Step back from the day to day media coverage and tactical details of the Iran-U.S. confrontation. Ignore the tanker attackers and whether or not they were a false flag (they almost surely weren’t), blow past the Rouhani statements and the Trump tweets, fret less about E3 press releases and Russian hot air about defending Iran. Go high and in the clouds you may yet see clarity, and you may especially see what ‘victory’ looks like for both sides.
What are both sides after? On a macro-strategic level, it’s relatively simple. The United States wants a Middle Eastern NATO, and Iran, since 1979, has blocked that goal. And Iran, since 1979, wants regional sovereignty to establish its revolution at home and, if possible, abroad. This is the core geopolitical clash between the two states – and its something the Iran nuclear deal could not address.
What America wants: Europe, part two
Since Great Britain left the Middle East in 1971, the United States has had a misty, if uneven, regional vision for the Arab and Muslim world that, in not too many ways, looks an awful lot like Europe. Underneath the American aegis, the states of the region would guarantee energy and trade, act reliably in the global interest, and resolve disputes through predictable, American-designed institutions. Even in the age of Trump, this dream has not passed: witness the still-born Middle Eastern Strategic Alliance, an alliance doomed to fail but nevertheless produced of the compulsion to find a NATO in the disparate states of the Middle East.
A big problem in America’s re-ordering strategy has been, since 1979, Iran. Iran’s state is held together by a fiercely independent, largely anti-American political ideology – something that’s often called wilayet-e faqih, or Muslim state guardianship. It’s a mishmash of European nationalism (anchored on Iran’s Persianness), anti-colonialism (anchored on it’s anti-Americanism), and Islamism (anchored on it’s Shi’a-ness). It is unique to Iran (though Hezbollah in Lebanon does try), and because two of its three anchors are based on being independent and being anti-American, it’s very hard for Iran’s current batch of leaders not to be in conflict with the U.S.’s strategy in some way or another.
And what Iran wants? The freedom to be Iran — and an Islamic Republic
Iran wants to reorder the region on its terms, not anyone else’s. A long history of European and American interference breeds their paranoia, but a state addiction to an ideology that requires conflict with old adversaries also binds it to a permanent state of problematic relations with the U.S. So even when U.S.-Iranian relations were at a high point – in 2015, when they signed the Iran nuclear deal – there were nevertheless huge gaps between them, which were inevitably going to cause problems whether or not the U.S. stuck to the deal.
So in a manner, some kind of U.S.-Iran escalation we’re now seeing was inevitable: the U.S. wants a Middle Eastern NATO, and Iran can never accept such a thing. But obviously, people make choices. President Trump made the choice to take the one big issue the two sides had defused – Iran’s nuclear program – and set it alight again by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal. In his worldview, the crushing power of sanctions and the threats of military force should be enough to force Iran to step almost entirely away from its ideological and strategic goals in the region, and in this sense he is doing the most Trumpian thing possible: trying to do something complicated and difficult on the cheap.
That is reflective of much of his governing and political style: the man who spent very little money for his primary campaign in 2016 is the same who cut corners to build his Trump Tower. Up until this point, most of these cost-saving measures have affected everyone but him. But trying to reorder Iran is obviously different. Unlike the Democrats who still have to wait until 2020 to get even for 2016, and unlike the Polish workers who could barely afford the lawyers they needed to win their class-action lawsuit against him years after the fact, Iran can and is striking back now.
So short of an American NATO and an Iran free to be, what does victory look like right now?
In the course of immediate events, both sides have a vision for victory that’s rather simple: Trump wants nuclear talks and a new nuclear deal achieved after he’s shown strength to his political base in the U.S.. He wants to talk tough but still wants to avoid war, for war is politically risky, especially in war-weary America. He would even probably take a nuclear deal that looked an awful lot like Obama’s, so long as he gets final credit from his base for it.
But the Iranians seem to be past letting Trump off the hook so readily. They are, in a manner, trying to build up a North Korea-style reputation of deterrence, by threatening energy supplies through the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz, by spooking the Gulf states (by saying they’ll blow up Dubai, for example), by giving pause to the Israelis, in hopes that such alarm amongst regional allies will act like the pressure South Korea and, to a different extent, Japan had on Trump’s saber rattling towards North Korea at the beginning of his term. They are going beyond just the region too: by advancing their nuclear program, they’re signaling to the world that they are prepared to chase a bomb if Europe, Russia, and/or China can’t break the American sanctions blockade. They’re doing this because they know that even if they chase a bomb, nobody but the Americans and the Israelis will consider military action, and they are hoping that if they do end up with a bomb, the world will blame America for dumping the deal in the first place.
Meanwhile, they are trying to lay the ground for the situation that if America or Israel do attack, the military assault is diplomatically dumb and militarily draining. They want America and Israel isolated from their allies so that the strikes could end up being limited. They want to tell their own, restive population that the U.S. and Israelis are attacking without world support, and that the Islamic Republic can not only withstand the assault but has powerful allies to do so. To be clear, the Iranians don’t want a military assault on their country, but it’s not exactly their choice. So with that limited choice, they are preparing what they can to withstand it.
Foolish notions of victory
But both nations ideals’ of victory – for Trump to triumph without cost, for Iran to triumph despite the cost – are soaked in miscalculation. Trump cannot get Iran to simply give up its independence to an ideological foe, let alone to a president whose fickleness makes him a problematic negotiating partner. Iran cannot be sure the United States will not unleash its full military might on Iran, as it did Saddam, for the crime of long-standing geopolitical defiance. Nor can Iran be sure that its own people will not launch a rising against the Islamic Republic, either under sanctions or under military assault. Restive Iranians who despise the tenets of the regime are now a stereotype.
What’s worse, Iran cannot be sure that the next president, assuming there is one in 2020, will be able to come back to the old deal. Iranian actions right now are making the 2015 deal less and less likely to survive until then. And even if it somehow does, the next president will have trouble slotting right back into Obama’s place, now that tensions between Iran and the U.S. are likely to produce yet more friction, more problems, between then and now that a new president cannot just untangle. As Obama learned when he dreamily pulled out of Iraq in 2011 only to go back in 2014, the Middle East has a tendency to ensnare even the most determined of presidents. Until the ideological and strategic tensions between the two are resolved – either by America giving up on its goals of Middle Eastern NATO, or by Iran changing its ideology – this long-standing geopolitical conflict will return again and again.