Ever since Donald Trump was elected US president, I have been confident that the United States would not initiate direct military aggression against Iran in the foreseeable future. However, at various times over the past 2½ years, my degree of certainly has fluctuated. In December 2016, immediately before Trump assumed office, I was 95% certain. When John Bolton was appointed National Security Advisor 14 months ago, my level of certainty fell to 75%. 4 days ago, before Trump had called off an airstrike at the last moment, my level of certainty stood at 70%. Since then, it was recovered to 80%.
So at one point or another over the past 2½ years, I have had my doubts. I have always been wary of “famous last words” predictions. I have hedged my bets accordingly as my degree of certainty oscillated, but at no point has it ever begun to look actually probable (more than 50%) that Trump would greenlight an attack on Iran.
To explain why not, we have to first look at the fundamentals which would make military aggression against Iran an entirely different prospect from aggression against Iraq or Afghanistan, for example.
However, even that is an understatement – military aggression against Iran would not only be an entirely different prospect – it would be completely incomparable with aggression against Iraq or Afghanistan. The level of adversity and military commitment which it would entail would dwarf Iraq and Afghanistan combined. We’re not simply talking about a multiplying factor here – we’re talking about an order of magnitude.
Iran has a population of 82 million people. 32% of the Iranian population is aged between 19 and 34. The median age is 31. Iran has already battle-hardened Revolutionary Guard Corps units, and 1.5 million well-trained reservists (the Basij militia, which is incorporated into the IRGC’s command-structure). Furthermore, Iran has very impressive technological capacity. Iran annually produces the highest per capita turnover of engineering graduates on Earth (Russia is 3rd). It does not require very much imagination to guess why Iran’s government decided to implement a national tertiary educational strategy which was so geared toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (for precisely the same reason that Russia’s government also decided to).
As a military power, Iran is ranked 14th on Earth.
It’s not Grenada.
Furthermore, Iran’s official public ideology, whereby it self-postulates as an explicitly revolutionary society, makes it very ideologically cohesive. Historically, revolutionary societies (revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam, etc) have tended to be very good at repulsing foreign military incursions of whatever scale. In addition, the Shia Islamic tradition’s love of martyrdom ups the ante quite a bit.
Today, this explicitly revolutionary ideological component is a common factor shared by North Korea, Venezuela and Iran, and one of the reasons why the United States has not and will not initiate direct military aggression against any of these countries in the foreseeable future. This is one of the reasons why I have always argued that Iran needs to faithfully maintain the Islamic constitutional tradition which it now has. The ideological cohesion provided by a highly literate, sophisticated political Islam remains vital to Iran’s long-term self-defence.
Now, there are counter-arguments, of course.
The first of these is that nobody (apart from Bolton, who is fixated on the utterly unrealistic goal of regime-change) has floated the idea of a ground-invasion of Iran. All of the discussion has been merely of a possible strategic strike against Hormuz.
Okay, let’s break down the probable outcomes of a limited airstrike against Hormuz.
Hormuz gets destabilized. The world-price of crude oil temporarily triples. This possibly triggers a world-recession.
Big Business hates it, but Gazprom loves it.
Even for the world-price of crude oil to return to current levels within 6 months would require US warships to start escorting tankers through the Straits of Hormuz, making those US warships extremely vulnerable to Iranian land-based missile-systems. A nightmare for the US Navy.
In practical terms, the Iranians would only have to show enough military resilience to press the oil-shock lever, which is something that their overall level of military preparedness renders them quite easily capable of doing. In 1979, upon the advent of the Islamic revolution, the world-price of crude oil quadrupled. Methods of oil and gas transit have significantly diversified since then. The world is not as tanker-dependent as it was 40 years ago. However, today, we could still expect the world-price of crude oil to triple or thereabouts if the Americans hit Hormuz.
The second counter-argument is “but the Americans are crazy.”
Yes, they are, but it’s still a shallow argument. People who make this argument simply aren’t joining the dots. The Americans were crazy enough to invade Iraq. They’ve become militarily entangled in one quagmire after another. But this point really cannot be emphasized enough – the US military has been chronically overstretched for 15 years, and the level of adversity encountered in attacking Iran would dwarf Iraq and Afghanistan combined. I repeat for emphasis – the difference in the level of military adversity encountered would not be simply a factor of multiplication. The difference would be an order of magnitude.
Apart from John Bolton, everybody has a different “crazy” threshold.
And all of the indicators are that Bolton will soon be fired. His ideological shopping-list of foreign policy objectives (starting with regime-change in Iran) is ultimately unachievable, so what use is he? The military facts of life simply make Bolton’s foreign policy priorities irrelevant. In any case, Bolton has never been a details-guy. He’s not Brzezinski. His role as National Security Advisor has been primarily ideological. He was brought in to wave the pompoms.
It is, in fact, entirely imaginable that the fiasco which unfolded 4 days ago (planes in the air, Trump calls the airstrike off at the last moment) was purposefully devised by Trump in order to deliberately humiliate Bolton. Or perhaps Trump played out this little drama as a theatrical precursor to attempts to start building détente with Iran once Bolton has been pushed out.
In any case, if anybody wanted to make a bet at this stage, I don’t think that I’d feel too uncomfortable putting the title-deeds to my house on the table, and betting that the United States will not initiate direct military aggression against Iran, at least not until the next liberal universalist takes up residency in the White House.