The View From Olympus: Danger Ahead?

President Trump’s acceptance of North Korea’s request for a summit meeting was exactly right.  Summits have their risks, but far better the risks of a summit than the risk of another Korean war. 

But if the Korean situation now appears to be moving the right way, our position on Iran may be doing the opposite.  I do not know why President Trump has such a dislike for Iran.  Iran is leading the Shiites in their war with the Sunnis, but what is that to us?  Our only interest in that war is that they kill each other in the largest numbers possible, so there are fewer of both to fight us.

If the President withdraws the United States from the deal that halted the Iranian nuclear program for a time, as he threatens to do and as the new Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo, may encourage him to do, our position is likely to worsen, not improve.  The other major power signatories to the agreement will not withdraw.  If the Iranians are smart, they will also continue to adhere to the deal.  The effect will be to isolate the United States and put Iran in the morally advantageous “victim” position.

Some in Washington may say, “So what?”  With some skill and a bit of luck, the Iranians may be able to parlay their strengthened position into a major break between the U.S. and Europe.  Presumably, the U.S. will follow its withdrawal from the agreement with new sanctions on Iran.  Those sanctions will punish European banks and firms that do business with or in Iran.  But that is a violation of European states’ sovereignty.  So far, they have gone along with American overreach.  But they will have their backs up and over our pulling out of the nuclear deal.  They might well meet American sanctions with sanctions of their own directed in retaliatory fashion against American companies and banks.  Under international law, they have the right to do so.  Such a major rupture between the U.S. and the other signatories to the nuclear agreement would leave Iran smiling like the Cheshire cat.

If Iran were to do the opposite and meet American withdrawal by denouncing the agreement and resuming its nuclear program, we would be on course to war with Iran.  A war in the Persian Gulf could have disastrous effects on the world economy.  We could again have gas lines as we did in 1973 and 1979.  And we could lose such a war.

The Pentagon may calculate that an American war with Iran would be mostly or entirely a naval and air war.  Iran’s navy and air force are weak, and I suspect would, respond asymmetrically by handing us a ground war we do not want and are in no position to fight. 

The United States now has somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 troops in Iraq and Syria.  They are surrounded by Shiite militias controlled by Iran.  If we think Iraqi state armed forces will protect us, not only are they also Shiite but they are in many places weaker than the Shiite militias.  Iran could quickly capture many if not most of those American troops, all of whom would be used as hostages. 

Similarly, Iran could attempt to capture American troops in Afghanistan.  Iran and the Taliban have been mending, to some degree, their historically bad relations.  The U.S. is in no position to face Iran with the threat of a major ground invasion.  So the bulk of the Iranian army could be sent into Afghanistan to join with the Taliban in defeating the current Afghan government and capturing as many Americans as possible. 

If an American attack on Iran ended with Iranian nuclear facilities bombed, their navy and air force destroyed, and Iran blockaded but with Iran also holding thousands of American troops as hostages, what would our next move be?  Would that count as a win for us?  I don’t think so.

President Trump needs to remind himself that he ran on an anti-war platform.  He denounced our foolish adventures halfway around the world and said it was time for us to come home.  That was and remains a central part of “America First”.  An unnecessary and avoidable war in the Persian Gulf is the sort of blunder we would expect from President Hillary, not President Trump.

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