Tensions between the United States and Iran have escalated dangerously over the past week. Although both sides deny that war is imminent, a violent confrontation grows more likely with every passing day. The most recent statement came from the general commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who said that his country was on the verge of an all-out war with the United States and its allies. Washington denied the claim that it was preparing to deploy 120,000 troops to the region, but both President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to commit additional forces if necessary. Tensions between the two countries have been on the rise since the United States slapped on harsher economic sanctions against Iran earlier this month.
Washington allowed sanction waivers on oil trade with Iran, which eight countries enjoyed, to expire. Tehran had threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if the U.S. blocked the sale of Iranian oil. All eyes turned to Iran, therefore, when "sabotage attacks" took place off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and targeted an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. Having failed to secure European backing, Tehran moved to partly withdraw from the nuclear deal. Washington responded by pulling staff from its embassy in Iraq.
Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was the first step to the current escalation between Washington and Tehran. Trump had targeted the Obama administration's agreement with Iran on the campaign trail. Upon taking office, he traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and formed an anti-Iran bloc around the infamous glowing orb. Trump thus managed to forge a partnership between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In May 2018, Washington withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, imposed harsher sanctions on Tehran and asked the Iranians to meet 12 demands that Iran found completely unacceptable. Finally, the United States designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. In the words of that organization's leader, this is the "highest point of an all-out confrontation."
So where do things go from here? War, or an admission of defeat by Tehran as a prelude to negotiations?
What Donald Trump really wants is to renegotiate terms with Iran. Yet his inner circle seeks to contain Tehran in no uncertain terms. Moreover, countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE want the United States to teach Iran a lesson on their behalf. In other words, Trump's allies at home and abroad are in a position to start a war with Iran.
Israel wants to eliminate all powerful adversaries in the region to ensure the continuation of its expansionist foreign policy. Having watched Iraq and Syria turn into failed states, Tel Aviv now wants Iran to end up in turbulence. Still, the great risks involved in a war with Iran lead Israel to prioritize the elimination of Hamas and Hezbollah by the Americans.
The anti-Iran bloc's preference is to destroy the Iranian economy through sanctions, eliminate Tehran's proxies in the region, and facilitate regime change.
Yet the Iranian elites, who have been building a line of resistance for four decades, could anticipate where things are going and are acting – as the most recent sabotage attacks suggest. Iranian resistance could make the use of force by the United States and its allies more likely. In other words, the current escalation could lead to another war in the region. Yet the invasion of Iran would carry with a price tag even heftier than Iraq and Vietnam. It is impossible for Trump to shoulder that burden.
We must assume, however, that there are advocates of a tactical nuclear strike against Tehran in Washington or Tel Aviv.