The dangerous disconnect between Tehran and DC

Formally, Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif go through the motions of representing Iran in international frameworks, but their role in strategic decisions, if any, is limited.

By
July 11, 2019 18:48
4 minute read.
Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Ira

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran. (photo credit: MORTEZA NIKOUBAZI/ REUTERS)

The signs of an impending clash between Iran and the United States are reminders that the default state of the world is closer to war than to peace, and the current crisis is reminiscent of many others throughout history.

Naturally, we tend to look to the more recent conflicts and near-misses, for analogies and lessons, such as the First and Second World Wars (the 1938 Munich summit and Chamberlain’s failed attempt to appease Hitler stand out) or the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

But attempts to understand and navigate the current clash are complicated by the mysterious decision-making structures in both Tehran and Washington. Iran is led by an elderly Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei, assisted by other clerics in the Guardian Council. This is a tightly closed framework, making it very difficult for outsiders to assess their level of knowledge of the outside world, including the United States, their readiness to take risks to achieve their goals, or the degree to which they consult with military and security experts.

Formally, Iranian President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif go through the motions of representing Iran in international frameworks, but their role in strategic decisions, if any, is limited. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) constitutes another powerful player, and in Syria, where they keep the Assad regime in power (assisted by the Russian Air Force), the IRGC leaders seem to have a great deal of power over strategic decisions.

Moving the focus to Washington, decision-making under Trump is confusing for different reasons. Trump had no experience in issues of war and peace before he was elected, and seems to make decisions based on gut feelings, as illustrated in the rapid reversal of the counterstrike order after Iranian forces shot down a sophisticated and expensive ($220 million) unmanned intelligence gathering platform. Officials responsible for providing strategic assessments come and go through revolving doors (the US is currently without a Defense Secretary or even a nominee). Others, such as National Security Advisor Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo, appear to have little influence over the president.

This situation creates the potential of major and lethal miscalculation in a crisis. In contrast, throughout the Cold War, the American and Soviet leaders interacted directly, and during the missile crisis, there was no question over who was in charge. US president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had a sense of each other’s red lines, and were able to avoid crossing them without backing down. None of these dimensions are present in Iran or the Trump administration.

THE KEY to avoiding war is deterrence, particularly in the nuclear and missile age when the armies on the battlefield no longer fight until victory or defeat. Deterrence is successful when leaders and their advisers, (when these exist), are able to accurately assess the costs and benefits of risking a war. Each side calculates red lines based on vital national interests for which, if necessary, they are prepared to fight – as Kennedy did during the missile crisis. By transmitting the details credibly and showing determination, it is possible to avert conflict. Israel relies heavily, if not always successfully, on deterrence versus Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in the North, and in confronting Hamas in Gaza. 

American responses to the attacks from Iran or its proxies on oil tankers were minimal, perhaps leading Iranian leaders to go further by shooting down an unmanned intelligence gathering aircraft. Alternatively, it might have been the result of a decentralized decision (perhaps by the IRGC or even a local commander), as Trump posited in calling off the counter strike. In the 1962 missile crisis, a mid-level Soviet anti-aircraft officer in Cuba gave the order to shoot down an American U-2 spy plane, almost triggering an American air strike that would have probably led to a major war. In a crisis, decentralized or chaotic lines of command are particularly dangerous.

The Iranian regime’s revolutionary objectives, which are shared by all of its top leaders, add to instability. Revolutionaries and revisionists with grudges are more prone to risk-taking than status-quo leaders, such as the Americans, even under Trump, or Israel. Iran has had a number of successes since the US removed Saddam Hussein, and has a strong case of triumphalism which adds to the dangers of miscalculation and deterrence failure.

These factors, taken together, do not bode well for finding a way back to deterrence stability and away from miscalculation and war. However, if the lessons of history are understood, and the leaders of Iran and the US recognize the need for moving to rational decision-making processes, as well as ensuring centralized control of all weapons, this crisis might yet end peacefully. But at this point, this is a thin hope.

The writer is a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University and president of the Institute for NGO Research in Jerusalem.


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