Former CIA officer Sam Faddis recently wrote a piece here on SOFREP entitled, “The Coming War with Iran.”  Contrary to the article’s title, and even to some of the admittedly bellicose language within the piece (whether justified or not), Mr. Faddis was not advocating for a war with Iran.  The thrust of the article, rather, was that the Obama administration’s approach to Iran was born out of weakness and was ultimately feckless, and placed the United States closer to a war with the Islamic Republic.

Mr. Faddis’ last sentence in the article sums up his thesis:

We have allowed a very old and very dangerous enemy out of its cage and filled it with confidence and resolve. The challenge now is to regain control of the situation and restore an appropriate balance of power in the Middle East without ending up in a shooting war.”

If one reads this closing passage with a discerning eye — and the whole piece for that matter — Mr. Faddis is not calling for a war with Iran.  He is stating that conditions are pushing us there, especially as the newly-arrived Trump administration has put Iran “on notice,” and thus drawn a fresh new red line, even if it is a fuzzy and undefined one.

This article will not argue against Mr Faddis’ thesis, which is probably — and frighteningly — in large part correct.  Rather, this author will make the case that the United States should work to avoid a shooting war with Iran, if at all possible.

In looking at any national security and geostrategic issue, one must first start with the nation’s grand strategy.  In other words, what is our ultimate strategic approach to the region, and the world, and how does our approach to Iran fit into that grand strategy.  This article would argue that our strategy in the region is three-fold:

  • First, we want stability in the region, which supplies much of the world’s petroleum, and is home to many of the world’s more intractable political conflicts.  It behooves no country, especially the world’s sole hegemonic superpower, for the “Middle East” (southwest Asia) to erupt into yet another full-blown war.
  • Secondly, preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power is paramount to U.S. interests, as the regime is currently inherently threatening to both America and our allies in the region.
  • Third, America should seek to prevent Islamic extremist groups residing in and emanating from the region — including Hezbollah — from threatening U.S. interests worldwide.

Stated in the simplest terms, a war of choice with Iran blows apart all of these strategic aims.  The region would explode into a multilateral conflict, pitting Shia versus Sunni, U.S. versus Russian, and other unforeseen interests against one another.  The region would also be inflamed even more than it already is.

Secondly, Iran would move at-speed to restart its nuclear weapons program, in order to use a weapon as a defense against regime collapse and overthrow by the United States.  Furthermore, there is the real possibility of tactical nuclear weapons being used on the battlefield by the regime, including against Israel.

Third, Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies at the direction of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, members pictured above) would likely launch a series of attacks across the region and the world in response to U.S. military action against Iran.  This has been a stated last-resort tactic of the regime for decades and there is no reason to suspect that such threats are hollow.  Hezbollah has the capability and global reach to launch such a campaign.

In addition to these very real and dangerous consequences of a U.S.-launched full-scale war on Iran, there is the frightening prospect that such a war could escalate and become a global conflict.  It is not hard to imagine Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Russia, Syria, Lebanon, and/or other states being sucked into such a conflict, in addition to Hezbollah, as described above.  From there, a war could metastasize outward like a cancer.

The Middle East itself could collapse entirely as a result of a U.S.-Iran war.  Already-simmering conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq could break out into full-scale crises, and the war in Syria would likely become just another front in the wider conflict.  Kurdish forces in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran could possibly see the opportunity to begin (or accelerate) their own national struggles, which would thus complicate an already complicated war.

Now, having laid out the possible disastrous consequences of such a full-scale war, this article is in no way calling for the Trump administration to ignore Iranian aggression in the region, nor possible infractions of the nuclear agreement made with the Obama administration.  Quite the contrary.

This author would in-fact call for continued covert action against Iran, across the entire spectrum of U.S. and allied capabilities, and in all the relevant spaces.  That is to say, call for cyber, political, military, and economic actions that would keep Iran in check, and convey clearly to the regime that its aggression will be met with retaliation.

If the Iranians covertly restart their nuclear program, it should be countered in whatever manner necessary.  If Iranian proxies in Yemen, Bahrain, or elsewhere attack U.S. interests, there should be proportional retaliation.  If Iranian gunboats fire on U.S. warships, they should be sunk.

This is not a call for appeasement in any way.  Rather, it is a call to engage the Iranian regime much as the United States engaged the Soviet Union during the hottest days of the Cold War.  The threat of retaliatory destruction should always be on the table, though that threat should incorporate proportionality in order to avoid starting a full-scale war.

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Viable targets of U.S. retaliation, depending upon Iranian actions, include: the regime, the IRGC, Hezbollah, the Iranian armed forces, the nuclear program, and Iranian economic interests.  The United States and its allies should be ready and willing to take confrontation with Iran right up to the line of open and armed warfare, and even beyond that line, if necessary, as long as plausible (and desired) deniability and proportionality allow it.

The right course of action with regards to how the United States should deal with Iran is through continued tough diplomatic engagement, along the lines of detente as it was applied to the USSR.  America should continue to talk to the Iranians, from a position of strength, and use covert and overt action only when and where necessary.  Such actions should also be done in concert with American allies, whenever and wherever possible, in concert with shared national interests.

Once again, if we are attacked by Iranian naval assets in the Persian Gulf, we should return fire.  If we are struck with missiles in the Gulf of Aden, we should strike back.  If Hezbollah kills more Americans, we should continue to target their leadership — wherever it is — for lethal strikes.  This is not an argument for weakness.  Rather, this is an argument for acting from a position of strength, and in American geostrategic interests in order to prevent a wider war.

The Iranian regime should know that America is ready to talk and use diplomacy to resolve our conflict, but that we are also prepared to use other means, including armed conflict, if our interests are attacked.

(photo by RAHEB HOMAVANDI/Reuters).