Neither the United States nor Iran wants to go to war. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in the fog of crisis — similar in many ways to the fog of war — the danger of inadvertently stumbling into war is dangerously high.
Whether by luck or intent, Iran’s first response to President Trump’s decision to kill Iran’s external operations chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani, was remarkably controlled — firing roughly 20 missiles on bases in Iraq where US forces reside without actually killing anyone. And Trump did the right thing in not striking back.
Unfortunately, however, Trump chose to keep tensions at the boiling point by imposing harsher sanctions. That keeps the crisis going — and with forces arrayed throughout the Middle East, no one can control everything that happens. The groups Iran has built up — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria — all have their own interests and their own hotheads who might launch attacks no one in Tehran directed. Already, the Iranian-backed Iraqi militia whose leader was also killed in the strike against Soleimani has announced it will continue the retaliation Iran began. And in Iran itself, hatred of the United States is burning hot and could prompt a lower-level commander to seek glory by destroying a US target.
US forces in the region are highly disciplined, making effective control more likely. But remember — as Iranians do — that in 1988, during a previous US-Iran crisis, the USS Vincennes mistook a civilian Iranian airliner for an attacking warplane and shot it down, killing all 290 people aboard. With myriad military forces crowding the region and its waters today, another unintended incident could easily occur, setting off further cycles of retaliation that could slide into full-scale regional war. Moreover, from Saudi Arabia — still smarting over Iran’s unanswered attack on its Abqaiq oil facility — to Israel, which has repeatedly struck Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq that it judged to be threatening, the United States has its own allies with their own interests who might take escalatory action.
Meanwhile, hostility makes Iran and the United States see everything the other does in the worst possible light. Each sees its own steps as defensive and the other’s steps as deadly escalations requiring a harsh response.
In short, the Middle East is a powder keg and potential sparks are everywhere. It’s worth remembering just how costly an explosion could be. Iran is several times the size of Iraq, has much stronger military forces than Saddam Hussein did — yet the US-led invasion of Iraq has cost literally trillions of dollars, thousands of American deaths, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, and helped set much of the Middle East on fire. And Iran has tentacles throughout the Middle East, giving it countless deadly options to respond to US actions.
The United States needs to get off this treadmill of violence. For that, we may need other countries’ help, as the US and Iranian governments are not likely to be negotiating directly any time soon. But other parties may be able to mediate and suggest concrete steps to cool the temperature, including Switzerland, which represents US interests in Iran; President Emmanuel Macron of France or Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, both of whom have attempted to mediate in the past; and Oman Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has hosted secret US-Iran talks.
It is not likely either Iran or the United States would agree to a written ceasefire at the moment, but mediators might arrange an unspoken one. Another step could be tacit arrangements to keep each other’s ships, planes, and other military forces far enough apart to avoid inadvertent crashes or clashes. (The two superpowers had explicit written agreements on avoiding “incidents at sea” and “dangerous military activities” during the Cold War.) Such arrangements could also include commitments to discussions following any incident that did occur, rather than immediate retaliation.
Once the temperature has turned down somewhat, it would be helpful to take another run at deals to end the horrifying wars in Yemen and Syria, both of which involve US and Iranian allies. The parties in both are tired of fighting, and ending those wars — possibly without the United States directly at the table — could reduce both tensions and terrible human suffering.
To make any of this work, Trump needs to continue to make clear that he does not seek to overthrow Iran’s government, and pledge not to attack Iran or its forces if it does not carry out or sponsor further attacks or begin edging close to a nuclear weapons capability. And rather than just piling on sanctions with no obvious end, he needs to offer a plausible step-by-step path to reduce them. It was Trump’s foolish decision to end the Iran nuclear deal and impose harsh sanctions that started this cycle of confrontation two years ago.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy said that the most important lesson was to always to give your enemy a face-saving way to back down. Trump needs to learn that lesson too.
Matthew Bunn is a professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he leads the Managing the Atom project. Previously, he served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and as a study director at the National Academy of Sciences.