Updated on February 10, 2017
In Donald Trump’s first term there is a serious possibility of a military conflict, whether intentional or inadvertent, between the United States or Israel and Iran. What follows is how it could unfold, and how it might be avoided.
Step 1: Provocations
“It is an undeniable privilege of every man,” wrote the acclaimed American diplomat and scholar George Kennan, “to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.” Few world leaders embody this ethos more than Donald Trump and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
For Khamenei and Iran’s hardliners, the United States has been continuously committed to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its very inception in 1979. Everything from U.S. military bases in the Middle East to American celebrity culture is understood as a means to coerce and subvert the Islamic Republic. President Obama’s efforts to allay this paranoia—including numerous personal entreaties to Khamenei—were largely dismissed.
The distrust is mutual. While the 2015 nuclear deal successfully curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, it did little to moderate the country’s longstanding foreign and domestic policies. Internally, civil society arrests have increased and there has been a “staggering surge” in executions. Externally Tehran has continued to arm and finance Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who by one estimate is implicated in the death of over 200,000 civilians (including 45,000 children and women), and the displacement of over 13 million of his citizens. It has also significantly expanded its support for Shiite militias throughout the Middle East which unnerve longtime U.S. allies in Israel and the Persian Gulf.