Butterfly Effect: Does Trump Have One Final Iran Move?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The presidents of both America and Iran are lame ducks, unrestrained and tempted to act rashly.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
It’s easier to start a war than to end one. You’ll find that idea outlined in the writings of everyone from Gabriel García Márquez to former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
But when the onus of ending a war doesn’t lie with those that start one, it’s easy to forget that truism. That’s the dangerous terrain that the U.S. and Iran risk slipping into, a year after they barely — but wisely — pulled back from the brink of a military confrontation.
The signs are ominous, and they’re worrying experienced observers on both sides. The U.S. flew B-52 bombers to the Middle East on Dec. 29, signaling its preparedness to respond to any provocation from Tehran. Then, on Monday, the Pentagon sent the USS Nimitz, a warship, back to the region just days after calling it home.
American officials have warned in recent days that they’re tracking growing evidence of Iranian plans to target U.S. infrastructure in Iraq. And indeed, Tehran itself has resurrected its threat to punish America for the assassination last January of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. This week, it has restarted work to refine uranium to 20 percent — far from weapons-grade level, but much more than it committed to under the 2015 nuclear deal. And on Monday, it seized a South Korean tanker that had strayed into its waters.
It’s easy to see this merely as a repeat of the tensions that followed Soleimani’s killing — a crisis that was ultimately defused when Iran fired rockets at a U.S. base in response but in a way that resulted in no fatalities. America then chose to avoid escalating matters.
But January 2021 is fundamentally different from January 2020. President Donald Trump has had Iran in his crosshairs since he assumed office four years ago, pulling out of the nuclear deal and imposing harsh sanctions that closed the window for negotiations. Still, at this time last year, Trump was optimistic about returning to power. Whatever his military inclinations, the political consequences of starting a war would have been real, especially since Trump campaigned in 2016 as a candidate who would end wars.
That equation has changed. Trump has lost the presidential election to Joe Biden — even though he refuses to admit it — and will have to leave the White House on Jan. 20. Right after losing the vote in November, an unshackled Trump asked the Pentagon for options to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Senior aides blocked the plan.
Since then, Trump’s multiple legal challenges to the election have all failed. He has made clear he doesn’t mind sowing chaos during the presidential transition. Whether it’s by bullying Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” votes that would help him overturn the state’s election results or encouraging supporters to rally in Washington to pressure Congress, nothing is off the table.
Could a military escalation with Iran, then, be his final move — leaving him with a legacy and President-elect Biden with an unenviable quagmire? Will acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller nip any such plans in the bud? Remember, 10 former secretaries of defense — spanning Republicans and Democrats — felt compelled to issue an open letter urging Miller to stick by his constitutional commitments and abstain from involving the military in settling the outcome of the election.
What makes things even more dangerous is that Iran’s politics too have changed dramatically since 2020. Then, moderate President Hassan Rouhani was still very much in charge and interested in doing what he could to stop ties with America from slipping so far that restoring the nuclear deal would become impossible.
Today, Rouhani is also a lame duck. His second term ends this summer, and he can’t run again. Iranian conservative hard-liners are on the rise, and are expected to triumph in the coming presidential elections. They already dominate the military. Since the assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in November — Tehran blames Israel — the country’s hard-liners have been baying for blood. Antagonism with the U.S. serves them well, and they’re unlikely in any case to agree to the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement. It’s unclear whether Rouhani has the political authority to restrain them.
Military and diplomatic professionals on both sides know that a war is in neither’s interests and that once the fire spreads, they won’t be able to control it. Can — and will — they hold the line for another two weeks, even if their leaders don’t? Or will we be quoting García Márquez again in some years?
- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi