Is Trump Ready for War with Iran?

On Wednesday, Hezbollah issued a deterrent threat to the United States, stating that the Lebanese-based militant group will attack US forces if the US crosses certain “red lines” in Syria. Several times over the last few months, the US has launched air strikes against pro-Assad forces, including elements of Hezbollah, that the US has accused of violating the “de-confliction zones” set up by the US and Russia. Despite both the US and Iran being opposed to ISIS–and to some degree cooperating against the Islamic State in Iraq–in Syria, the two states goals are at loggerheads, with the US fighting primarily against ISIS while Iran strives to support the beleaguered regime.

The problem lies in the de-confliction zone, which Iran seems to seeking to control in order to develop a corridor through Syria to Lebanon, through which it could supply Hezbollah with weapons. The US, prodded to some degree by Israel and its Sunni allies, all of whom fear the rise of Hezbollah and the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, has been punishing violations of the de-confliction zone as a way to push back against Iran and its proxy.

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Update on Iran’s Missile Tests

Several people have, either in the comments on the original post or on Facebook, asked about the US’s response to the Iranian missile test on Sunday, January 29. On Friday, February 3, the Trump administration levied sanctions against 13 individuals and 12 companies associated with Iran’s missile program. This was followed by a war of words, with President Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn warning Iran about further tests and telling Iran that they had it easy under President Obama, while Iran called out Trump as an “inexperienced person.” The sanctions are rather limited, as they do not touch Iran’s $16 billion deal with Boeing and aren’t significantly more punishing that the sanctions regime already in place.

So, what did Iran likely learn from these events? Given that they conducted a series of missile tests on Saturday, February 4, the day after the imposition of the new sanctions, it’s likely that they learned–rightly or wrongly–that the Trump administration is lots of bluster but is ultimately nothing to fear. True, the most recent missile launches were conducted entirely within Iranian sovereign airspace, making them less problematic for the international community. But the test should still be seen as an act of defiance.

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Understanding Iran’s Missile Test

This past weekend, Iran conducted a ballistic missile test, prompting a strange response from the Trump administration. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn stated that “as of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,”a meaningless platitude that conveys no information to Iran. Flynn and others, including the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, accused Iran of violating a UN Security Council resolution–passed in support of the US-Iran nuclear deal–that calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Iran argues that since it does not have a nuclear weapons program its missiles are not designed to deliver nuclear weapons and, therefore, its missile launches are legal.

Leaving aside the legal argument, there’s a more interesting question here. Given a president who has already threatened to respond to provocations with force (true, most people dismissed this threat as meaningless campaign braggadocio, but if we’ve learned anything from the first two weeks of Trump it’s that he seems determined to do the things he has threatened to do) and a new administration that is likely looking for an opportunity to demonstrate its toughness, why would Iran take such a provocative action?

To my eyes, Iran’s missile test looks like a probing action, designed exactly to extract a response of some kind from the Trump administration. The new president’s behavior and decision making process (if such a thing even exists) are so far outside of the bounds of normal US foreign policy norms that other actors likely literally have no idea of how the US will respond to their moves. Uncertainty of that sort is a very dangerous thing in international politics; when actors do not know what will and what won’t provoke military responses, what are or are not a state’s core national interest, or what a state will or will not go to war over, miscalculations become more likely and so-called “accidental” wars become possible.

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