How to Avoid a War with Iran

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by Jon B. Wolfsthal

It would be a lot easier to know what is going to happen in the Middle East if President’ Trump’s goals and objectives could be determined with respect to Iran.  Not knowing what he wants, and how he intends to achieve it, makes knowing what decisions he might make at any given moment, or where his hawkish national security team might lead him, harder to predict.

Of course, the United States is right to condemn the shooting down of a surveillance drone over international waters, just as any U.S. military actions against Iran for anything other than immediate self-defense should be condemned. The prospect that other drones may have violated Iranian in the past is a related but not determinative issue. Yet, beneath all of the growing concern about a military attack by both states, neither country likely wants a military clash or would strategically benefit from such a conflict. If this is true, and a conflict through miscalculation or escalation is to be avoided, leaders in both Iran and the United States need to take deliberate steps to avoid such an outcome.

President Trump initially tweeted that “Iran made a very big mistake,” suggesting a military attack was coming in response. He later told reporters that he believes a lower-level Iranian commander probably made a mistake and signaled that he might not respond militarily. Such confusion leads to the escalation of conflicts, and quickly.

If indeed Trump wants to avoid another Middle East war, he needs to direct the U.S. military to exercise caution and avoid any military operations that could be considered a provocation near Iran’s border. Just as President Kennedy, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, ordered U.S. military units to avoid any perceived provocations against the Soviet Union, President Trump should direct the U.S. Central Command to reduce surveillance flights and pull back from any incursions of Iranian airspace— if in fact, the president wants to pull back from the brink. He cannot assume—as he said in the Oval Office on Thursday—that things will just work out.  Therefore, in addition, flight patterns of all U.S. aircraft including drones should be altered so that they do not approach Iranian borders in ways that Iran could interpret as threatening. Messages—public or private—need to be sent that the United States is not afraid of a fight but is also not looking for one.

Iran, for its part, also needs to pull back and make clear that it will not interfere in any way with legal international shipping in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz. Beyond this, both sides need to establish dedicated channels of communications between military commanders to establish clearer rules of engagement and to address steps the other is taking or has taken that could lead to a conflict. The United States has such links with Russia and other adversaries with whom our militaries might come into contact.

Yet, the United States and Iran do not have established communication channels or a means to talk quickly and reliably should an incident take place.  Should ships collide, airplanes stray off course, or some other unanticipated interaction between our forced take place, the two countries don’t have a clear playbook in place to avoid a conflict. Now would seem like a good time to set one up. President Trump claims that he wants to bring Iran to the negotiating table. This would be a way to test that prospect and see where it leads.

If both sides want a conflict, there will be ample opportunities to find some incident or offense to start one. But if both leaders want to avoid a conflict, they have to work for it and create the appropriate off-ramps. Political actors and pundits will debate who blinked and who stood strong, but avoiding a war requires some actual leadership. With so much to lose, it would seem a good time for the United States to start showing it.

That might be a bridge too far for President Trump’s national security advisor and secretary of state, who are keen on talking tough and are increasingly painting Trump into a corner. But if the president wants to avoid another Middle East war, he’d better make sure his team knows what he wants and direct his advisors to keep the lid on this powder keg.

Jon Wolfsthal is the Director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a Senior Advisor to Global Zero.  He is a former Senior Director at the National Security Council.

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17 Comments

  1. It’s all about the price of oil. Simple. Oil prices will crash of this fiasco ends. Simple.

  2. Mr. Wolfsthal starts his article by claiming the drone was struck in international waters. He well knows if that was the case we would be at war by now. The military had the courage to stand up and say that the drone was in Iranian space, just as the Vincent was in Iranian waters when it shot down the passenger jet in 1988.
    Other than having his facts wrong, the article is somewhat confused. Lets see we sent drones inches from the Iranian airspace to dare them? Why would we do that is we do not want war?

