Iran, America, and the Thucydides Trap

Published January 5th, 2020 - 09:20 GMT
Wikimedia Commons/Grant Mitchell
Wikimedia Commons/Grant Mitchell

 

“The truest cause (alêthestatê prophasis) I consider to be the one that was least evident in public discussion (logos). I believe that the Athenians, because they had grown in power and terrified the Spartans, made war inevitable (anankasai).” Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.23

The past week has been a week of incredibly dramatic and historic escalations between Iran and the U.S. in the Middle East—specifically in Iraq—that have put both countries dramatically closer to war than at any time in years, possibly decades.


Climate of Escalation in an Increasingly Unstable Arena


Site of the drone strike that killed Soleimani, a talismanic figure inside Iran. /AFP 

After some relatively banal but escalating tit-for-tat, first came what were dramatic attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, involving pro-Iranian militias and almost certainly orchestrated by Iran.  

Just as dramatic an escalation, perhaps even more so, was American President Donald Trump’s ordering of a strike to kill one of Iran’s top generals and almost certainly a man involved in orchestrating the attacks against U.S. Embassy: Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force and the mastermind behind Iran’s military adventures abroad, especially in Iraq and Syria.  Over many years, he at times targeted American military personnel (killing hundreds and injuring thousands), other times he targeted ISIS.


A Horrible Game of Chicken


Donald Trump at a presidential campaign rally organized by the U.S. 'Tea Party' Sept. 9, 2015 /AFP

It seems that Iran was clearly hoping to drum up anti-American sentiment to counter the anti-Iranian sentiment that had been boiling over.  Whatever Iranian leaders thought America might do in response, they probably believed that a senior government official like Soleimani was off limits.

Soleimani has been pretty much the only Iranian military official you would see with any regularity in news reports: in other words, Iran has no replacement of his stature, ability, and experience, and his death is a devastating blow to Iran’s senior leadership and its political, intelligence, and military objectives as Soleimani was perhaps the most effective operator in the Middle East.

Iran has no replacement of his stature, ability, and experience, and his death is a devastating blow to Iran’s senior leadership and its political, intelligence, and military objectives

At the same time, the Iranian leadership has shown its willingness to gamble irresponsibly.  After scrapping the nuclear deal, Trump and his Administration only offered threats to Iran, and Iran responded with its own increasing hostility, increasing its aggressiveness in Yemen and against U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Thus, both American and Iranian leadership have shown predilections that shun de-escalation and opt for escalation and surprise.  But in the geopolitical situation just described, surprise is the last thing those hoping for peace and stability should want, and such sudden, dramatic escalations ring of the series of unfortunate events that escalated into World War I.  A year ago, I wrote for West Point’s Modern War Institute of the urgent lessons of WWI precisely with scenarios like our current one in mind, and I fear that the lessons I noted as urgent are going unheeded by leadership on both sides of this unfolding struggle.

But in the geopolitical situation just described, surprise is the last thing those hoping for peace and stability should want, and such sudden, dramatic escalations ring of the series of unfortunate events that escalated into World War I


Clear Acts, Unclear Consequences


Protestors outside the US embassy in Baghdad, 31st December 2019 /AFP


The collateral damage will be severe and not geographically contained.

Like never before, Iraq is about to become (even more so) a battlefield between the U.S. and Iran.  There are places in Iraq where U.S. troops are vulnerable, and this is also true in the few places where U.S. troops remain in Syria.

Let us also not forget that Russia and Iran are allies, even if uneasy ones: Soleimani had briefed Russia’s leadership in Moscow before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to militarily intervene in Syria.  Those Russian military forces are deployed throughout Syria, sometimes between spots where Iranian and Iranian-supported forces may try to take on U.S. forces and their remaining allies.  Russia—which is itself engaged in clearly hostile actions against the United States—could accidentally and/or deliberately be drawn into this fight explicitly and/or covertly, adding yet another perilous dimension to all this.

Russia—which is itself engaged in clearly hostile actions against the United States—could accidentally and/or deliberately be drawn into this fight explicitly and/or covertly, adding yet another perilous dimension to all this.

If this is good news for anyone, it’s ISIS.  The main fighters against ISIS were the U.S., the Kurds, and Iran.  The U.S. and Iran will now focus their attention on each other, and Trump’s sad withdrawal from northern Syria means the Kurds are reeling and trying to defend themselves from the Turks now more than ISIS.  The terrorist group will most certainly exploit this situation to further its comeback, a dimension that only makes this mess even messier.

Consider, too, that U.S., Israeli, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Iranian leaders are all facing domestic political crises. Conversely, the hapless leaders of Lebanon and Iraq are at this moment terrified of their countries being torn asunder as proxy battlegrounds and will very much be at the mercy of the decisions of Washington and Tehran.  

the hapless leaders of Lebanon and Iraq are at this moment terrified of their countries being torn asunder as proxy battlegrounds and will very much be at the mercy of the decisions of Washington and Tehran. 

After such a move as the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, it would be politically impossible for Iran not to respond massively.  And it will be politically impossible for the U.S. to not respond to that. I have written of the general pressures of the anarchic interstate system before, and we have here a moment where pressure classically reduces the options of the belligerents.  We really may be in a Thucydides trap, where war is almost inevitable and takes on a mind and momentum of its own, a reference to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s opinion that the fear of one power (Sparta) concerning the rise in power of another (Athens) made war inevitable (1.23). 

We really may be in a Thucydides trap, where war is almost inevitable and takes on a mind and momentum of its own, a reference to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s opinion that the fear of one power (Sparta) concerning the rise in power of another (Athens) made war inevitable


A Gaping Pit

Funeral procession for Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, Baghdad, 4th Jan, 2020 /AFP

One would hope leaders on both sides are considering all these things, and have plans for how to deal with these multiple varied flashpoints.  History has shown that such hope is often misplaced, that the cooler heads of the Cuban Missile Crisis are more the exception than the norm. 

The above axes I have mentioned are by no means all the fronts on which a regional conflict could quickly become a more widespread war and even a global one, one which may even involve Russia, Israel, Turkey, multiple terrorist groups, and crucial oil shipping routes, with leaders mixing domestic politics and foreign policy in ways not for the better of either. 

From the 2020 election to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the security of Jordan and a further inflaming of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, there are a number of fronts beyond the direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran that could descend into chaos.

From the 2020 election to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the security of Jordan and a further inflaming of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, there are a number of fronts beyond the direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran that could descend into chaos.

Actions in the next days, weeks, and months could set the board for the next century, much in the way World War I did and, in many ways, set the map for many of the preexisting conflicts into which this American-Iranian conflict will play and which will play into it.  Every step, every act, every missile right now carries a weight that, if not properly respected (and it seems clear it will not be) risks throwing not just the Middle East, but the world into chaos, bloodshed, displacement, and recession that will make most recent conflicts seem quaint by comparison.

For all the talk of how the U.S. might fall into a Thucydides trap with  China, here it is in one now, with Iran.  Nothing was inevitable about coming to this point, but now that we are here, some disturbing events are now inevitable.  

Iran will now inevitably be front-and-center in the 2020 election

Iran will now inevitably be front-and-center in the 2020 election, forcing voters to at least partly realize they are not just voting on Trump, but on the kind of U.S. foreign policy they want, the kind of world they want to help create. 

How any of this turns out remains to be seen, but simply hoping for cooler heads to prevail, as was the case with the brink of nuclear war in 1962, seems today naïve at best and irresponsible at worst, with our current cast of characters misstepping from Mar-a-Lago to Persia and altogether too many other locations in a conflict that will refuse to be contained.


Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area. You can follow and contact him on Twitter. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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