within Iran in their favor. The IRGC, which enjoys a constitutional mandate to protect Iran’s revolution, is the prime candidate to act here. Iranian proxies may take similar steps for the same reasons.


In all of these cases, the Iranian attack is likely to be limited in scale. Iran is not capable of mounting a Pearl Harbor-style attack that aims to knock America out of the fight. Rather, it would seek to engage in a limited conflict, hitting America and its partners to highlight the danger of broader war. Then it would weather the response, which it would hope would aim at similarly narrow objectives. Yet, as Clausewitz counseled us, war is not purely rational. Bad luck and bad blood sometimes carry the day. And if the irrational wins and a wider war breaks out, the United States and Iran will lose together.

John Allen Gay is co-author of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences. He can be found on Twitter at @johnallengay.

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