by Kevin L. Schwartz
The prospect of war between the United States and Iran is more likely than it has been in decades, with the pretext for justifying a U.S. military strike or invasion already in place. In recent weeks, leading Iran hawks in the Trump administration have presented a framework to assign culpability to Iran in any future attack. Intentionally broad statements threaten military action in response not only to Iranian actions, but the attacks of “their proxies of any identity.” They also assert that the United States will respond to actions against a wide array of interests including U.S. military vessels, commercial vehicles, and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
Such an expansive framework has already been used to explain recent events and beat the drums of war. Following a cursory assessment, American officials cast blame on Iran or Iran-backed proxies in an explosives attack on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, while noting that there was no definitive evidence to back such a claim. (Upon the collection of further evidence, the determination was upgraded to “highly likely.”)
By presenting the possibility that Iran could be blamed for hostile actions, even when carried out by other groups, the United States has afforded itself a high-degree of latitude in justifying a potential retaliatory attack. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been briefed on recent intelligence on Iran, noted: “We are not going to start a war. But if we are attacked by Iran’s proxies, we are going to respond against those proxies and hold Iran responsible. And they’re going to pay a price for that as well. Who could disagree with the notion that if we are attacked, we have a right to defend ourselves and respond.”
This attitude represents a key difference between the build-up to a potential war with Iran and the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War. There are certainly striking similarities between the two—the lack of transparency, presentation of selective or disputable intelligence, and desire for regime-change—but the pretext for an attack on Iran is significantly broader, making it all the more cavalier.
In the case of the Iraq War, the justification followed a narrow and direct path to link Saddam Hussein to weapons of mass destruction because the United States decided it needed to secure a UN mandate and coalition partners. In this case, the path is quite wide: a military strike or war can be initiated in response to the actions of any number of Iran-backed militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and possibly any action undertaken by a Shiite individual or group deemed hostile to the interests of the United States and its allies in the Gulf. The only requirement is to consider a group as an “Iranian proxy,” an idea already ingrained in public discourse as a way to describe Iran’s strategy of malfeasance in the region, with little differentiation among the levels of support and direction provided. The label already written is ready to be affixed and paraded as a justification for war.
Although the current U.S. approach to confront Iran more forcefully may prove to be more bluster than bite, it’s worth assessing its claims. What is the evidentiary threshold for determining Iranian culpability in actions carried out by groups it supports? Where does the line of culpability for proxy militias end and sponsorship begin? Would financial support and the supply of Iranian arms—a long-standing feature of Iran’s relationship with groups it supports—be enough to blame Iran for an attack on U.S. interests or would more convincing evidence, like the ordering of an attack, be necessary? As the United States has learned through its support of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and its reliance on proxies in Syria and elsewhere, the use of such weapons does not always adhere to even the most perfunctory of conditions under which they were granted, nor do proxies invariably follow the orders of their sponsors.
Justifying a war with Iran based on the actions of its proxies, especially without clear evidence of Iranian direction, is dangerously misguided. It is founded on the flawed logic that Iran operates as an omnipresent puppet master to create havoc across the Middle East, seemingly impervious to the challenges of operating proxies faced by others, including Western countries. It also suggests that such groups do not have motivations and aspirations of their own in confronting U.S. interests and those of its allies. Should it be to anyone’s surprise, for example, that Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities in response to what an official spokesman deemed the Saudi-led coalition’s “aggression” and “genocide” against the Yemeni people?
Understanding the Houthis, or Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq for that matter, as merely pawns operating at Iran’s direction is based on a simplistic misreading of current dynamics and politics in the Middle East. Conflating their interests with Iranian regional ambitions and discarding their actions as the mere handiwork of Iran nullify any necessity to faithfully confront the political and social realities shaping their attitudes and driving their behaviors. U.S. allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, also often use this tactic to avoid addressing the underlying causes of social strife. Relying on the Iran threat and its network of proxies to explain away all Middle Eastern ills obviates the need for more complex thinking and solutions. Such a pretext for another avoidable conflict in the Middle East suggests such a limited understanding of regional dynamics that the result is likely to be unsuccessful, costly, and counterproductive.
Kevin L. Schwartz is a research fellow at the Oriental Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague where he focuses on Iran. He was previously a research fellow at the Library of Congress and Distinguished Visiting Professor (Middle East Chair) at the US Naval Academy. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.