  3. The war has been already started for a while, lacking a military aspect doesn’t change the fact. The US has started a full bullying campaign for a year and it’s planes and personnel (and interests) ‘stray away’ 11000 km far away! However, while the US has nothing new to teach (it is the ordinary US arrogance the world wrongly has got used to), the lazy Vietnam students have started to learn their last unforgivable lessons.
    1-The time that countries crumbled by an approaching US carrier is passed for good.
    2- You may need to start exercising restraint before responding militarily and hide your militarism on the back of your diminishing commercial might.
    3- Except for the UK, don’t count on the rest as forever allies. They may not support your arrogance when it is going to harm themselves.
    And if you are eager to learn more just continue the same course. However, the irony is that the Democrats had got these lessons by using a little more of their gray matter and didn’t insist to get the lessons in a hard way! That is why they signed to JCPOA! But if you still want to try how the ‘fire burns’ you can try with your hands if this is what your logic suggests!

    Of course, the rest of the world that have used to say “Hurray America” to every deed of the spoiled boy of the world have started to get a lesson on how to say “No” to such children!

  4. Dear Mr Wolfsthal,

    I write to you from Tehran:

    To respond to the points and questions raised in your first paragraph:

    The US, Israel and the Arab rulers have noticed an increasing political awareness and militarism among the Muslims in the Middle East – all due to the prevalent corruption, hypocrisy and the repression (backed by the US) that these Muslims have experienced, also due to their awareness of the radical aspects of the Iranian Revolution and their close contacts with Iran’s RGC that have taught them they can mobilise to challenge foreign domination (called the American, Israeli and Saudi ‘interests’). The US has to face the new reality on the ground; that men cannot be kept oppressed for too long and expect them not to react; but the US and Israel hope that by eliminating the Iranian influence (often called “destabilising activities”) they can continue to dominate the region as in the past; they fail to realise that the quest for liberation in Islamic Culture is an important part of our psyche and cannot be controlled by a show of sophisticated military hardware.

    Your second paragraph:

    The US also fails to realise the disparity between Force and Power. Force is doomed when it attempts to convert devout Muslims; in fact it is counterproductive because it provokes rather than defeat.

    You also need to consider that Iran has been under an unprecedented economic ‘siege’ and is militarily ‘surrounded’ by the US that for too long been declaring war on Iran; indeed we are at war – our people are dying because of inflation and lack of affordable medicine: this is a ‘siege’!

    The American view that you so willingly have defended here, that a US surveillance drone whose sole task is to ‘collect vital military intelligence’ on Iran in order to attack Iran’s defence system should be allowed to complete its task without being attacked, and if challenged then Iranians should be further punished, is also absurd!

    Force is doomed. If China or Russia send their military Force to surround the US and keep the US under severe economic ‘siege’, and keep threatening and sending more Force to further intimidate the US population, would you not consider that as provocative? Would you not justify an immediate military response as well as covert terrorist attacks on the Chinese/Russian Forces?!

    I think, so far Iranians have shown an amazing patience and political wisdom!

    You can rewrite the looming war scenario more realistically if you substitute Iran with the US and the US with Russia or China, then you might come up with a much more helpful analysis to help avoid war in our region.

    And do not neglect years of effective Western media outputs demonising us as a nation of terror; that is catalogues of war mongering and spiteful propaganda saturating the Western media, Arab media and Zionist media – feel the outcome for yourself if instead of ‘Iran’ and ‘Iranians’ you substitute ‘America’ and ‘Americans ’! Then you might understand what we mean by Western ‘Arrogance’ and Western analysts’ Hypocrisy.

    Thank you. With best wishes from Tehran.

  5. JOSÉ RAYMOND HERRERA

    800 anos pasados, la eglisia catolica, decidio que la guerra contra el islam era inutil.

    Ahora, los protestantes, creen lo contrario; para Israel, para Jesu, para los mentes debilitadas.

    Eso es todo!

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