Irans Options in Showdown with America Are All Bad

Irans best hope is for a President Elizabeth Warren or a President Bernie Sanders or a President Joe Biden

By Victor Davis Hanson


After losing its top strategist military commander and arch-terrorist Qasem Soleimani the Iranian theocracy is weighing responses. But make no mistake about it President Donald Trump controls the tempo of the confrontation.

One Iran can quiet down and cease military provocations.

After attacking tankers off its coast destroying an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia shooting down a U.S. drone and being responsible for the killing and wounding of Americans in Iraq Iran could now keep quiet.

It might accept that its strategy of escalation has failed to lead to any quantifiable advantage. Trump did not prove a passive Twitter tiger" as his critics mocked. Instead he upped the stakes to Irans disadvantage and existential danger.

The chances however for such a logical and passive readjustment by Iran are nil.

Iran believes that Trumps beefed-up sanctions have all but destroyed its economy and could now extend to secondary boycotts of nations trading with Iran. U.S. sanctions have also squeezed Iranian expeditionary efforts to forge a permanent hegemony and a Shiite crescent extending to the Mediterranean.

If unchecked American economic pressure could eventually lead to a popular rebellion that would topple the theocracy. In sum a return to the status quo is unlikely.

Two Iran can agree to reenter talks about its nuclear program and offer a few concessions.

Iran could concede that the prior agreement was designed to bank Iranian cash and nuclear expertise that would eventually lead to its developing nuclear weaponry after a period of feigned good behavior.

Irans Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2008 (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

Yet a return to direct negotiations with Washington is also unlikely especially since Iran once enjoyed a lopsided gift from the United States. Renegotiating anything less would be too humiliating for the revolutionary regime to endure.

Three Iran can escalate its military operations and its use of terrorist surrogates. The death of Soleimani is Irans most grievous setback in decades and Iran seeks vengeance.

The theocracy will view his death not just in terms of a strategic loss but as a humiliation that cannot stand. Governments elsewhere in the Middle East are gloating over Soleimanis killing and especially over the thought of Irans inability to do much about it.

In reaction Iran could strike American bases and allies in the region. The possibilities are endless. It might send more drones and missiles against other nations refineries. Hezbollah could shower Israeli cities with missiles. Iran might close the Strait of Hormuz in hopes of seeing the rest of the world suffer as it has.

Iran could also unleash its terrorist appendages to stage attacks on American and Israeli assets throughout Europe and the U.S. including military bases airliners and soft civilian targets.

Yet this choice is also unlikely.

The U.S. would not have to invade Iran to end it as a modern state. A strike against the U.S. or its overseas military installations would result in a devastating response. The theocracy knows that in hours U.S. air power could take out all of Irans oil refineries power stations and military bases while suffering few if any causalities.

Given U.S. oil independence and the global adjustments to existing sanctions on Iranian oil the near-permanent loss of Irans oil would not greatly damage the world economy.


Iran will bluster and threaten but waging an all-out war with the U.S. would be suicidal and Iran knows it.

Four Iran can continue its periodic attacks on U.S. allies and on troops and contractors in the region.

Constant provocation is a not a good alternative but its probably seen as preferable to the other poor choices. The strategic aim in such endless tit-for-tat would be to wear down the patience of the U.S. public in an election year.

Given the quick criticism of Soleimanis killing from Trumps progressive domestic opponents and given the Obama administrations past appeasement in response to Iranian provocations Tehran might conclude that a hit-and-pause strategy is preferable.

It could incite Trumps political opponents to brand him a warmonger who acted illegally by assassinating" Soleimani.

Irans hope would be that Trump would lose the support of the anti-war members of his base in key swing states.

If such periodic attacks continued until Election Day Iran might hope for a President Elizabeth Warren or President Bernie Sanders. Either one would likely resurrect the flawed Iran deal and ignore Iranian aggression in Syria and Iraq.

Irans goal might be something like re-creating the melodrama of the 197981 hostage crisis Saddam Husseins rope-a-dope strategy or Bill Clintons three-month bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. Tehran hopes for American strategic ossification that could prove politically toxic.

But that scenario too is unlikely. As long as Trump replies with air power disproportionate to any Iranian attacks he not Tehran governs the tempo of the confrontation.


Iran created the current crisis. It has choices but for now they are all bad.

Victor Davis Hanson is currently the Martin & Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford Universitys Hoover Institution. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush.

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