June 04, 2019

What a War With Iran Would Look Like

Neither Side Wants a Fight, but That Doesn’t Eliminate the Danger

By Ilan Goldenberg

Tensions between Iran and the United States are at their highest point in years. The 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is teetering. The Trump administration is using sanctions to strangle the Iranian economy and in May deployed an aircraft carrier, a missile defense battery, and four bombers to the Middle East. Washington has evacuated nonessential personnel from its embassy in Baghdad, citing intelligence suggesting that Iran is increasingly willing to hit U.S. targets through its military proxies abroad.

The United States also stated that Iran almost certainly perpetrated the recent damage to oil tankers flagged by Saudi Arabia, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and claimed that Iran had temporarily loaded missiles onto small boats in the Persian Gulf. In early May, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton publicly threatened a response to any Iranian attacks, “whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards [sic] Corps or regular Iranian forces.”

The good news is that the situation is not as bad as it appears. None of the players—with the possible exception of Bolton—seem to really want a war. Iran’s military strategy is to keep tensions at a low boil and avoid a direct confrontation with the United States. Washington struck a tough public posture with its recent troop deployment, but the move was neither consequential nor terribly unusual. If the United States were truly preparing for a war, the flow of military assets into the region would be much more dramatic.

Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.

  • Commentary
    • The National Interest
    • January 19, 2021
    Could Europe’s INSTEX Help Save the Iran Nuclear Deal?

    Supporting INSTEX would illustrate not only that “America is back,” but that the Biden administration is taking humanitarian concerns seriously without sacrificing security in...

    By ​Francis Shin

  • Commentary
    • December 16, 2020
    Sharper: 2020

    2020 featured an ever-evolving series of national security challenges....

    By Sam Dorshimer, Nathalie Grogan, Emily Jin, Chris Estep & Cole Stevens

  • Podcast
    • December 4, 2020
    How the US could return to the Iran nuclear deal

    The election of Joe Biden presents an opening to strengthen transatlantic diplomacy on Iran. Biden has already outlined his intention to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, primaril...

    By Ilan Goldenberg

  • Commentary
    • October 22, 2020
    Sharper: U.S. Strategy in the Middle East

    CNAS experts are sharpening the conversation surrounding the future of U.S. strategy in the Middle East....

    By Kaleigh Thomas, Chris Estep & Cole Stevens

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia