Iran hawks got what they wanted. It's backfiring.
The United States has left itself with few options — and the Islamic Republic with little to lose — as conflict heats up.
Washington has had the same debate about Iran since the late Bush administration. Doves argue that the United States should come to terms with Iran and try to moderate the Islamic Republic’s behavior by integrating it into the global system. (My former employer, the Quincy Institute, leans towards that camp.) Hawks argue that Iran is an irreconciliable enemy, and the United States should use all the levers of its power to isolate, weaken, and eventually destroy the Islamic Republic.
More than anything else — beneath all the calculations of nuclear breakout times and moralizing about women’s rights — the debate is about what U.S. power can accomplish. The doves believe that the Islamic Republic is more resilient than it appears, that pressure will encourage its worst behaviors, and that positive reinforcement can change its course. The hawks believe that the Islamic Republic is weaker than it appears, so a slight push should send it into a death spiral, and that attempts at moderating the system are like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Washington seems to feel that the hawks were proven right over the past few years. During the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran entered into a cycle of ever-escalating protests and repression. Although the Biden administration attempted limited diplomacy with Iran, it also continued most elements of maximum pressure. Iran underwent its most widespread and sustained uprising yet in September 2022, leaving hundreds dead in a gruesome crackdown and the government’s survival in doubt.
Former doves jumped ship. Former president Barack Obama, architect of the greatest U.S.-Iranian detente in history, declared that not supporting the Iranian opposition more had been his mistake. In light of the “unprecedented level of discord and uncertainty in Iran,” the centrist Atlantic Council announced last year that it would replace its diplomacy-centered experts with an Iran Strategy Project whose description sounds awfully like regime-change planning.
Things are not quite going according to plan, however. Despite Iran’s continued internal crisis, unrest in the streets has fizzled out, and the Islamic Republic still holds many hard-power cards. It has steadily expanded its arms exports to Russia and its nuclear program. Saudi Arabia, once a devil on America’s shoulder egging on conflict with Iran, buried the hatchet and normalized relations with China’s help in March 2023. And now that the region faces a really volatile crisis, Iran has little to lose from challenging the United States head-on.
Hawks have promised since the 1990s that an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran could form the basis of a new Middle Eastern order. They seemed close to getting what they wanted with the Abraham Accords and talk of a Saudi-Israeli “mega-deal.” Those plans were completely overturned by the October 2023 outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, the most intense in history, which in turn has led to mass Arab backlash against Israel.
The war has also given the Islamic Republic and its allies a chance to flex their muscles, potentially regaining the support of Arab publics that Iran had lost. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia-party in Lebanon, began shelling Israel early in the war. The Houthi movement, the Iranian-backed faction in Yemen, declared war on Israeli shipping soon after. Iran has allegedly entered the fray directly; the United States claims that an Iranian drone struck an Israeli-owned ship this week. The threat of more attacks has essentially closed the Red Sea to global commerce.
The hawks have no good answers. Of course, many would like aggressive military action against Lebanon and Yemen. (The Israeli government has pushed for both.) While it could satisfy the urge to reassert U.S. dominance, such a campaign would only worsen the United States and Israel’s strategic position. A second front in Lebanon would stretch the Israeli army thin, and a full-on war with Yemen would unleash more of the chaos that drove shipping companies away from the Red Sea in the first place.
Nor can the United States deter Iran by threatening a “limited” escalation elsewhere. Washington maxed-out its economic sanctions. The Islamic Republic is as diplomatically isolated in the West as it can get. The United States and Israel already assassinate Iranian officials and strike Iranian forces on foreign battlefields like Iraq and Syria regularly. Tehran calculates that, since the West has already thrown everything short of war at it, nothing short of war would actually represent an additional cost.
A full-on war could spell the end of the Islamic Republic. It would also probably spell the end of the U.S.-led order in the Middle East. State-on-state combat would intensify single problem the United States is facing in the region: economic instability, diplomatic embarrassment, and domestic political discontent. Such a war would be a global disruption on the scale of the Russian-Ukrainian war, except with U.S. troops in the direct line of fire, taking casualties that the American public has not experienced in decades. There’s a reason why hawks constantly insist that they do not want war with Iran, even while calling for war in all but name.
