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Reckless Threats and ‘Restoring Deterrence’

When hawks in the U.S. and Israeli governments talk about "restoring deterrence," what they really mean is that they want to commit acts of aggression but present them as defensive actions.

The president made more reckless threats against Iran today:

When the president illegally ordered the assassination of Soleimani in January of this year, administration officials eventually lined up behind the excuse that it was intended to “restore deterrence” against rocket attacks from Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. Even though these attacks have continued throughout the year much the same as before, we are back to the same old tired issuing of threats of military action in response to attacks that would not be happening if it were not for the president’s own reckless actions. As the anniversary of the Soleimani assassination approaches, we are once again drifting towards an avoidable and unnecessary conflict.

Were it not for the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign, U.S. forces in Iraq would face far fewer risks than they do today, and conflict between our governments would be much less likely. Had it not been for the president’s decision to order the illegal and provocative attack that killed Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, tensions between the U.S. and Iran would not be as great as they are now. Trump’s approach to Iran for the last two and a half years has been to pick a fight and then blame the other side for responding to his provocations. Far from deterring attacks from Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian military itself, the Trump administration has been provoking and inviting them. It is mostly a matter of luck that this has not yet triggered a larger conflict.

For its part, the Israeli government is also raising the temperature by sending one of its submarines through the Suez Canal to signal its readiness to respond to retaliation for its murder of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh:

An Israeli submarine has embarked for the Persian Gulf in possible preparation for any Iranian retaliation over the November assassination of a senior Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Israeli media reported.

The above-water, fully visible Israeli deployment into the Suez Canal and then the Red Sea was a rare move that was reportedly carried out with the acquiescence of Egyptian authorities and was seen as a clear warning to Iran that Israel was preparing for battle as hostilities continue to rise.

The deployment of the Israeli submarine is described as a “message of deterrence,” but it is in fact the result of an ill-advised and illegal attack inside Iran. Had the Israelis not carried out a terrorist attack on Iranian soil, they would not now be worried about possible retaliation. This gets at a basic problem with the hawkish framing of our news coverage related to Iran and the constant misuse of the concept of deterrence by both the U.S. and Israeli governments.

When hawks in the U.S. and Israeli governments talk about “restoring deterrence,” what they really mean is that they want to commit acts of aggression but present them as defensive actions. Blowing up Soleimani had nothing to do with deterring future attacks, and we can see that it has failed to deter them. Murdering Fakhrizadeh definitely had nothing to do with deterring anything. It was just a gratuitous killing that the Israeli government did because they could. Now both the U.S. and Israel find that they have to make additional shows of force and issue new threats to ward off possible responses to these earlier aggressive acts. Instead of making them more secure, these aggressive acts have exposed Americans and Israelis to greater risks than they faced earlier on.

In light of reports that the president has asked for military options for attacking Iran and reports that Israel has been preparing for such an eventuality, we have to take the possibility of a U.S. or joint U.S.-Israel attack on Iran seriously. There is absolutely no justification for such an attack, but that is no guarantee that it won’t happen. It needs to be emphasized that none of this would be happening if the Trump administration had not taken the reckless and destructive step of reneging on the JCPOA and launching an economic war on Iran. Whatever happens in the next few weeks can be traced back to that, and the president is responsible for the consequences.