US-Iran relations have grown increasingly troubled since the election of President Trump. Given the recent rhetoric from the current administration, some worry about the possibility of conventional armed conflict between the two states. Military maneuvers on both sides have postured the two nations for conflict despite some congressional efforts to prevent war. In June, an unmanned US drone was shot down in what Iran claimed was its airspace. President Trump accused Iran of “warmongering” while Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted that the drone had “violated Iranian airspace.” In July, Iranian officials detained a British tanker in response to Britain’s detainment of an oil tanker in Gibraltar.
Despite Trump’s rhetoric, administration officials and the president have repeatedly stated that they oppose a full-on war with Iran. With the back-and-forth between Iran and the US, it must be asked: what does the United States want? According to defense officials, the US is primarily interested in avoiding a costly or accidental war and limiting Iran’s threat to other countries in the region.
Interests in Iran
For now, the Trump administration wants to avoid war, despite the president’s announcements that the US will be prepared in the event of an attack from Iran. It is the goal of the Trump administration to pursue US interests—specifically, the reduction of Iran’s military power outside its borders and the containment of its nuclear program—without going to war. Since the Iranian Revolution, Iran has gained a poor reputation by supporting militarized groups, starting a nuclear program, and threatening other countries in the region. Iran’s anti-West stances have contributed to its support for groups like Hezbollah, the Taliban, and the Houthi insurgency. Additionally, Iran has tried to size itself up to its rival Saudi Arabia through the Yemeni conflict. Iran’s continued support for extremist organizations has threatened American allies in the region. Israel has often expressed concerns about the growth of Iran’s military power, especially its nuclear weapons program.
Since the shelving of the JCPOA, American officials have grown concerned about the rates at which Iran stockpiles enriched uranium. The United States does not want Iran to become a nuclear power, as instability in the region is already high.
Assessments of the threat Iran poses to the United States vary among administration officials, as well as throughout Congress. National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Senator Tom Cotton have all advocated for a greater offensive presence against Iran and have repeatedly called for military action against the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, many members of Congress are hesitant to engage in what could be a lengthy war. As for the president, Trump has been hesitant to make a military call.
Should War Happen?
Despite Iran’s growth being at odds with American interests, the two countries seem to have one interest in common: avoiding a war. While the probability of engaging in conflict is high, the president and other members of his administration have called for a return to diplomatic relations and negotiations rather than military action. While both sides continue to use language referring to “power in retaliation,” neither side is fully willing to commit troops or funding to an expensive or precarious war. A conflict with Iran could cause more problems in the region and exacerbate existing conflicts in unstable states.
Starting a war with Iran could lead to another indefinite US commitment to a long engagement, like the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Last week, Trump called off a retaliatory strike to respond to a downed American drone, much to the relief of members of Congress. When asked about the possibility of going to war with Iran, Trump responded, “hope not.” Entering into a war with Iran may intensify existing conflicts where American interests are at stake, especially in Syria and Yemen. US allies, such as Israel, may also be threatened.
Now, Iran has not directly attacked the United States. It has not attacked any manned aircraft, military bases, or US nationals. There seems to be no glaring reason for the United States to enter war with Iran. However, Iranian participation in regional proxy conflicts weakens US allies. Iran continues to threaten Israel, one of the major US allies in the Middle East. Supporting Israel is and should remain a top priority for the United States. Iranian stockpiling of enriched uranium is a growing threat that could be mitigated with a renegotiated non-proliferation agreement. The US should also be wary of Iranian assistance to rebels in Yemen and should support Saudi Arabia in the conflict. Maintaining our defense systems, supporting our allies in the Middle East, and encouraging a diplomatic relationship with Iran are the best strategies for both the short- and long-term.
Is It Worth It?
Iran is becoming a major power in the Middle East, and its intentions are at odds with America’s goals in the region. Avoiding a conflict is key to maintaining relative stability in the region and for protecting American assets and interests. Managing Iran seems best achieved by offering to begin diplomatic negotiations and avoiding escalation in existing regional conflicts. Both the US and Iran want to avoid war, but the US should be careful to minimize the threat Iran exerts in the region. Limiting Iran’s military support for proxy groups and its nuclear capabilities would best maintain our interests and help our allies in the region while steering us away from war. The United States needs to focus on pursuing diplomatic relations and negotiations to decrease the risk of war and prevent additional instability in the Middle East.
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