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Trump’s Dangerous Iran Delusions

Trump speaks at Washington rally against the Iran deal back in September 2015. Credit: Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

The president repeated another one of his Iran delusions today:

Trump has said some version of this several times, but I think this is the most explicit claim he has made that an Iranian “takeover” of the entire region was going to happen. It’s obvious nonsense, and I assume Trump believes it mainly because it flatters his sense of self-importance, but because he readily accepts this lie it is bound to distort his view of how powerful Iran is and how much of a threat their government poses. During Obama’s second term, Iran hawks were constantly exaggerating Iranian influence and power to justify more aggressive policies and to bash Obama for his supposed “appeasement” of the Iranian “empire.” Trump appears to have internalized some of that propaganda, and the absurdity of the propaganda actually makes it easier for Trump to take “credit” for preventing something that was never going to happen.

There was never any possibility that Iran could or would “take over” Saudi Arabia or any of its neighbors, and so Trump can declare victory in thwarting a non-existent threat. The problem is that Trump and his officials very much want the public to believe that Iran is capable of doing something like this so they can sell their cruel and destructive economic war policy. They have to blow Iran’s power out of proportion to provide a pretext for inflicting severe economic pain. Obsessing over a medium-sized regional power is ridiculous, so they have to make Iran appear more powerful than it is to make their obsession seem less risible. The delusions are easy to laugh at, but they have serious consequences for U.S. policy.

Trump also claimed that a war with Iran would be short:

“I’m not talking boots on the ground,” Trump said. “I’m just saying if something would happen, it wouldn’t last very long.”

Hawks always predict that the wars they want to start will be short, cheap, and easy, and the wars are always longer, more expensive, and more difficult than they claim. The reason that most hawks minimize the risks is to lower the barrier to getting the war started, but in Trump’s case he may be gullible enough to think this is true. Yesterday Trump said that he wouldn’t need an “exit strategy” in the event of a war with Iran, which suggests that he may really think that the war would be limited to a brief air campaign and then it would be over.

This shows how little thought he and those around him have given the likely consequences of starting a war with Iran, and it shows how reckless and irresponsible he is being about the possibility of a war. If the president thinks that a war with Iran “wouldn’t last very long,” he is probably going to be more willing to start it. Iran hawks are already predictably emphasizing that attacking Iran wouldn’t be like Iraq or Afghanistan, and they are saying that in part to overcome Trump’s apparent reservations about getting bogged down in a protracted conflict. War with Iran might be different from previous wars in the region, but it wouldn’t obviously be any less costly or disastrous. Of course, no one can guarantee that any war will be quick and easy, and the Iranian government will get a say in how the war is fought and where it takes place. Trump may think that it won’t involve “boots on the ground,” but that proves that he hasn’t even considered how Iran might retaliate if the U.S. attacked.

Ilan Goldenberg has considered what could happen in a war with Iran, and his analysis from last month tells us that the president is being far too blithe about the prospect of war. Goldenberg considers a number of scenarios ranging from regional conflict to an invasion of Iran. He concludes:

Even short of such worst-case scenarios, any war with Iran would tie down the United States in yet another Middle Eastern conflict for years to come. The war and its aftermath would likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars and hobble not just Trump but future U.S. presidents. Such a commitment would mean the end of the United States’ purported shift to great-power competition with Russia and China.

War with Iran won’t be over quickly, and it will have destructive consequences for the U.S., Iran, and the region for a long time. The region is still convulsed and destabilized by the effects of the invasion of Iraq, which was sold as a quick and easy war that would pay for itself. Sixteen years later, the U.S., Iraq, and the surrounding countries are still paying a price for that massive blunder and terrible crime. Unless Trump wants to go down as the president who made an even greater blunder and committed an even worse crime than George W. Bush, he will avoid war with Iran like the plague. The best way to do that in the short term is to abandon the “maximum pressure” economic war and stop making deranged threats about obliterating Iran.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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