It doesn’t happen often, but when I agree with President Donald Trump I acknowledge it: Last week a reporter shouted a question at the president: Are we going to war with Iran? The president replied, “I hope not.” So should we all.
But to hope is to relinquish agency and power over the course of events, implying that others have as much or more control than we do. Who actually has the power to spark a disastrous war with Iran?
The Trump administration’s approach to Iran feels dangerously confrontational, as well as improvisational and haphazard. Clearly, many of the administration’s actions are belligerent: the abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, the designation of the Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, the termination of waivers for countries that trade with Iran and the movement of an aircraft carrier into the region.
But none of this means that war is inevitable. Despite these aggressive actions, the president appears to be hesitating. He says, as he often does, “We’ll see what happens.” But this is a disconcerting relinquishment of power to others.
Could the mullahs who control Iran or the Revolutionary Guards start the war? Easily. An attack on an American vessel or American troops would make war nearly inevitable. The mullahs, however, may be fanatical, but they’re not irrational, and such an attack would not serve their interests as well as do negotiations with the Europeans.
A war could easily be sparked, as well, by an attack from one of the 30 or so Shia militias in the area that have varying degrees of affiliation with Iran.
Or more likely, perhaps, a simple miscalculation could start the war.
In short, peace hangs by a thinner thread than usual in the Middle East, and the Trump administration is granting other factions significant control over what happens next.
Why is war with Iran such a bad idea? I depend on the insights of experts — academics, diplomats and journalists such as Vali Nasr, Sandra Mackey and Kenneth Pollack — to help explain why we should not fight Iran.
Apart from Israel, politics in the Middle East is driven by two balancing factions: One is Persian and Shiite (Iran); the other is Arab and Sunni (Saudi Arabia). We probably should not take sides, at all, but to the extent that we have, we have chosen the wrong side. Iran could be a natural ally; Saudi Arabia has a lot to answer for.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia dates only to 1932, and it’s always been a family-run monarchy. Iranians, on the other hand, trace their origins back two millennia, to the great Persian empires of Cyrus and Xerxes. Iranians’ pride in their history cannot be discounted in negotiations or in the contemplation of war.
Further, Iran has democratic tendencies unheard of in Saudi Arabia. Inclinations toward democracy date to the Iranian revolution of 1906, which replaced a dynasty with a constitution and parliament. Unfortunately Iranian democracy was thwarted by the oil-hungry West, first by the British in 1921 and then by the United States in 1953.
For most of the 20th century Iran was ruled by a tyrannical shah supported by the U.S. as a bulwark against communism. His autocratic, corrupt, repressive regime made the 1979 revolution almost inevitable.
But despite the oppressive theocracy imposed by the mullahs, Iran has a young population that is inclined toward moderation, openness and modernity.
Yes, Iranians are involved in disruptive activities in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere, but they are playing hardball on their home field in a game that we hardly understand.
Iran’s history implies that it will respond better to respectful diplomacy than to threats and intimidation. Yet here we are, on the brink of war, and others are fully capable of tipping us into the abyss.
In fact, however, neither Trump nor the mullahs nor the Shia militias should be able to control whether we go to war. That power resides in Article I of the Constitution, which reserves for congress the responsibility “To Declare War.” Democrats and Republicans must insist on this prerogative.