President Trump acted wisely in not hitting Iran with “proportional” air strikes last week after the shoot down of an American drone. The question of whether or not the unmanned aircraft had been in international air space had not yet been resolved to the unequivocal satisfaction of our allies, and tit-for-tat proportional responses are usually ineffective.
The Americans could have taken out three surface-to-air batteries, but the Iranians have plenty of them and could have played that game until the cows come home. Proportionality would have been counter to the president’s political objectives as the Iranians would crow about defending the homeland while avoiding pressure to come to the bargaining table by keeping the Iranian public distracted from very real economic woes.
The president has backed the Iranian leadership into a corner with economic sanctions. Iran’s leaders have few other options, and they economically cannot afford to wait until 2020 in hopes that the president will be replaced by an Obama-like patsy. Now, the ayatollahs and their henchmen are lashing out the only way possible with asymmetrical means that can’t be proven in a court of law or by claiming violation of sovereignty. But the United States has announced that it will not require a complete legal brief to justify military action if needed, and the Iranians have not tried very hard to cover their tracks.
At this point, the Iranians have two choices. First, they can continue to poke the badger hole with a stick until the badger has finally had enough and strikes back. Second, they can ask for international mediation as they did when the Iran-Iraq War turned against them. This was a face-saving gesture on the part of the leaders in Tehran, and they would be wise to pursue that option again. If that happens, the Americans would be smart in avoiding making concessions on sanctions while talks are ongoing. In that case, Iran could indeed drag things out to 2020.
So far no blood has yet been spilled; but once it has, wars tend to mutate in ways the people that started them did not anticipate. We still have non-lethal cyber means at our disposal to further disrupt Iran’s economy. “It’s a nice little power grid you have there; it would be a shame if something happened to it.”
Once lives on either side are lost, it is hard to put the genie back in the bottle. If the Iranians push things to lethality, or if they do more than pull high-price Halloween pranks in the Gulf, the United States will be forced to respond. Once that response is warranted, it should in no way be proportional. It should hurt, with the promise of worse pain if the behavior doesn’t stop.
The great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu advised to always give the opponent a perceived way out. If shooting starts, the American message — through whichever intermediaries are used — should be simple. “Stop what you are doing and we can talk.” Mr. Trump clearly wants a better deal than the Obama administration crafted. Columnist David Ignatius recently pointed out that we may not get everything that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded, but that is what negotiations are all about. The president will likely be happy if he can get a better deal than he inherited. The wild card in this is always Israel. If the Israelis believe that the Iranians are close to the bomb, they will undoubtedly act unilaterally whether we approve or not. That is a mutation that neither the United States nor Iran is likely to be able to control.
If it does come to a shooting situation, we have a precedent in Thomas Jefferson’s undeclared war with the Barbary Pirates and their state sponsors on the coast of North Africa. Through a deft mix of diplomacy and military action, the fledgling United State was able to reduce the depredations of the pirates to a tolerable level. This initially meant going for easier prey than Americans, but eventually piracy on the Barbary Coast fizzled out. The analogy is not exact, but Jefferson did show that a mix of diplomacy, the threat of force and actual force can achieve acceptable results if handled properly.
So far, this crisis has not turned deadly and there is still a chance that the Trump administration can achieve acceptable results if it does not get ideologically intransigent. That is the best possible outcome. The ball is in Iran’s court in what has become a very dangerous game.
• Gary Anderson lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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