Is war between the US and Iran likely?

By Hazem Eseifan


A friend asked me last week if I thought war between Iran and the US was likely. “Look,” I replied, “Saudi Arabia and Israel want America to fight Iran on their behalf, and America is looking for someone to fight Iran on its behalf”. Saudi Arabia, already bogged down in Yemen, certainly cannot take on Iran on its own. And in Washington DC there is relatively little appetite, National Security Advisor John Bolton excepted, for direct confrontation with Iran. Trump himself was elected essentially on an isolationist slate, and it was just a few months ago that he was promising to get the US out of Syria. Full-blown war with Iran would be neither easy nor short — and Trump has an election to win next year. That of course does not mean Washington will not try to destabilise the Iranian regime by means of indirect operations and proxies, but direct military operations against Tehran appear to be off the table — as shown by the last-second backdown by the White House following the shooting of the American drone over the Gulf on June 20.
But what is Iran playing at? The Islamic Republic clearly has no interest in provoking a suicidal war with the US, so why the repeated provocations? These could be seen as a warning of the havoc Iran can wreak in the region if attacked — and at the same time as a means of testing the adversary’s limits. Those tests have just given Teheran a very satisfactory answer. There is also probably a domestic policy element, insofar as the Iranian leadership is able to project strength and confidence and portray Iran’s enemies as weak and indecisive.
This analysis is only partly reassuring, though. While it looks unlikely that either side is trying to provoke a deliberate war, there is no ruling out an accidental one. An Iranian provocation that goes too far might leave the White House politically with no option but to attack. In the game of brinksmanship Tehran and Washington are playing, one clumsy misstep — and Trump is nothing if not clumsy — might yet push things over the edge.