What if Iran wanted to provoke a war and nobody came?
A growing consensus among smart people* seems to be that Donald Trump should not let himself be drawn into another open-ended (and arguably unwinnable) Middle Eastern war – not just because as a matter of principle such wars are not helpful (as most now argue), but because specifically there are virtually no upsides in the circumstances where the United States is already “winning” by continuing to do nothing, or to be more precise, nothing overly aggressive.
Nearly twenty per cent of world crude oil shipments (from the Arab Gulf producers) go out to the rest of the world through the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran is threatening to close (hence its recent attacks on oil tankers).
However, through a combination of fracking, increased mainline well production and greater efficiencies, the United States is now finally energy self-sufficient. For all that America cares, Iran could cut off all the traffic through the Strait and it would have a minimal impact on the domestic economy, some minor logistical adjustments aside.
Nearly two thirds of the oil that travels through the Strait ships to Asia instead, and specifically to China, India, Japan and Korea, which are significantly more dependent on that oil to power their energy-hungry, export-oriented economies than other regions of the world.
China, notably, has been Iran’s tacit international ally. If Iran wants to interfere with the free navigation in its backyard and in so doing antagonise one of its few remaining backers, it should be left alone to do so.
These circumstances – the US doesn’t need the Gulf oil, China does – should convince the United States to stand back and not involve itself yet another time as the world sheriff to enforce the rules of international law and maintain the open international trading system. The rest of the world all too often free-rides on America’s good graces (not to mention its blood and treasure), while at the same time reserving the right to castigate the superpower for its interventionism. Why not let the world experience what it’s like without having the US solve all their problems (while getting all their blame)? Maybe the European Union or the United Nations can do something [canned laughter]. Or maybe the most affected Asian nations can try to solve their own oil supply problems. Good luck, lads.
By all indications, the economic sanctions against Iran are working, strangling an already weak economy. The more the noose around the mullahs’ necks tightens the more they tend to lash out, in the process only antagonising neutrals or allies with their chaotic and dangerous behaviour.
Iran needs the conflict with the United States more than the United States needs the conflict with Iran. It would require a massive American intervention to topple the theocratic government in Tehran, which would be extremely risky, extremely bloody and extremely bloody expensive, in the process uniting the Iranians behind their government most of them despise and once again pitting the lone US against the outraged world. Meanwhile, the mullahs only need to cling to power – any destruction to their country be damned – in order to “win”. Let them stew instead.
The worst case scenario is that if the US proves resists retaliating for shot-down drones, a cornered Iran tries to drag the reluctant US into war instead by attacking America’s regional allies – such as they are (perhaps “allies” is more appropriate). In which case, if I were Trump, I would continue to stand back and let them all kill each other. As Henry Kissinger said about the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, “pity both sides can’t lose”. In any new conflict maybe they can – it should, in fact, be the American policy to prevent anyone from winning.
Lose-lose is win-win. Let’s hope that Trump understand in this case the art of the deal is no deal.
*I’ve drawn here on two excellent analyses of the situation; one by my friend Richard Fernandez at PJ Media, another by Bobby Ghosh at Bloomberg.