Tensions between the United States and Iran have reached a new low in recent weeks after a number of incidents on the Strait of Hormuz.
The ongoing back and forth between Washington and Tehran has many worried about a potential conflict. While the United States experiences a clear power supremacy over Iran, it needs to tread carefully with how it responds.
To understand the unique threat of Iran, it is important to consider the guiding ideology of Iran's religious leaders: Shi'ism.
Shi'ism was founded in the rebellion led by Hussain Ibn Ali Ibn Abi Talib (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) against the ruler of the Umayyad Caliphate, Yazid I. However, due to significant disparity in capabilities, the rebellion was quickly crushed – the decisive battle occurred in Karbala in present-day Iraq – and Hussain and his men were slaughtered.
According to Shi'ite ideology, the main moral lesson arising from Hussain's rebellion is that human beings should never bow down to tyranny and injustice, and that adherence to moral principles should trump everything regardless of the material outcome of such stance.
The martyrdom of Hussain has become a major component of Iran's state ideology. Not only was Hussain's story used by Ayatollah Khomeini to mobilise Iranians for the 1979 revolution, it was also used during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), a conflict in which Iran was significantly overmatched (on paper at least).
Although the revolution is now 40 years old, the story of Hussain continues to inspire the worldviews of not only key figures in Iran's various bureaucratic branches (including the military) but also large swathes of the general population and diasporic communities.
Simply put: Shi'ites embrace their status as the underdog in a battle.
The problem is that since the days of the Cold War, the United States has consistently demonstrated little understanding of the religious, ideological, and political complexities of the Middle East.
Indeed, such ignorance has arguably led to poor decision making in the region – the list of less than successful interventions continues to grow - and it is imperative that the United States does not make the same mistake with Iran.
One thing is fundamentally clear: in the case of a United States intervention, Iran will not remain passive and will fight back, despite the long odds of success. Indeed, Iran's actions to date, such as the alleged targeting of ships in the Straits of Hormuz and the shooting down of a US drone, suggests that the spirit of Hussain's martyrdom continues to drive Iranian action.
Furthermore, in the case of an intervention by the United States, it is important to recognise the broader implications any attack would have for the Middle East, and perhaps, even the broader international community.
Firstly, a military intervention by the United States would instantly incite conflict across the Middle East because Iran has spent many years funding and training pro-Iranian militias in the region and particularly in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The effectiveness of these groups – especially Hizbollah – should not be underestimated.
The targets of retaliation would not just be United States assets in the region but it is also likely that Israel and Saudi Arabia would become primary targets for Iran. Although Israel appears the most convinced as to the prudence of a United States intervention against Iran, it could potentially face a conflict much more complex and violent than its 2006 conflict with Hizbollah.
And although Saudi Arabia continues to maintain an antagonistic stance towards Iran, the Kingdom has proven to be militarily ineffective in its ongoing intervention in Yemen and would depend on the United States for its protection. Furthermore, most of Saudi Arabia's oil fields are located in territories where its historically marginalised Shi'ite minority lives, making it strategically vulnerable in the case of potential Iranian reprisals.
Therefore, there is no obvious way for the United States to undertake a clean surgical intervention (has such a thing ever existed anyhow?) against Iran that does not inflame the region in chaos.
Secondly, on a broader international scale, a United States intervention in Iran would have significant diplomatic costs at a time when the international community is less assured about its guiding norms and values. The root of this issue is that Iran has a long-held friendship with Russia and a blossoming one with China.
The Middle East is already a problematic area of US-Russia relations and something close to a proxy war between Russia and the United States occurred in the Syrian civil war.
In the case of an intervention, Russia would probably not offer much more than defensive military support (as well as economic and rhetorical support) to Iran, because doing anything 'offensive' would be treated as a direct act of war by the United States. But, regardless, this would drive Russia further away from the United States and potentially cause further headaches down the line.
China's relationship with Iran is more opaque than Russia's, but it is clear that the two are experiencing a period of relative warmth. The source of this is not only that Iran is a significant supplier of oil to China but also that Iran is an important geographic corridor for China's massive Belt and Road Initiative. China is officially non-interventionist in its foreign policy, but it has already supported Iran in the face of the breakdown of the nuclear deal and could increase its support further in light of a United States Intervention.
Thus, the international costs of a United States intervention in Iran would be to further undermine its international leadership by giving further fuel to countries like Russia and China that seek some form of revision of the international order.
It is clear that Iran occupies a special place in the ire of the United States – especially for its National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
However, from a simple cost-benefit analysis of a potential United States military intervention in Iran, the costs easily outweigh the benefits. To this end, an 'America-first' policy would actually be to re-engage with Iran, not to go the other way.
- Nicolas Pirsoul is Sessional lecturer at Australian Catholic University
- Nicholas Ross Smith is Assistant Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham Ningbo, China