As the United States ratcheted up tensions with Iran, on May 13, The New York Times ran a headline: “White House Reviews Military Plans Against Iran, in Echoes of Iraq War.” Americans must take a long, sober look at military escalation against Iran. What is America’s Iran policy: its goals, costs, and effects on American security? What does history tell us the results will be?
President Donald Trump’s hard line on Iran—starting with reneging on the nuclear deal and compounded by harsher oil sanctions—has escalated tensions. Tensions rose to a new high this month when the Trump administration ordered an aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf and blamed Iran for the recent sinking of Saudi oil tankers. When asked if America is headed to war, Trump responded, “If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens.”
Further escalation appears inevitable. Recently leaked reports indicate that the United States is considering deploying 120,000 troops to the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian aggression. The three primary goals of escalation are to pressure Iran to end its development of nuclear weapons, to stop Iran from funding terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, and, ultimately, to initiate regime change. But is escalation likely to achieve these goals?
Tehran has learned from history. Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program during Barack Obama’s presidency, only to see the United States renege under Trump and increase pressure. Iran watched the United States topple Gaddafi, who surrendered his nuclear arsenal, but remain powerless against a nuclear-armed North Korea, and concluded that the only way to resist American pressure is to be a nuclear-armed country. Escalation will only encourage Iranian nuclear development.
America must also study history. Historically, economic sanctions almost never coerce regimes into ending bad behavior. For instance, even recently, sanctions completely failed to change the behavior of Iraq, Cuba, North Korea, and Russia. American military pressure will similarly embolden hardliners, stoke nationalism, and strengthen those voices in Iran who advocate for nuclear weapons and increased funding towards terrorists.
Regime change is less likely still. The closest Iran ever came to democratic revolt—the 2009 Green Movement—occurred before sanctions rose in 2010–13. Even if the Iranian regime fell, recent history of American attempts to create regime change in the Middle East suggests that a stable, thriving democracy will not emerge. America succeeded in toppling Iraq and Libya, but the successor governments are corrupt, unaccountable, and largely dysfunctional.
Escalation costs are usually seen only in terms of the possibility of war. Many critics of the White House argue that escalation against Iran is harmful because it may lead to armed conflict. History further tells us that any escalation—even short of invasion—will hurt average Americans. Ratcheting up tensions brings massive economic costs for the American taxpayer and risks terrorist retaliation too.
Consider Operation Desert Shield, the 1990 campaign to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression, in which America stationed hundreds of thousands of troops across the border in Saudi Arabia. The direct economic cost to American taxpayers of Desert Shield was $11.1 billion ($22 billion today), even before the Gulf War began. While our allies refunded much of that, with Iran today, Europe and other regional partners will not be willing to foot the bill.
Even more pernicious than Desert Shield’s expense was the massive anti-American sentiment generated by deploying forces to the Persian Gulf. The presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia—home to Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina—created a wave of religious nationalism in the Arabian peninsula.
Osama Bin Laden started his campaign of terror against the United States largely in response to these deployments. He issued a “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” stating that his objective was “to liberate…the lands of Islam” from American troops.
Indeed, stationing large amounts of forces to the Middle East, even defensively, is seen as occupation and creates terrorist backlash. Military commitments in the service of creating Arab democracies or eradicating Islamic Fundamentalism will not meaningfully improve America’s security. If America massively expands its Persian Gulf presence, based on history, anti-American terrorism will likely increase.
Historically, America tends to react to foreign countries’ bad behavior with a moralizing desire to punish the responsible party: Iran engaged in reprehensible conduct, so America must punish Iran. While morally comforting for policymakers and voters, such simplicity ignores the actual effects of policymaking.
Massive sums of money that would be funneled into military escalation would be far more effective is used to deal with other critical issues pertinent to US security and well-being: the rising China threat, infrastructure, education, science research, climate change, or perhaps reducing our massive, ever-growing deficit.
We must learn from history and delineate our priorities. Escalation with Iran is not one of them.
The image featured with this article was taken by Seaman Christopher A. Michaels and can be found here. The image exists in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law.
Adam Chan is a fourth-year Fundamentals major. This summer he interned at Hamilton Place Strategy, a policy consulting firm. Previously, he interned at CNN, focusing on the Russia investigation, at the R Street Institute, a think-tank in DC and an extern at the Department of the Interior. At the Gate, Adam has been a Senior Writer, Opinion Editor, and Editor-in-Chief, and now just writes for The Gate. On campus, Adam has also been President of the UChicago Political Union and has been a Team Leader at the institute of Politics, as well as an active member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He loves studying political philosophy and history, enjoys playing card and board games with friends, traveling, and eating exotic food.
Jakob is a fourth-year and is Deputy Data Manager at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, a research center at the University of Chicago dedicated to producing rigorous and data-driven scholarship on pressing questions of national and international security.