Are We at War With Iran?

Some experts say we have been since 1979.

A crowd gathers around two flags on fire.
Mourners set a U.S. and an Israeli flag on fire during a funeral procession for Qassem Soleimani in Tehran on Monday. Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images.

On this week’s Political Gabfest, David Plotz and Emily Bazelon were joined by Brookings Institution senior fellow Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert, to discuss the fallout from the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. This transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: Suzanne, it’s been a nerve-racking week for Americans, probably for Iranians, and for people throughout the Middle East. So many things have happened since the U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, though both sides seem to be de-escalating. Are we at war with Iran?

Suzanne Maloney: You could argue we’ve been at war with Iran in some way, shape, or form at least since the 1980s, perhaps dating back to the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, but we’re now in a different phase of what has been a long conflict, a war that only exists in the shadows. What we’re seeing now is much more akin to a conventional war, and at least a couple of days ago it looked like it was about to morph into something that might be very reminiscent of the kind of conflicts that the United States has waged in Iraq and Afghanistan with such devastating consequence.

Plotz: Is this an actual de-escalation or is this just everyone saying, We’re just not going to do this right now, but check back with us in a month, and we’ll be doing some damage here and there in some other fashion?

Maloney: I saw it described as the beginning of the end. I think we’re actually at the beginning of a new phase, which is going to be a long, ugly, and unpredictable phase of conflict and confrontation with some quiet periods, with a lot of unpredictability about exactly where the next strike, or when the next escalation will happen.

Plotz: What are the ways in which it could escalate from either side?

Maloney: First and foremost, we’re going to see more trouble in Iraq. There’s an effort to try to push the United States out of Iraq. That is an Iranian objective, and now, thanks to the fact that we didn’t bother to consult the Iraqis when we decided to take out a senior Iranian military commander on their territory, as well as an Iraqi militia leader, there’s a lot of unhappiness with our presence there. I think we’re probably on the road to some kind of a drawdown of our presence, which will have real implications for the campaign to contain and deter any future resurgence of ISIS. It will have real implications for the stability of Iraq, and the continuation of a government that can actually run the country. And the Iranians will have lots of opportunities to push back against the United States and to try to retaliate without necessarily taking ownership in the way that they did on Wednesday with the missile strikes on U.S. military positions in Iraq. That can happen almost anywhere across the region, because they have proxies and assets. Over the course of history, they’ve also struck in places as far-flung as Argentina, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Bulgaria. They have a lot of capability, and it’s very far dispersed.

Emily Bazelon: I am worried about Iran pulling out of the nuclear accord from 2015. You can trace this back to President Trump’s disavowal of that accord. How much of this new unsteady, unpredictable phase do you attribute to that dynamic?

Maloney: I think it can be entirely traced to the decision in May of 2018 by President Trump to walk away from the deal, and even more so to May of 2019 when he decided to try to ratchet up pressure and bring Iranian oil revenues and exports down to zero. That was a bridge too far. It was something the Iranians couldn’t try to muddle or manage through, and we saw them turn almost on a dime from a kind of watchful waiting and trying to manage the situation to striking back in a very calibrated and incremental fashion to try to generate some diplomatic urgency. My own assessment is that the nuclear agreement, while the product of an enormous amount of work, rightly contested on all sides and all parts of the world, is on its last legs. It’s not going to be possible to return to status quo ante, and we’re more likely to face an urgent nuclear crisis with Iran than we are to actually get back into full compliance with that agreement.

Plotz: Do you think that Iran is going to conclude that its major leverage in the region will be to have a nuclear weapon and so it’s going to really work on that development because it recognizes that the U.S. will not be a willing partner in allowing them to not have a nuclear weapon, so they might as well just go ahead and develop one.

Maloney: I think that was a conclusion they made before the revolution. It was the shah who started the Iranian nuclear program, civilian at the time, but always with an intent toward something else. The Iranians mothballed it at the time of the revolution but then very quickly reconstituted it. Not coincidentally because they were invaded by an Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, who, of course had his own nuclear weapons program—this has always been the Iranian assumption. They need the ultimate deterrent. They feel very much encircled by American allies, and by hostile powers, and so there has been a really long-term investment in these capabilities. The nuclear deal had the positive effect of putting some constraints on that, but ultimately it was never really going to change the Iranians’ mind in that investment. We’ve seen new intelligence coming out that suggests that the program was more advanced than we appreciated and that they may have continued working on the sorts of things they weren’t supposed to be working on.

Plotz: I’m a total layperson here, but I keep reading, we’re ratcheting up the sanctions, we’re ratcheting up sanctions. How far can they be ratcheted? And is the U.S.’s position, at least over the financial system, so dominant that the U.S can effectively choose to prevent anybody from doing any business with Iran? Can Washington literally prevent Iran from exporting a drop of oil, importing anything of value to the country?

Maloney: Well, they’re always going to be able to engage in smuggling and barter trade and lots of other creative means to get their oil out and to get some necessary essential products into the country. But the simple reality is that the U.S. does have a dominant position in the international financial system. The authorities that were put in place after 9/11—nothing to do with Iran originally—were then turned toward dealing with proliferation as well as broader terrorist threats, and they were applied to Iran in a really innovative and effective way initially by the Bush administration and with real effect by the Obama administration. And there was a lot of doubt about whether we could go it alone under the Trump administration with the active opposition of all the rest of the world who are relatively ready to do business in Iran. What this experiment has shown is that the U.S., even without the support of allies and partners, is able to essentially sever a country from the international financial system and make that stick.

