by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
It took just under an hour for staff at Israel’s Government Press Office to delete a tweet that suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had finally decided to wage war on Iran. The office replaced that tweet with another one that clarified that Israel merely seeks to join with Arab nations to “combat Iran.” The most striking thing about the whole fiasco was not that the prime minister was agitating for war. It was that the English word in the original translations seemed so precise and unambiguous: war.
There was a kind of refreshing clarity to the translation that has been elusive in Iran policy, particularly as articulated by the Trump administration. Donald Trump has placed sanctions on Iran ostensibly as an alternative to military confrontation, but he still refers to the sanctions program as part of an “economic war.” The administration creates exemptions for humanitarian trade but ensures that they are not operable. Officials declare their unwavering support for the Iranian people, but bar them from entering the United States under the “Muslim Ban.” The U.S. government devises covert programs to sabotage Iran’s defensive capabilities but then leaks their existence to the press.
Fittingly, Netanyahu’s mistranslation fiasco came during a summit that Trump administration officials insisted was “not a trash-Iran conference.” Yet the prime minister himself assured reporters that the meeting was focused on Iran.
At first glance these might just seem like the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s chaotic, incoherent, and hypocritical policymaking. But perhaps these contradictions are the basis of a new kind of warfare. The conflict Iran faces today is neither a hot war nor a cold war. It is a quantum war—a superimposition of two states of conflict. Put another way, depending on when you observe the facts, Iran is both at war and it is not.
Iran has been stuck in a kind of liminal space of international relations for four decades. But the international community and Iran’s domestic political constituencies now face an unprecedent number of internal divisions over the question of Iran’s place in the world.
Whereas Iran once counted on the support of Russia and China and the relative ambivalence of the Arab states to head off a multilateral challenge from the United States and Europe, today, the United States joins the Arab states and Israel to form a nascent coalition against Iran. These anti-Iranian actors seem principally united by a shared perception of Iran’s threat expressed in increasingly ideological terms. Lacking political legitimacy, such a coalition can neither marshal the kind of containment required for a cold war nor credibly engage in a hot war. What is left is quantum war.
In some respects, this is the worst circumstance for Iran. Whereas hot and cold wars tend to unite people in the country under attack, a quantum war is politically more insidious. Some Iranians believe the nuclear deal is still viable and channels of dialogue with Europe still open, so they remain committed to diplomacy. Others focus on airstrikes from Israel and terrorist attacks abetted by Arab governments, and therefore see no alternative to conflict. According to the 2019 worldwide threat assessment from the director of national intelligence, as a result of such dynamics, “regime hardliners will be more emboldened to challenge rival centrists by undermining their domestic reform efforts and pushing a more confrontational posture toward the United States and its allies.” The Iranian public is equally divided. Today half of Iranians support the nuclear deal, while half do not.
In response to such domestic pressures, Iran has once again returned to hedging on matters related to its foreign relations. In the same week that President Hassan Rouhani announced his willingness to negotiate with the United States should it “repent,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that when it comes to the United States, “no problem can be solved.”
The quantum war also poses dilemmas for Europe, which finds itself struggling to craft a coherent policy. A recent statement from the foreign affairs council of the European Union inelegantly sought to warn Iran on its role in Syria, its ballistic missile activities, and its role in assassination plots on European soil while also boasting of the extraordinary efforts being made to sustain bilateral trade in the face of U.S. secondary sanctions. The contradictions do not merely exist on paper. Divisions are increasing not just among EU member states but also within foreign ministries about the right pathway on Iran. Depending on whom you ask, Iran is either a possible regional partner or an incorrigible regional proliferator. Of course, disagreement, debate, and compromise are part of effective policymaking. But at the same time, the European response to the quantum war increasingly resembles quantum diplomacy.
When Erwin Schrödinger devised his famous “Schrödinger Cat” thought experiment to describe the phenomenon of superimposed states, he used a term apt for discussions of foreign policy: verschränkung, or “entanglement.” In the context of quantum mechanics, entanglement occurs “when two particles are inextricably linked together no matter their separation from one another.” Moreover, “although these entangled particles are not physically connected, they still are able to share information with each other instantaneously.”
Few concepts could better describe the quantum war between the United States and Iran, separated by space, but linked in time, signaling their intentions with the immediacy of tweets.