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The Iran War that Wasn't

Before we rehit the potential costs of a war with Iran (coming next week), it is important to remember that a year ago, in January 2016, America could have gone to war with Iran but did not. And understanding why we didn’t go to war explains the threat Donald Trump poses to our security.

It would have gone down something like this: an American Navy vessel is in Iranian waters. The U.S. says it is lost or off-course. Iran seizes the vessel. Americans demand the sailors back with threats. Iran refuses. The President launches a rescue mission that encounters “resistance”, i.e. Iranian soldiers. Shooting starts. Suddenly, the U.S. or Israel or Iran is launching missiles or dropping bombs.

War has broken out.

This didn’t happen. Instead, American Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif worked out a peaceful solution. Iran released the sailors.

I have a simple theory for why this happened: former President Obama didn’t blame Iranians or the leader of Iran for seizing the U.S. warship. Because he didn’t do that--because his default position wasn’t blame--we averted this crisis. I want to drill down into that word “blame” because I think it explains how crises like this one are either averted or erupt into war.

You could start by blaming the largest group possible, as Neil Cavuto did at the Republican debate shortly after the incident. Cavuto opened a question to Jeb Bush saying:

“Governor Bush...the Iranians have provoked us, detaining us, as we've been discussing, with these 10 Navy sailors Tehran had said strayed into their waters..”

Notice Neil Cavuto used the term “The Iranians”. That’s a pretty big group. You have to wonder how the entire country of 77 million people agreed to kidnap the sailors?

Of course, they didn’t all agree with it. And it says a lot about your foreign policy positions, whether you hold the people of the country morally responsible for the actions of an Iranian officer in a patrol boat off your coast or whether you hold that officer alone responsible. Terrorists routinely blame “Americans” for drone attacks. Have you personally launched a drone attack? Probably not, so it seems unfair to get blamed for it. (Especially if you don’t think our country should be using them in the first place.)

The next level down on the blame scale is the leaders of Iran. Some Republicans don’t blame all Iranians, merely the Mullahs. Like Chris Christie:

“We need to rebuild our military, and this president has let it diminish to a point where tinpot dictators like the mullahs in Iran are taking our Navy ships.”

In this case, there are two explanations for the Mullahs being responsible for kidnapping the sailors. In the first, they ordered a patrol boat to kidnap the sailors. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, considering they decided to release the sailors 15 hours later.

So the only other explanation for why Christie blamed the Mullahs is that he blames them for everything their Navy does under their watch. Complete responsibility. This would mean if Chris Christie ever had any underlings who, say, shut a bridge down for political revenge, he is as equally responsible as the underlings. Obviously, he doesn’t believe that.

We could extend this “blaming the leaders” analogy to Obama. Was he the one responsible for the U.S. sailors being in Iranian waters? Of course not. He didn’t order them there and can’t be held responsible for them getting lost. Those two American analogies (Christie and Obama) show why we can’t blame the Mullahs. Or Prime Minister Rouhani.

Instead, it is much better to look down to the individual unit commanders involved.

The Iranian boat commander and his superiors could have been doing one of two things. Either they were honestly trying to do their job and protect their territorial integrity--something the American military absolutely would do--or they were trying to provoke a regional war. Now the latter explanation is totally feasible. A rogue commander is upset at the Iran nuclear deal and--perhaps goaded/ordered by other hard-liners in the Quds force--tries to force a war by kidnapping U.S. sailors.

But then Iran returned the sailors. So even if rogue forces were trying to upset the nuclear deal, other more powerful forces overrode them. Either it was an accident that the U.S. boat was in the wrong place and the Iranians were simply doing their duty, or the moderates in power in Iran were able to avert a power play by the hard-liners. That’s great news.

Of course, there were two actors in the sea that day, the Iranians and the U.S. sailors. The U.S. sailors had two possible explanations for their actions as well. Either they were in Iranian waters by accident (negligence), at which point the situation was resolved appropriately. Or they were in Iranian waters deliberately, at which point the U.S. still wants to save face and get them back. (As isn’t unusual, the U.S. narrative of what happened changed after the initial news cycle.) We should hope Iran assumes the best (accident) as opposed to worst (deliberate).

To sum up: the situation with the Iranian sailors was really an interaction by the lowest levels of the military of both Iran and the United States. And instead of assuming the worst, each side assumed the other side was acting in good faith, and the situation was resolved without violence. The best possible outcome.

Do we think with Donald Trump (and Steve Bannon) the same thing will occur? Will they assign blame to the lowest possible levels? Or will they blame the Mullahs and the IRGC for future interactions like this? Instead of de-escalating, could they use it as pretense to start a war?

So much has changed in a year.