Elephants in the Room

U.S. and Iranian Choices Are Getting Dangerously Narrow

Even if neither side wants war, the road ahead is hazardous.

A protester outside the White House
Linda Leaks, 71, from Washington, D.C., stands outside of the White House on Jan. 8. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The smoke is still clearing from the drone strike that killed Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, and from the Iranian retaliation against U.S. bases in Iraq, and any conclusions have to be tentative ones. But the history of U.S.-Iran conflict points to a narrow, and possibly dangerous, set of choices ahead.

While the proximate cause of the strike was an attack on an Iraqi base that killed an American contractor, and reported intelligence that Suleimani and others were planning future attacks, the action has to be seen in a broader context.

U.S. sanctions are devastating Iran, inflating the rial, and shrinking the economy. Mass demonstrations against economic hardship left Tehran with little choice but to try to change the terms of competition. Diplomatic and economic efforts were not working, so Iran turned to leaning even more heavily on military and paramilitary actions.

The best strategic explanation for Washington’s action was that it was intended to persuade Tehran that the military path, too, is a dead end—maximum pressure across multiple vectors. Yet because the action was rooted in a fundamentally unresolved conflict, even if we enter a lull, the repercussions of the strike are far from over.

Nation-states that feel attacked or aggrieved often become more risk tolerant. They may reason that things are already bad, so the risks incurred appear less formidable. Or they may adopt fatalism, concluding that they have no choice but to act regardless of costs, for reasons of righting an affront to national honor or to meet political imperatives. This logic appears to be particularly compelling to authoritarian regimes, which depend on power rather than democratic procedure for their seats in office. In any event, expect that the events of recent days will make Tehran even more willing to pursue risky tactics and strategies in the coming months, especially if the Quds Force—and its parent body, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—has its way.

Iran is also a very capable opponent—and one aware of its own limitations. In attacking Saudi oil facilities last September, Iran demonstrated a capability to hit multiple targets with great precision, but the missile strikes this week were apparently undertaken with ballistic systems with much less accuracy. Predictably, and fortunately, early reports indicate that they caused no casualties and little if any damage. This likely reflects a choice by Tehran not to maximize carnage and therefore not to escalate toward war. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said as much after the missile launches. This should be seen as a tactic, not an aversion to killing. Tehran is not prepared for full-scale war with the United States.

It’s still not clear what the nuclear consequences will be. Even before the latest round of violence, after the United States reimposed sanctions, Tehran broke most of the key limits on its nuclear program imposed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, albeit by modest amounts. After the drone strike, Iran announced that the limits on uranium enrichment were void but that it would continue to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency verification measures. Any more aggressive action in the nuclear realm would likely cross U.S. or Israeli red lines and provoke further military action.

While neither Washington nor Tehran may want war, the imperatives driving both capitals narrow their choices and increase the risk of it, and the danger will remain so long as the nuclear issue and the maximum pressure campaign remain in place.

William Tobey is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

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