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What a War With Iran Would Look Like

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What a War With Iran Would Look Like

Neither Side Wants a Fight, but That Doesn’t Eliminate the Danger

Foreign Affairs,

5 min read
3 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

The risk of the US and Iran stumbling into war is real – but avoidable. 

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  • Analytical
  • Eye Opening
  • Background


Iran-hawk John Bolton may no longer be President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, but the risk of war between the United States and Iran remains. Former US official and Iran expert Ilan Goldenberg explains how a series of misunderstandings, show of force posturings and face-saving measures could lead to a war nobody wants. Weighing the costs and thinking through the worst-case scenarios of an all-out war with Iran is an important first step in taking measures to prevent it. Goldenberg’s analysis provides a sobering starting point.


Tensions between the US and Iran are high – and the risk of the two stumbling into an all-out war is growing.

The Trump administration has ratcheted up tensions with Iran by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, imposing a new set of harsh economic sanctions on Iran, and reinforcing US military capabilities in the region. In addition, the US has publicly accused Iran of orchestrating recent attacks on foreign oil tankers. Although neither Iran nor the US seem eager to go to war, the risk for these tit-for-tat provocations to result in a larger military conflagration is real. Iran, for example, may take its provocations a step too far and may no longer be able to credibly deny its involvement in a proxy attack against US targets or US allies. Such a proxy attack could provoke a one-time US retaliation to “reestablish deterrence.” Depending on Iran’s reaction to such a retaliatory strike, the situation has the potential to escalate fast. Iran may decide to use its proxy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria or Yemen...

About the Author

Ilan Goldenberg is Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as Iran Team Chief in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

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