By Bonnie Kristian
President Trump’s foray into a fresh war of words with Iran on Sunday was widely heralded as an attempt to shift public attention away from his much-criticized meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and new developments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. And perhaps it was.
Trump’s tweeted threat—an all caps declaration that Iran must “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE”—was certainly intended to seize headlines. Just ignore it, many advised.
But regardless of Trump’s intent, there is one sense in which we should allow our attention to be grabbed: The United States must not go to war with Iran.
As capable as our military is of causing the suffering Trump has in mind, there is no realistic scenario in which inflicting it could be justified or even remotely advantageous to American interests. Wherever Trump’s motives here may fall on the scale of self-serving to sincere, reckless tweets must not be permitted to escalate into another reckless war.
U.S. military intervention against Iran is, first, patently unnecessary. The United States is thoroughly capable of indefinite deterrence of even a whiff of Iranian belligerence. Consider that Iran’s entire 2017 GDP was $439 billion. The U.S. defense budget alone was $611 billion. Iran’s entire military spending last year totaled $14.5 billion. America spends nearly that much on a single aircraft carrier—and we have 11 aircraft carriers. In short, there is no world in which Iran poses a credible threat to the United States and our core interests.
And beyond American capabilities, our allies and partners in the Middle East more than balance and contain Iranian influence in the area. A Shiite power surrounded by Sunni-dominated countries, Iran is not a candidate for regional hegemon. U.S.-friendly states like Israel and Saudi Arabia are comparatively wealthy and individually outspend Iran on defense. They are armed with American weapons and amply able to counter Tehran’s ambitions. As it is their region and their vital interests at stake, let this responsibility fall to them.
Indeed, as military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich notes, the primary risk here is that “the new Saudi-American-Israeli axis is not to contain the Iranian government … but to overthrow it.” For though Iran is no competitor to the United States in conventional warfare, there is no question that any foolhardy attempt at forcible regime change in Iran would be catastrophically costly for America. For a taste of how war in Iran would go, picture our bloody, expensive, and apparently endless war in Iraq and scale up—way up.
Nor does regime change, regardless of cost, stand any chance of success. It is rather apt to foster chaos, encourage radicalism and terror, and alienate younger generations of Iranians who would otherwise maintain a positive view of the West and a hunger for democratic reform.
“When U.S. forces oust an undesirable government in the Islamic world, the inadvertent result is to make things worse,” writes Bacevich, citing Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. “Been there, done that, several times over.” It does not and cannot work. American blood and treasure has bought not stability but turmoil in each of these nations, and it is pure wishful thinking to imagine invading Iran will end differently. “As a candidate for president, Trump seemed to understand that U.S. military interventionism in the Middle East had exacted huge costs while accomplishing next to nothing,” Bacevich adds. Instead of saber-rattling at Iran, the president would do well to remember that wiser mood.
The most hopeful interpretation of Trump’s threatening tweet is that he views it as a first step toward diplomacy. As conservative Matthew Walther explained this possibility at The Week, Trump exchanged similarly bombastic language with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in the run-up to their Singapore summit. Perhaps he aims to accomplish the same pirouette with Iran, lashing out to scare Tehran into some new nuclear deal or other détente.
Yet regardless of Trump’s plan here, diplomatic engagement must be our goal. Moving forward with viable diplomacy will not be easy in the aftermath of Trump’s exit from the Iran deal, but the difficulty of the task makes it no less necessary.
Reopening diplomatic channels would itself be a positive step toward de-escalation, for as Iranian lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh told The Associated Press, Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are making public statements because they cannot speak privately. “Iran is angry since Trump responded to Tehran's engagement diplomacy by pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear deal,” Falahatpisheh added, so a basic move toward normalcy would be a costless gesture of U.S. commitment to progress. We do need to talk to Iran, and tweeted threats are not the way to do it.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on July 24, 2018. Read more HERE.