The US and Iran’s Ladder of Escalation: A Quagmire That Could Shape the New Decade

General Qassem Soleimani and Imam Khamenei
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Every decade has been marked by a defining moment that would eventually shape the conduct of international politics and the world at large. The escalatory dynamics that have been brewing between the US and Iran since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8, 2018, seem to have overflowed into the new decade. On Friday 3, January 2020 the US president announced that Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s top military figures, had been killed in a bid to “stop a war”. What should also not be forgotten is that Soleimani was not just any major general who was unfairly targeted. He was a target because his influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops. Unquestionably, the US president’s decision to strike and kill Iran’s top military leader is among the most consequential foreign policy decisions since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even though Mr. Trump has argued that the strike does not amount to a declaration of war on Tehran, the act remains a significant move that will warrant a response from Iran and shape the US-Iran relations moving forward. The article seeks to make a substantive analysis on how the escalatory circle that has shaped the US-Iran relations in the past couple of years, will have detrimental effects with the power to shape international relations of the 2020s.

Tensions have been building up between the US and Iran in the Gulf for quite some time and it was a matter of time before the escalatory path would reach a boiling point. Washington had to re-establish deterrence and show the Iranian leadership that missiles fired at ships in the Persian Gulf and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, along with attacks inside Iraq that cost the life of an American contractor, would not go without a response. With the killing of Tehran’s mastermind of its proxies stretching from Iraq and Lebanon to Syria and Yemen, there is no denying the political ramifications that the incident will cause. Since the Trump administration’s actions were a possible direct response to Iran’s actions, the path is still open for more escalatory strategies being used by both parties until they reach a stalemate. The parties are now in an undeniable game of chicken, where both parties will continue facing off until the other swerves and is labeled as the chicken. To some extent, if either Iran or the US were to swerve at this moment the odds of the tensions reaching a critical point would be somewhat avoided. However, the question remains who will swerve first. 

It has been a known factor that the Islamic Republic’s growing influence in the Middle East and Persian region was beginning to be a threat against the US’ interests. This led the Trump administration to dub Iran’s activities – “malign activity” against US regional interests and allies. If there is one thing that motivates states to act aggressively it is the need to protect their national and foreign policy interests. While Tehran was maximizing its power by cementing its position in the Middle East, the US saw this as a threat to its interests and the only solution that could rectify this ‘problem’ was to kill the general who has had his militias at the forefront of almost every proxy in the Middle East for almost ten years. As political realism assumes that interests are to be maintained through the exercise of power, it is evident that both the US and Iran are in a power play but there can only be one dominant player thus the Trump administration decided to make a risqué foreign policy move against Iran. The incident of 3 January 2020, further cement realist assumptions that the world will always be characterized by competing for power bases.

The competing power bases are exacerbated by the need to control limited resources. In the case of Iran and the US in the Middle East, both parties’ interests can only be realized or advanced against the interests of the other. This is when the instability of the international system illustrates its roots. It becomes close to impossible for both parties to equally foster their influence in the Middle Eastern region when both parties have different ideologies and goals that motivate their interests within that region. In such circumstances political realists would argue that the result could be a war but, in this case, if war were to happen between the US and Iran it would be warfare through proxies. However, it remains unlikely that either party would want to escalate to war in the immediate term. What remains worrying is that there has not been any sign that the Trump administration has a well thought out foreign policy strategy to handle this matter going forward. If there has been one aspect that the administration has been consistent on, it is the incoherent foreign policy decisions that are taken on the fly and this monumental quagmire that the administration has put itself in makes no different. Thus John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA has argued that “Trump and members of his Cabinet with critical roles in a potential conflict with Iran have two defining qualities,- low credibility and limited experience.” 

What the Trump administration’s strategy should do now is to acknowledge that Iran has various militias in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria which could be used by Iran to destabilize the entire region. If Iran uses its militias in these states to respond to the US’ killing of the leader of the Quds force, Washington would be left with a choice to either pursue another war in the Gulf or to opt for a de-escalatory strategy. Mr. Trump has committed the United States to a conflict whose dimensions are unknowable, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seeks vengeance. The Middle Eastern region is already volatile on its own and for the US-Iran faceoff to play out on its grounds would be chaotic for the region for decades to come.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.



About the authors

Ian Fleming, B.A. and M.A. in International Politics by the University of South Africa.  His areas of interest include nuclear proliferation, the conduct of negotiations, the role of power in diplomatic negotiations, terrorism and the influence of social media on International and national politics. He is currently serving on the IAPSS authorial board and he is the Vice Chair of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime.

Jabulani Nyoni, Bsc in Actuarial Science & Financial Mathematics from the university of Pretoria. He is currently a Data Architect & has been using his background in Actuarial Sciences & Data expertise to analyze international politics.