What will war with Iran look like, we are asked, as tensions between the US and Iran escalate?
The US being "on the brink of war" is a narrative that emerged last week when US President Donald Trump stepped back from airstrikes last Thursday. The discussion about Iran tensions tends to provide a binary or zero-sum game of either the US and Iran being "at war," or having some kind of deal in which there is no war. However, reality in the region and much of the world shows that today's conflicts are not fought simplistically as total war or peace, but rather tend to be more complex and often in the shadows.
Historically large conventional wars were fought with a declaration of war and some sort of struggle that resulted in an armistice or unconditional surrender of an enemy. That is how the history of war is generally taught, from the peace of Westphalia to Versailles. However there has always been conflict that didn't fit neatly into this model. Increasingly with conflicts involving non-state actors – such as insurgents, militants or terrorist groups – there was no way to have an "end" to a conflict that didn't "start."
Discussion of Iran policy tends to depict a binary choice of either going to war or reaching some kind of deal.
Iran is run by a sophisticated regime that has enjoyed using the plausible deniability of proxy forces and various affiliated groups across the region to insert itself in long-simmering conflicts without Iran, itself, needing to declare war. Iran is involved in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as other countries. In that sense, a war is already being waged between pro-Iranian groups and other states and groups.
WHEN THE US drone was shot down, it appeared to be a serious incident and the US weighed a retaliatory strike. This brought the US to the "brink of war," US Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren said. Many others echoed this "brink of war" discussion. A panel on MSNBC included comments about people in the US administration "eager to go to war." How did we get to the "brink of war" with Iran? CNN asked. It also had a segment on what might happen the "day AFTER we started a war with Iran," with the "after" in all caps. A Fox News graphic indicated that the US was "ready for war."
Perhaps the question left unanswered is what is meant by the word "war." Is Israel at war with Gaza after more than a 1,000 rockets were fired in a year? Since it was Iran that shot down a US drone, isn't that already an act of war? So haven't we already seen what the day after looks like? It looks like the day before. War is like the elephant in the room with the blind, where everyone grabs a different piece and thinks that this is what "war" looks like, and doesn't understand that the overall idea of war is much bigger and more complex.
A war with Iran is not like a new 1991 Gulf War, as one commentator suggested over the weekend. It can manifest itself in any number of scenarios. First of all, Iran doesn't want a large conventional war. It wants to punch at the US through attacks that don't cause casualties – yet. The US can respond in kind. Another model could be the type of tensions between Iran and Israel in Syria, where former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said that Israel had struck thousands of targets. Iran even launched ballistic missiles against a dissident group in northern Iraq. Isn't that a kind of war?
Throughout the Middle East there are examples of different kinds of conflicts, many of which do not look like major conventional wars. They are "asymmetric" or they lack clear frontlines. They may involve states or proxies. Even the US admits that it is already involved in advising and assisting numerous militaries with special forces operations across Asia and Africa. The US also launched drone strikes in places like Yemen without going to "war." In fact, the US rarely goes to "war" anymore, it is just involved in long open-ended conflicts.
THE REAL story with Iran tensions may be that Iran wants to feed a perception that any conflict with Iran is a "war," as opposed to something less than a real war. Iran already speaks like it is at war with America. The regime constantly talks about America as an enemy. The evidence that Iran supported attacks on Americans in Iraq after 2003 shows how Tehran understands that one can fight a long-term struggle without a conventional war. Iran excels at this.
However, it also gains by feeding Western perceptions that war is a dichotomy, of either total conflict or no conflict. That is how the Iran deal was packaged, as "either the deal or war." But a third option was simply "no deal and no war." That is also why the US sanctions on Iran are said to have forced Iran to "respond" with attacks. This is the kind of blackmail that Iran generally uses in these scenarios: Do a deal or get attacked. And then the narrative is, "if the US responds to the attacks, then there will be war." None of this makes a lot of sense.
Perhaps a better reading of the current tensions is to see them as part of a long-term strategy of Iran that goes back decades. Iran already views itself as being at war with the US. The US and its allies are therefore in a conflict with Iran. That conflict takes many forms. It may be between allies or proxies. It may be quiet and peaceful for a while, but it is not "peace." Nor is it "war" in the sense of a large conventional conflict, either.
Approaching the Iranian tensions with a more Iranian view of the region and the world would be better for understanding the conflict. Peace is not peace and war is not war, in this discussion. When Iran threatens war it doesn't want war. When it talks about the need for peace, it means a peace on its terms where it continues to play an aggressive role.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.