With Winning As Their Main Reason For Staying In Power Neither Trump Nor Khamenei Can Avoid An All Out War

Iran cannot survive much longer without direct support from Russia and China, support it can only get by dealing the US a painful and humiliating defeat

MQ-$C Triton drone such as was shot down by Iran in flight
Copyright: Alex Evers [Public domain]

Does anyone remember an instance in which a country published a communique in which it announced its lust for war? I certainly don’t. With that in mind, all the declarations by all parties involved in the Iranian business that start with “we do not want war, but” can be filed straight into the spam folder. In abstract, nobody wants war. In reality, many do, but the most dangerous conflicts happen when one of two conditions holds sway: an excessive web of “iron-clad” security guarantees and alliances signed at a different time has long outlived its relevance, or the two main protagonists are deeply invested in narratives of invincibility. The worst wars happen when both conditions are simultaneously met, which is the situation we are facing now in the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian ayatollahs and president Trump do not have much in common, but they have one thing that they share in spades: the narrative of winning as the inevitable outcome of their actions, their power, their very being. Trump’s entire brand, even before he became president, was based on the image of winning. If you could afford one of his condos, his golf club memberships, you were a winner. “You will be so tired of winning that you will beg me to stop!” he promised his followers during the historic 2016 campaign. It worked. In office, by any measurable metric, Trump delivered. ISIS was all but annihilated, North Korea made to behave as much as could be reasonably expected, the economy is breaking every record.

But Trump is not alone in his promise to win. The Iranian theocracy’s entire raison d’etre is winning. “Follow us in the ways of Allah,” the mullahs are telling the Iranian people, and victory shall be ours, the great and little satans will be defeated, the glory that was the Persian empire will be revived, except now under the banner of Shia Islam. For both Trump and Supreme Leader Khamenei, losses, even tactical ones, are unthinkable because they go against their covenant with their people, against what they have long sold as the inevitable outcome. Unlike Trump, the mullahs have so far failed to deliver. America and Israel appear to be stronger than ever and so are their other arch-enemies, the Sunni kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula. In Iran, the economy is a total bust, due in part to the US-led embargo on oil sales, but the problem goes far deeper than that.

Iran has failed to understand the commoditization of oil. Far from being the sought-after value add recourse par excellence of the 1970’s, oil today is a commodity that is oversupplied and is guaranteed to remain so as American domestic production soars and worldwide demand dwindles. Having blown the oil windfalls of the last four decades on an outdated arsenal of useless weaponry and the fostering of murderous attack dogs on Israel’s borders as well as the as yet unsuccessful nuclear weapons program, Iran has no industries to fall back on, no rainy day fund with which to pay for a retooling of their economy.

The only way for the Iranian regime to survive even in the near term is to prove its worth to Russia and mostly China. The only way to do that is to convince these putative superpowers that it can win a limited war against the reigning superpower, America, that it can knock it once and for all from the pedestal of world supremacy it has been occupying alone since the fall of the USSR nearly three decades ago.

So yes, Iran wants war. It wants it on its own terms of course, but that is no different from any war ever instigated in history. The aggressor always wants to fight the war they have been preparing for. Iran’s limited war of humiliation against the US is not about to start; it is already in full swing. It started during the Obama years with the Revolutionary Guards speed boats harassing American warships, undeterred, in international waters. It continued with the capture of American sailors and the extraction of an enormous ransom for their release, but not before they were publicly humiliated for all the world to see.

Under Trump, this war has continued with brazen attacks on international shipping and now with the shoot down, in international airspace, of an American military drone. Trump’s campaign slogan for the 2020 elections is “Promises Made Promises Kept”. Ok. How about the promise that if Iran ever pulled under his watch the kind of stunts it has been pulling under his predecessor, there will be hell to pay? How about that promise, now that Iran has called his bluff and raised the ante?

Trump is not eager for war, to say the least. He knows that the one thing, the only thing, that his opponents and many of his supporters agree on is opposition to an Iranian campaign. He knows that the country is politically divided beyond the breaking point. I suspect that he has little trust in his military brass, nearly all of it promoted under Obama. But he has no choice. Suffering humiliation at the hands of Iran with Russia and China watching on the eve of the critical G20 meeting is not a viable option for him.

Asked if he would attack, Trump in his usual manner replied “you will find out”. In his tweet, he opined that Iran has made a big mistake in shooting down the drone. National Security Advisor Bolton is on his way to Jerusalem for Sunday meetings about Iran, only days after the Israeli Air Force completed a major exercise modeling an Iranian-led regional conflict.

An exchange of blows between the US and Iran is now simply inevitable. Neither side wants it to escalate, but at the same time not even a draw, let alone a loss is acceptable to Iran or to America, which leaves only one possible strategy: fighting to win. Unfortunately, when both sides are hell-bent on winning, when neither can disengage without a victory but with their honor intact, that’s when limited engagements become total wars whether anyone wants it or not.

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