The Downward Spiral


Apparently John Bolton thinks that if Israel (or, presumably, the United States) were to bomb Iran the retaliation wouldn't be so bad because they would worry about "an even greater response" from Israel or from the United States. And indeed they might. Were I in the Iranian government and we were faced with this situation, I'd be sounding notes of caution. But then again, from my perch here in the West I'm sounding notes of caution and there's also John Bolton on teevee talking about how the Iranians wouldn't dare retaliate.

But somewhere in Iran will be the Iranian John Bolton, explaining that the West and Israel are too weak and frightened of Iranian retaliation to counter-attack, so they may as well come at us with all guns blazing. As I've said before our American hawks think and act exactly like the irrational madmen they imagine to be running the show in Teheran.

Countries can either interact with each other in cooperative ways, that make the population of both states better off, or else they can engage in negative-sum conflicts that make both populations worse off. Once you're engaged in a cycle of negative-sum conflict, as the United States and Iran have been since the Revolution, it's very hard to pull out of it. Something like a direct military attack on Iran would clearly be a substantial escalation of that cycle. The rational thing faced with that would be to pull back from the brink, but it's been the case for decades that it would be better for both sides to pull back from the brink -- it's just a hard think to accomplish in the real world and it would become much more difficult in the context of an unprovoked military attack. But what's needed aren't speculations about the Iranian response to bombing, but a good-faith attempt to make a diplomatic breakthrough.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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