The US and Iran on a dead end path to war?

Unless strong political leadership and decisive diplomatic efforts are quickly shown on all sides, war between the US and Iran will become increasingly probable due to the elimination of all other policy options.

There are three ways war between US and Iran can begin: through a deliberate decision by either Washington, Tehran or Tel Aviv; through a naval incident in the Persian Gulf that escalates out of control; or through the gradual elimination of all other policy options - the dead end path to war. 

Of these three, it is the last one that is most worrisome and likely. 

The Obama administration is not seeking war with Iran. Obama's push back against the Netanyahu Government's campaign for war with Iran and the harsh statements from the US military against such reckless adventurism demonstrates this lack of desire for war.

While neoconservative elements within the US foreign policy elite may differ, they remain dangerous but are in minority. A very timely report published by the Iran Project last week showed that the center of the US foreign policy establishment not only opposes war, it views it as a grave mistake.

The report was signed by close to 30 prominent foreign policy hands in Washington, including former National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, president of the Ploughshares Foundation Joe Cirincione, and former chairman of the Federal Reserve bank, Paul Volcker.

The Netanyahu government is unlikely to initiate war, in spite of its never-ending threats. As I explain here, Israel draws a lot of benefits from threatening war, but actually starting one is an entirely different matter with many unpredictable repercussions.

Moreover, it is the assessment of the US intelligence and military that the Iranian government is unlikely to start a war itself. Still, the Iran Project report was much needed to create a political buffer against the perpetual campaign for war by hawks on all sides.

Thus, a premeditated decision to start a war seems unlikely at the moment.

The second risk is war as a consequence of a naval incident in the Persian Gulf. This has long been a concern of the Pentagon. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen made this very clear before he left his post. “We haven’t had a connection with Iran since 1979,” he said in September 2011. “Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don’t understand each other. If something happens, it’s virtually assured that we won’t get it right — that there will be miscalculation which would be extremely dangerous in that part of the world.”

The US has tried on several occasions to increase the communication between its own and Iran's naval forces, but Tehran has so far rejected the offers.

Still, the most worrisome risk is not incidents and accidents that are impossible to predict, but a path of perpetual escalation that eliminates all other policy options and renders war inevitable. 

The west and Iran are both deliberately and accidentally on such a path.

Both are pursuing a dual track policy aimed at negotiating while simultaneously escalating the conflict by increasing pressure on the other side. The west does this by adding more and more sanctions on Iran, and Iran pressures the west by expanding its nuclear programme and by reducing its collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Not only has this created a lose-lose dynamic, in which both sides are worse off today than they were two or more years ago, but the dual track policy has an addictive quality to it in the sense that after pursuing it for a few years, it is extremely difficult politically to abandon or adjust it.

I wrote in a commentary for Huffington Post earlier this year that both sides are running out of ways to make life miserable for the other. Their escalatory steps are fewer and fewer and more and more dangerous, making it infinitely more dangerous to continue this unsophisticated chicken-race.

A European diplomat told me last week that it is actually worse: the two sides are also running out of exit-ramps; they have fewer and fewer deescalatory options.

Unless strong political leadership is quickly shown on all sides, with decisive diplomatic effort to escape the zone of political paralysis created by the dual track policies, we will descend further into this dead end. Electing a president that prefers to avoid war is not enough. The dual track policy is a one-way street towards confrontation.

War - regardless of how much we prefer to avoid it or know it is strategically disastrous - may soon stare at us as the sole remaining outcome.

About the author

Trita Parsi is the co-founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council, a non-profit educational organization.