Should We Be Anticipating War With Iran? No, but It Could Get Nasty

President Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, arrived aboard Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, on Sunday.

The escalating invective between President Trump and Iran’s leaders, reminiscent of the president’s bombastic exchanges with North Korea, have raised fears of a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf — a vital conduit for global oil supplies — or perhaps even something bigger.

In a late-night Twitter message, Mr. Trump warned President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in all-capital letters of apocalyptic consequences if his country threatened the United States, increasing tensions to a new level. “BE CAUTIOUS!,” Mr. Trump wrote. Oil prices surged briefly on worries about potential supply disruptions.

Many analysts of Iranian politics viewed Mr. Trump’s message as part of an intimidation gambit, more than an actual threat. Few said they were predicting a war between Iran and the United States, partly because Iran’s hierarchy is well aware that its forces are vastly outgunned by an American military that would have air and naval dominance. Still, nobody is ruling out an armed clash or another form of Iranian response, like a cyberattack, to send Mr. Trump a defiant message.

“I don’t think either side wants war,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy in Washington. However, Mr. Kupchan said, “the Iranians are playing with a different fish — this guy bites — and that means we’re entering a potentially escalatory phase, and that’s a real risk.”

Here are answers to some basic questions about the latest face-off between Iran and the United States:

Mr. Trump’s critics say he has surrounded himself with like-minded right-wing ideologues, most notably John R. Bolton, his national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, who would like to see regime change in Iran and were happy in May when he scrapped American participation in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Some political analysts say Mr. Trump believes his threats of escalation against Iran may force Iranian leaders to seek negotiations with him to address what he considered fatal flaws in the nuclear deal, in which Iran pledged to never acquire atomic bombs. Mr. Trump has repeatedly congratulated himself for — in his view — having successfully executed such a pressure strategy against North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, describing it as critical to Mr. Kim’s decision to halt testing nuclear bombs and missiles and engage with Mr. Trump in a summit meeting last month in Singapore.

Relations with Iran have been combustible ever since the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the American-backed shah. But the basis for the current spike in tensions lay at least in part in the 2016 election of Mr. Trump, who has embraced the position held by Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Middle East allies, that Iran is an implacable enemy bent on becoming a nuclear-armed state.

In repudiating the 2015 nuclear agreement, Mr. Trump has reimposed and intensified nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran, warning other countries to stop buying Iranian oil, the country’s most important export, or risk economic penalties from the United States. He has included Iran on a list of mostly Muslim countries subject to an American travel ban. He has placed Iran’s central bank governor on a terrorism blacklist. His administration has described Iran’s clerical hierarchy as an irredeemably corrupt kleptocracy, and has cheered Iranians who have protested Iran’s political repressions and increasingly dire economic problems.

The American threat to Iran’s oil exports has hit a particular nerve in Iran’s leadership, which has said it may close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway to the Persian Gulf that accounts for up to 40 percent of oil tanker traffic, if Iran’s oil sales are curtailed.

On Sunday, Mr. Rouhani told Iranian diplomats in Tehran that Mr. Trump risked “the mother of all wars” with Iran and admonished him not to “play with the lion’s tail,” which may have been the catalyst for the ferocity of Mr. Trump’s Twitter response hours later.

Opinions about American relations with Iran are so polarized it is difficult to speculate. But analysts who have long studied Iran expressed strong doubts that its leaders would capitulate to American pressure.

“A regime that for 40 years has said ‘Death to America’ cannot, in the context of President Trump’s aggressive policies, back down,” said Houchang Hassan-Yari, a political-science professor at Queen’s University and Royal Military College in Ontario, Canada. “They have to stand against the American position.”

Others said the Trump administration might be underestimating the tenacity of the Iranian system, which has an extensive apparatus for quelling internal political threats. There is little sign that dissidents in Iran can do more than carry out scattered protests. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the paramilitary force that is intensely loyal to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, wields enormous economic and political influence.

There is little question that the United States would prevail in a conventional war, an outcome not lost on the Iranians when the United States quickly toppled the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and routed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan.

Just judging by statistics, the conventional United States military dwarfs Iran’s in every way. There are roughly 1.3 million active American military personnel, nearly triple that of Iran. Annual military spending by the United States exceeded $600 billion last year, versus about $16 billion in Iran. The Americans have nearly 6,000tanks, versus fewer than 1,700 in Iran. The aerial and naval forces of the United States — more than 13,000 aircraft and nearly 300 battle vessels — vastly outnumber Iran’s.

That does not mean Mr. Trump is ready to back his threats by invading Iran — such a possibility, on the contrary, is seen as nonexistent. Mr. Trump has said he wants to get the United States out of foreign military entanglements, and Americans have shown little appetite for another war.

“I don’t see an actual war — it’s not in anyone’s interest,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research group. “Trump doesn’t even want to keep boots on the ground in Syria.”

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The Militia Threatening American Troops in Syria

There are roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Recently, a statement went out calling for direct attacks against them. Who sent it, and why?

