War with Iran is still less likely than you think

TEHRAN, IRAN.- People hold posters during the funeral ceremony of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 6, 2020. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians in Tehran on Monday mourned the assassination of Qassem Soleimani.
Editor's note:

Michael C. Horowitz and Elizabeth Saunders write that despite Iranian attacks in retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, neither the United States nor Iran wants to go to war. Iranian retaliation could be costly, but it is not the same as all-out war. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.

In the wake of the U.S. attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, many are concerned yet again about the potential for escalation between the United States and Iran to a general war.

In June, after tensions spiked following attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the United States blamed on Iran, we laid out the case for why the two countries were unlikely to fight a general war. We drew on similar arguments in 2018, when we explained why war between the United States and North Korea was unlikely despite the fears of many analysts at the time.

The killing of Soleimani was different

The U.S. killing of Soleimani, an attack on a high-ranking government official, is different from previous moments of international tension during the Trump administration. Soleimani was an important military officer in a sovereign state, rather than the leader of a stateless terrorist organization, like Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In last summer’s oil tanker and drone-downing episodes, the stakes were lower, and there were elements of deniability or ambiguity that were not feasible in the case of killing Soleimani.

The direct strike on one of Iran’s top military leaders has led many to conclude that Iran will strike back, possibly against U.S. targets in the Middle East. Such retaliation would be potentially costly, even if it does not lead to a general war.

But as other analysts have noted, fears of World War III are overblown. Even after this escalatory move, many factors that made war between the United States and Iran unlikely in June remain unchanged. There will no doubt be consequences — but general war remains unlikely.

But could the United States and Iran stumble into war?

Although the killing of Soleimani was a deliberate act by the United States, much fear about escalation between the United States and Iran surrounds the potential for a conflict spiral through miscalculation.

Fortunately, this type of escalation is rare. As Dan Reiter explained here at The Monkey Cage during a spike in tensions with North Korea two years ago, “powder kegs” rarely explode into war by accident.

Those worried about accidental war may also point to reports that the Trump administration developed the plan to kill Soleimani in haste, suggesting there was insufficient effort to think about how Iran might respond.

But if and when it does respond, Iran’s action is likely to be highly considered. This may be worrisome — but it’s not war by accident or miscalculation. If Iran’s leaders take an action in response that triggers a general war, it will probably be because they decided it was a risk worth taking.

Retaliation by Iran is not the same as war

It’s important not to move the goal posts for how we define war. At the same time, it’s also key to distinguish tit for tat between the United States and Iran from a general war involving ground troops.

This is not to deny the risk of a damaging retaliatory move from Iran that may result in American casualties and lead to long-term complications for the United States in the region.

But even retaliation may not come right away. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution argues that Iran is likely to “bide its time” despite anti-American protests in Iran during the widespread mourning for Soleimani.

Domestic politics still act as a brake — in both the United States and Iran

As Monkey Cage editor Michael Tesler wrote over the weekend, war with Iran is unpopular in the United States and is unlikely to help Trump win reelection. And Trump has long said he doesn’t want a Middle East war.

Similarly, despite short-term domestic pressures to retaliate, Iran’s leaders want to stay in power and do not want to risk their regime in a costly war — and war between the United States and Iran would probably be very costly.

So how did we get here, and what happens next?

Back in June, we wrote about one risk that could increase the odds of war: “if Trump’s hawkish advisers present an option that seems like it could be kept limited, but actually carries a strong likelihood of escalation.” According to news reports, Trump chose the option to kill Soleimani on short notice, surprising even some of his advisers and setting off a planning scramble.

But we also noted that Trump has backed away from tough stances before. If the past is any guide, having now looked tough, Trump may seek an off-ramp. And as Sarah Croco, Jared McDonald and Candace Turitto have pointed out here at TMC, Trump is unlikely to be punished if he flip-flops and backs down.

And even if Iran strikes back — as it says it will — it is also likely to try to avoid escalating the conflict significantly. Finding such a finely calibrated option is, of course, a difficult problem, but neither miscalculation nor domestic politics are the most likely drivers of further escalation in this case.

What might prevent the two sides from finding the off-ramps? One factor is if the administration, with Mike Pompeo at the understaffed State Department leading the hawkish charge, does not fully consider diplomatic options or engage in a robust set of invisible, back-channel consultations that would produce such options.

The stakes are high

Another concern is that this crisis has higher stakes for Iran than last summer’s tanker or drone encounters. We know that war can occur even if both sides don’t want it when one side doesn’t believe the other’s commitment not to attack in the future. If Iran doesn’t believe the United States will really leave its regime alone, it might frame the stakes of the Soleimani killing in the strongest possible terms, planning for significant escalation.

But that seems unlikely, given that the United States is far more powerful than Iran and a general war would probably mean the end of Iran’s regime. And Iran’s leaders might alternatively believe Trump does not want a war, especially given his publicly stated interest in reducing the U.S. military’s footprint in the Middle East. Indeed, a challenge for Iran’s leaders is that they may agree with commentators who have noted that Trump has not made clear what he wants.

Blowback may be coming, and the U.S. strike against Soleimani may increase the risk of bad outcomes short of an all-out war. Those are reasons for concern. But it’s critical to distinguish such consequences from a general war.