Worries about a military confrontation between Iran and the United States have mounted since attacks last week on two oil tankers near the Gulf. Washington blamed long-time foe Iran for the attacks but Tehran denied any responsibility.
President Donald Trump said on Friday he is not looking for war with Iran, but he warned that if a conflict did occur it would result in “obliteration.”
“I’m not looking for war, and if there is it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. But I’m not looking to do that,” Trump told NBC News in an interview a day after he aborted a planned air strike against Iranian targets in retaliation for Tehran shooting down a U.S. drone.
Iran will respond firmly to any US threat against it, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Saturday, citing foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.
“We will not allow any violation against Iran’s borders. Iran will firmly confront any aggression or threat by America,” he told Tasnim.
US-Iran relations: A brief history
After all, modern conflicts are not "won" in any conventional sense. The Americans should have learnt this lesson all too well from Afghanistan and Iraq. And Iran surely cannot think it can "beat" the United States in any meaningful sense? But the reality is that somewhere between punitive attacks on the one hand and a full-scale conflict on the other, both countries may believe that they can make strategic gains.
The US wants to contain Iran. Severely damaging its military capabilities - especially those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - would serve this purpose. A serious reversal for Tehran might ultimately impact domestic politics in the country, though war could equally have the unwanted result of consolidating support for the current regime.
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Iran may be pursuing its own high-stakes version of a "regime change" policy too. It may see the current US administration as aggressive, but equally as indecisive and lacking support from its key western allies. By drawing the Americans into a costly and open-ended conflict, the Iranian leadership may believe that they can absorb the pain while damaging President Trump's chances in the next Presidential race. An Iranian reading of the US political scene may see the Democrats as more likely to return to some kind of nuclear deal and as more willing therefore to relax economic sanctions.
The problem for Tehran is that time is not on its side. The economic pressure of sanctions is hitting hard. Iran has relatively few cards to play beyond threatening chaos. Thus it may see escalation as a route out of this crisis. President Trump on the other hand, according to his own tweets, says he is "in no hurry".
Let's hope all this discussion is academic. President Trump appeared ready to strike back at Iran after the downing of the drone and then had second thoughts. Many will hope that it is these second thoughts that prevail in the president's mind over the coming days.
A war with Iran would indeed be costly and unpredictable. It would neither resolve the problem of Iran's nuclear programme nor of Iran's growing prominence in the region. That was the indirect outcome of Washington's last major war in the Middle East - the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Conflicts, it should be remembered, have unintended consequences.