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The downing of Flight 752 “shows how even restrained retaliation could quickly turn into inadvertent escalation” and how actors in international crises are often less capable than their adversaries assume they are, especially when they’re in a defensive crouch, Jacquelyn Schneider, a national-security expert at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote on Twitter. (In this case, the incompetence of the Iranian military has been particularly noteworthy.) And while Iran and the United States are likely to proceed cautiously with their deliberate escalation—Iranian leaders know that they would lose a direct conventional war with the U.S., and Trump doesn’t want to get sucked into another protracted conflict in the Middle East—the biggest risk in ongoing tensions is inadvertent escalation, Schneider argued: “More mistakes will be made.”
Yes, the parties seem to have looked war in the face and recoiled, but they may simply be channeling their escalation in new directions rather than truly de-escalating. As the Trump administration heaps economic pressure on Iran and shines a spotlight on anti-government demonstrations there, and as Iran’s leaders grapple with this serious internal challenge to their rule and act out further by, say, launching cyber attacks, mobilizing proxy forces, or backing out of their commitments under the nuclear deal, the conflict could spin out of control again.
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To confidently conclude that escalation is a manageable force would be reckless. Imagine, for instance, that those Iranian missiles had killed Americans, something Trump has deemed unacceptable and threatened to counter with overwhelming force. Troops at one of the Iraqi bases that came under assault told Reuters that a soldier came “very close to being blown up inside a shelter behind the blast walls.” And Lieutenant Colonel Staci Coleman, the U.S. Air Force officer who runs the airfield there, told The Wall Street Journal that she thought the Iranians “really wanted to target our [air] assets and if they so happened to kill Americans in the process, that was okay with them.” Or imagine if Americans had been on board Flight 752. How would the world look today? To channel Leon Trotsky, you may not be interested in escalation, but sometimes escalation is interested in you. It’s a fallacy to presume that state actors can completely control a crisis. After all, who would have predicted that Iranians would be in the streets this week calling for the downfall of the supreme leader as Trump cheers them on?
“Most obviously, humility is in order,” Robert Jervis, an international-relations theorist at Columbia University, wrote recently, regarding the lessons of the U.S. standoff with Iran. “My guess is that neither President Donald Trump nor the Iranians know what they will do next (and what they think they will do may be different from what they will do when the time comes).” Next time—and there will be a next time—the Swiss and their encrypted fax machine may not be sufficient to avert a war no one wants.