Plotz: So even if China wants to do a ton of business, Russia, India, whoever, they just can’t?

Maloney: Well, they could, but they’d have to make a choice between doing business in Iran and doing business in the United States—and frankly, Iran is not that attractive of a market, particularly at a time where there’s a surfeit of oil exports and production around the world. So, this is not a choice between China and the U.S. market. It’s choosing a country of 80 million, which is appealing, well-educated, has a lot of growth potential, but also has a tremendous amount of dysfunction in terms of the economy, regulatory blockades, things like this. And so, for a lot of firms and entities around the world, when they saw the Trump administration begin to take aim at the nuclear deal, they began to walk away preemptively, simply because it just wasn’t worth it to them to take the risk of in any way getting crosswise with the Treasury Department.

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Bazelon: When we think about the tragedy of this lost nuclear accord—if indeed you’re right about its slim prospects for being resurrected—if you go back to the Obama administration’s agreement, and the period before the Trump administration walked away, Iran was not acting in the way that a lot of people in the West ideally wanted, right? They were still interfering in Syria and Lebanon, and trying to increase their regional influence, and funding terrorism, and acting like an Islamic theocracy in a way that scares Westerners or makes people think of Iran as continuing to be this very hostile presence. Does that mean that President Trump’s skepticism about Iran is legitimate? Should we have expected Iran to take more steps toward good behavior in the league of nations, or was it unreasonable to think they were going to more quickly walk themselves back?

Maloney: That’s the fundamental paradox that we have today: that we had an agreement that was working but didn’t solve the problems that were outside the scope of the agreement that were never intended to be addressed directly by the agreement. Do you simply junk the agreement, or do you find other ways to deal with the problems that you’re facing from Iran? This administration actually had an opportunity to try to devise a follow-on agreement, with the Europeans at least, that might’ve tried to press the Iranians on at least some areas where the deal had fallen short—the deal didn’t address Iran’s missile development, for example, and this was something that was pursued pretty intensively in the early months of the administration with at least some resulting support from the Europeans.

Maloney: When push came to shove, I think the president was just fixated on fulfilling a campaign promise. I think he also sees that Iran is pretty good politics for him domestically, at least up till now, and there just wasn’t any real interest in investing in what it would have taken to try to develop a real negotiating track with the Iranians on everything that was outside the deal.

Plotz: How much, if at all, do you think what we’re doing with Iran is because it is very convenient to have an enemy, and we don’t have any other major enemies that are troubling us right now, and Iran is the easiest one to pick out, to demonize, and to attack?

Maloney: Iran has been a cartoonishly convenient adversary since 1979. Everybody at that time was galvanized around the hostage crisis. More recently Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became a sort of Saturday Night Live figure of mockery. Unfortunately, Iran’s government plays that role very effectively. I also think that what we’re seeing is driven by a theory of the case about how to handle a recalcitrant power, and how the U.S. needs to retake the dominant role in the Middle East, and the frustration with the Obama administration’s unwillingness to challenge Iran as it began to expand its influence and become very directly engaged, and successfully engaged, in military conflicts in Syria, in Iraq, and also of course in Yemen. And so this administration believes that we have such overwhelming conventional military superiority that we shouldn’t be restrained in using it. They believe that if you push back really hard against the Iranians, they will, in fact, retreat. We’ll have to see if that works out for them.

Plotz: Do you think that the United States or the world is safer with Qassem Soleimani dead than it was with him alive?

Maloney: I think the world is safer without Qassem Soleimani. I don’t think that the world is safer as a result of the strike that we undertook, and the way that we undertook it with the very shifty set of justifications the administration has utilized, and without any kind of contingency planning around the inevitable ramifications that have followed in its wake.

It makes perfect sense that he’s been on a list of targets dating as far back as the second term of the Bush administration. He was a critical commander, and while Iran has a pretty deep bench of security force leadership, with a lot of experience in battle, Soleimani had a unique role. The fact that we were able to get him on what is essentially his home turf is a pretty showy demonstration of American might. But the reality is that you have to think through the second- and third-order effects of any action that you take. That’s what the military is incredibly skilled and well-situated to do, and it doesn’t appear to be clear that this administration utilized that typical planning process and really thought through and built up the force protection around a U.S. military presence in Iraq, for example, the implications for the Iraqi government, and whether or not we would then be pushed out of Iraq.

All these things could have been addressed if one was really serious about focusing on Soleimani as a potential way of weakening Iran’s influence in the region. It could have been done in a way that demonstrated a more coherent and effective policy process and minimized some of the backlash. Instead, what we have is the worst possible scenario, which is a situation of what I think is going to be very sustained chaos, and we have not reassured our allies in the region. We have not really accomplished a significant foreign policy objective. The question for me, and for a lot of others, is to what extent the domestic positive boosts that the president sees in his base at this time when he’s under pressure, may have for him at least offset some of the negatives of what it has brought around the world.

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