Right now in Syria, there are roughly 2,000 American troops. And one day, recently, a statement went out calling for direct attacks against them. It said that it was the beginning of: The statement came from an influential Syrian militia called the Baqir Brigade, which has around 3,000 members. And aside from threats by Islamic State, it was one of the few times a group in Syria directly threatened American troops there. So why did they make the threat in the first place? Who is the Baqir Brigade? Well, one clue to begin with, is this photo. On the right, the head of the Baqir Brigade. On the left is Qassim Suleimani, who runs all of Iran’s foreign military activities. A few years ago, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, needed help fighting a two-front war. So, Iran came to his aid. One tactic it used was funding and training pro-Assad militias, militias like the Baqir Brigade. The militia plays up its Syrian nationalism to help downplay the fact that it’s actually guided by a foreign power. Here’s one of the group’s banners that sums up its motives. This, of course, is Syria’s president — the nationalism side of things. But these two men are not Syrian. He’s the head of Hezbollah, a Lebanese group backed by Iran. And he’s the Supreme Leader of Iran. Iran’s real goal here is to use militias to help weave influence into all aspects of Syrian society. Here’s one way it does this: This is Omar al-Hassan, the Baqir Brigade’s political leader. In this photo he’s in Syria. Now here’s another photo, except this time it’s near the capital of Iran. He’s visiting the shrine to Iran’s late supreme leader. Several militias send members to Iran to strengthen bonds with officials. They also send groups like these on educational trips around the country. This is all for ideology, but it’s also for show. It puts Iran’s influence front and center. O.K., back to the politician, Omar al-Hassan. Here he is again, this time back in Syria on a meet and greet with locals. We were able to identify exactly where the photo was taken. This was last year. The Baqir Brigade had just seized this area from Islamic State. But even if they’d wanted to seize more ground, they couldn’t. The Americans and their allies were in the way. Not far from where we located al-Hassan’s photo is a hill. Recently an image of that hill was posted on a social media account linked to the Baqir Brigade. The post was a threat against American and French troops. It said: We’ve geo-located that hill to right on the border between pro-Assad territory and territory where the U.S. and its allies operate. So it was as if to say, ‘Look how close we are. We’re watching you.’ See, while Iran was spreading its influence, the U.S. was spreading its own influence, too. The Iranians will say, ‘We were invited into Syria. The Americans were not.’ And now that Iran is nearly done helping the regime with its fights, there’s more time to focus on getting the Americans out. There’s already been a couple of times when the Baqir Brigade has come into contact with Americans. One was here, last May, when several Iranian-backed militias advanced towards an American-run base. That prompted U.S. airstrikes. “It was necessitated by offensive movement — I don’t know there were Iranians on the ground — but by Iranian-directed forces.” Then, nine months later, American troops and their allies fought off an attack by pro-regime forces. We know that the Baqir Brigade was there, too. Now overall, the U.S. says it plans to check Iran’s influence in the region. “We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world, and we will crush them.” The thing is, these militias aren’t just on the front lines. They’re recruiting deep in territory controlled by the U.S. and its allies. And they’ve got humanitarian operations going on, too. So that call for jihad? The brigade was likely sending a message from Iran that the U.S. needs to leave Syria. And that messaging hasn’t let up. In early June, there was a huge gathering with the Baqir Brigade and several other groups. The leader we saw earlier with the Iranian general? He was here. So was the politician al-Hassan. And it took place not far from the hill we located earlier, right on the border of their enemies. And the title of the gathering: on Syrian soil.

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There are roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Recently, a statement went out calling for direct attacks against them. Who sent it, and why?

A possible point of conflict is the Strait of Hormuz, where speedboats of the Revolutionary Guards have occasionally harassed American Fifth Fleet warships that patrol the waterway. In an emailed advisory to clients, Mr. Kupchan said, “War is not imminent, but the probability of an escalatory incident in the Strait of Hormuz is increasing.”

The strait has been the backdrop for violent confrontations before. In April 1988, United States naval forces sank three Iranian warships and destroyed two oil platforms after an American frigate was struck by an Iranian mine. Three months later, the American warship Vincennes fired missiles that downed a civilian Iranian jetliner that the Americans say they mistook for a warplane, killing 290 people aboard.

Some analysts speculated privately that Mr. Trump might be eager to avenge what he saw as an American humiliation in January 2016 — a few days before the nuclear agreement took effect — when Revolutionary Guards seized 10 American sailors from two patrol boats and disseminated photos of them in captivity before they were released.

For their part, Iranian officials have shown no sign that Mr. Trump’s latest Twitter threat has frightened them. Rather, some have treated it with sarcasm.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s American-educated foreign minister and a frequent Twitter user himself, offered this retort on Monday afternoon: “We’ve been around for millennia & seen fall of empires, incl our own, which lasted more than the life of some countries. BE CAUTIOUS!”

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