2020 was never going to be the quietest of years, but the sudden and rapid descent into a possible war between the United States and Iran – a fall signalled by the extra-judicial killing of the senior Iranian military official Qasem Soleimani via a Donald Trump-authorised drone strike near Baghdad International Airport – could yet provide a diabolically loud soundtrack to the next twelve months (and far beyond).
Trump – who is facing serious domestic pressures – may have any number of motivations for pursuing the kind of military adventurism that his administration has thus far avoided. But whether he is trying to appease his more hawkish donors, or merely channelling the classic 1997 movie Wag the Dog – a political satire in which a sitting US president fabricates a war in Albania in order to distract voters from a sex scandal – a conflict with Iran is unlikely to yield the results he is seeking for at least the following five reasons:
- Blunt instruments. The United States enjoys near-full-spectrum military dominance, particularly when it comes to aerial supremacy. However, the act of relentless bombing does not translate into the ability to win wars. More bombs were dropped on Vietnam between 1964 and 1973 than in the entirety of the Second World War, but this did not stop the US suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a Third World peasant collective.
- No worse enemy. Iran is a fiercely nationalistic and more-or-less industrialised country with genuine regional power aspirations. Practically everything about Iran – its long and rich history, terrain, military capabilities, cross-border alliances – strongly underlines that any American invasion would be met with the kind of resistance that US forces are simply not used to; the political cost of this would be enormous.
- Soft power slide. The United States has still not recovered from its last foray into the Axis of Evil, which has seen its national brand transmogrify from hyperpower to decaying empire in a matter of just a few short years. Moreover, Operation Iraqi Freedom was waged in a pre-social media era where CNN still enjoyed a near-monopoly on English-language agenda setting; the reputational damage that it could incur in an era of dissenting blue ticks and non-compliant news networks does not bear thinking about.
- Quadruple alliance. In the event of military escalation, Trump will not just be confronted with Iran: key members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, such as China and Russia, are Iranian allies, while an increasingly independent Turkey – which currently enjoys excellent relations with both Russia and Iran – is unlikely to prove cooperative.
- Fiscal insanity. Back in 2008, Joseph Stiglitz – former Chief Economist at the World Bank – conservatively estimated that the Iraq War had cost the United States a cool three trillion dollars. It must be noted that this figure will seem like small change if a war with Iran goes ahead – and Trump’s blue-collar base, still awaiting the materialisation of their icon’s infrastructure programme, is unlikely to be inspired by this allocation of resources.