Friday 9 August 2019 4:12 am

As tensions in the Gulf rise, is a war with Iran a possibility?

As tensions in the Gulf rise after the seizure of another tanker, is a war with Iran a possibility?

Dr John C. Hulsman, life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, says YES.

Of course war with Iran is a possibility, as political leaderships are composed of human beings, who are by definition highly fallible.

I have always been amused by political analysis which believes that international relations is much like Macbeth, with supremely calculating, rational beings ruthlessly struggling for absolute power.

My decade in Washington instead points to an entirely different Shakespeare play: Hamlet. Good, old-fashioned human error explains far more about foreign policy in the real world than does the House of Cards view of life.


In the case of Iran, the mullahs believe that upping the ante, causing trouble on the high seas and slowly pulling away from the nuclear accord, will jar the Europeans into decisive action, allowing them to pressure the Trump administration into backing off its “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As such, the capacity for miscalculation, and for a war no one wants, is more than a distinct possibility.

John Raine, senior adviser for geopolitical due diligence for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says NO.

Defending tankers in the Gulf, tense as it can be, has not yet led to war. The hostile relationship between the west and Iran has seen peaks and troughs in the last 40 years, but both sides keep tensions below the threshold of an all-out war. They fight each other by indirect means.

Iran works through regional partners and proxies, while the US “maximum pressure” strategy ratchets up non-military pressure on Iran, especially through sanctions.

The US knows that Iran could use its network to make any war long and messy, with all American interests across the Middle East targeted. Iran’s leaders know that an all-out war with the US and its regional allies could cost them everything.

This means that the current “threshold” conflict is likely to continue. It would take a political imperative – an attack on American personnel or US soil – for President Trump to risk a Middle East war, particularly in an election year.


So far, there is neither the desire nor strategic logic to punish mistakes with a war.

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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