In other words, there’s little room left on the escalation ladder. The Trump administration climbed almost to the top. The Biden administration, instead of climbing down, cut off the lowest rungs and burned them for firewood. Faced with a choice between escalating or backing down, Washington may order Israel to find a face-saving exit from Gaza. Tehran, on the other hand, has room to maneuver and much less to lose.
The brief period of detente under Obama had given Iran something to lose, a stake in the global economy. Both the Iranian public and the elites benefited from trade with Europe, which flourished when sanctions were lifted, then dried up when sanctions were reimposed. If ships in the Red Sea were still carrying Iranian-made petroleum or car parts to European ports, Iran would have a much stronger incentive to play nice and restore calm. Maximum pressure buried that incentive.
Many nations — including nations threatened by Iranian power — are treating the Red Sea crisis as Washington’s self-inflicted problem. When the United States tried to assemble an international coalition to protect shipping from Houthi attacks, European nations dragged their feet on providing anything of substance, and Arab states outright refused to join. No one seems to trust the United States to be the even-handed problem solver; it’s easy to see why.
This crisis is a preview of things to come. Iran will continue to play the spoiler, exploiting weak points in the U.S.-led order and offering a muscular alternative for Arab publics dissatisfied with the system. Arab rulers, happy to encourage the United States to fight Iran but reluctant to risk their own stability, will themselves try to cut deals on the side. If the United States and Iran come back to the table, and try to hash out a new modus vivendi, Iran will be emboldened to demand a much higher price than it could before.
The situation feels like a repeat of the post-2009 crisis. The Islamic Republic’s crackdown on the Green Movement had left America leaders too disgusted to deal with Iran, and convinced them that the Iranian government was ripe for overthrow anyways. Nevertheless, the Islamic Republic endured, and its growing nuclear program became an issue that world powers could not afford to ignore. Faced with a decision between diplomacy and war, Obama held his nose to talk to Tehran.
Even the course of Iran’s internal politics since 2016 has hewed closer to the expectations of doves than hawks. Doves predicted that maximum pressure would empower “hardliners,” and that is exactly what happened. The Iranian deep state crushed the Reformist faction after maximum pressure began. But middle class disillusionment with reform has not led to a more effective form of political change. Instead, worldly Iranians have removed themselves from day-to-day insider politics. The system is now under the control of its most intransigent elements.
Neither American hawks nor American doves were completely honest about their views. Most doves did not want to admit that they would accept the Islamic Republic as an institution if it improved Iranians’ lives and worked more productively with U.S. interests. Most hawks did not want to declare that they intended to make things worse for Iranians in order to spur them to action, although figures like Mark Dubowitz came close to saying so openly.
Hawks are much more honest when it comes to societies they actually sympathize with. Former Obama administration official Dennis Ross, dean of the liberal Iran hawks, claims that Israel will only respect Palestinian rights from a comfortable position of strength. And he argues that Saudi Arabia must be coddled rather than admonished into making reforms. After all, Ross writes on Saudi Arabia, external threats “could prove distracting and hard to overcome” for his favored regimes.
Economic immiseration and political paranoia raised the price of reconciliation between the Islamic Republic’s power base and disaffected segments of society. There would be no soft landing. Doves foresaw a tragedy, because pathways to peaceful reform were cut off. For hawks, reform was a false promise, and the Islamic Republic had to be pushed towards collapse.
Doves were wrong about one thing: the effect of Iranian nationalism. Many had predicted that Iranians would rally around the flag in the face of U.S. pressure. Instead, parts of Iranian society have directed their ire at their Afghan or Arab neighbors, or descended into pro-Trump conspiracy theories. While Washington may be heartened that Iranians do not consider America their main enemy, the conspiratism is a sign of deep dysfunction and despair within the U.S.-friendly wing of the Iranian opposition.
In the long run, the Islamic Republic’s intransigence is indeed undermining its legitimacy and inflicting suffering on the Iranian people. But in the immediate term, it has created problems that the United States cannot bomb or bribe its way out of. Some Iranians’ willingness to entertain Israeli talking points on social media does nothing to diffuse the Iranian-made missiles pointed at Israeli ships. The collapse of the Islamist project in Iran may come too late to save the American project in the Middle East.
Disorder will be the longest-lasting legacy of U.S. power in the region. American leaders could bring incredible amounts of destructive power — military, economic, political, and covert — to bear on their enemies in the region. Yet they could not show the foresight and stomach the compromises necessary to build a stable order. Rather than the Roman Empire, they may be remembered more like the Mongol horde.
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