News that Iran has shot down an American drone in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, and that President Trump approved — then called off at the last minute — strikes on Iranian targets, makes it clearer than ever that the two countries are on a collision course that's increasingly likely to end in a shooting war. Which is exactly what National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a long list of leading Republican politicians appear to desire.
Like a spurned lover who's never gotten over being dumped, Republicans have fumed about Iran since the American-backed shah was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979. Add in the Trump administration drive to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and ramp up painful economic sanctions, the post-9/11 tendency of Republican politicians to take Israel's side in any regional dispute, and the administration's feckless deference to the theocratic regime in Saudi Arabia, including in its proxy war with Iran in Yemen — and the prospect of an all-out war with Iran seems wildly overdetermined.
The wild card is Donald Trump.
On the one hand, he appears to despise Iran — because that's what any avid viewer of Fox News who possesses no independent education on the subject would do. He has also surrounded himself with strident hawks who have long dreamed of a military confrontation with Iran and have clearly set us on a path of maximal provocation.
But on the other hand, the president appears to prefer chest-thumping bluster to actual war, especially when it threatens to get his administration bogged down in yet another endless, bloody slog in the Middle East. What Trump cares about, in everything, is not what's good for the United States geopolitically, let alone what's good for the people in the countries where we meddle militarily, but simply how things play at home. It's all part of The Trump Show, and looking maximally tough at minimal cost is what he thinks will get him the highest ratings.
The problem is that regardless of what Trump wants in Iran, he is likely to get war — because he is so utterly parochial in his outlook on the world and so utterly lacking in the capacity to imagine himself into the way others see it that he can't begin to grasp their motives. This is true even when the motive is nationalism — which is precisely the same one the president (rightly) credits with propelling him and his fellow right-wing populists to power around the globe.
America's tensions with Iran go back to the early 1950s, when a CIA-backed coup overthrew the government of prime minister Muhammad Mossadegh for daring to nationalize the country's oil industry. Mossadegh's move was popular at home, but it froze out Western firms and antagonized the British, who strongly favored an attempt to overthrow the government in retaliation.
With covert American help, the effort succeeded, giving power to a Western-friendly government under the shah and giving British Petroleum a share of the country's oil wealth. But the turn of events also planted the seeds of more potent anti-Western fury that ultimately expanded into the Islamic revolution 26 years later. The revolution was, as much as anything, a movement aimed at expelling what significant numbers of Iranians considered imperial control by the United States and other Western powers over the country's government and economy.
That is nationalism in action — the effort of a people to assert its sovereignty, its right to define itself and to determine how it will order its laws, culture, and public life, without external control or coercion. This is precisely what growing numbers of American conservatives, from President Trump on down through influential media personalities, right-wing intellectuals, and opinion columnists, claim to support.
For these nationalist conservatives, liberal humanitarianism is foolishness. Libertarian valorization of free markets is out, along with neoconservative moralism about democracy and the liberal international order. The UN's obsession with international law certainly carries no weight. Instead, today's Trumpfied right stands for and respects the nationalist impulse. It envisions a world of free and independent nations that strictly limit immigration and vigilantly defend their own borders and economic interests against external enemies as well as niggling imperialistic bureaucrats in Brussels and Berlin.
There's just one problem: The Islamic Republic of Iran is a free and independent state, too. That doesn't mean that the United States (or any other country) needs to appease it. On the contrary, a world that's given up on trying to get countries to abide by uniform rules of engagement and conflict resolution will be a world considerably more prone to military conflict. If Iran really is a threat to the United States, if its actions stand in the way of our pursuit of our national interests, then we may have to act against it.
But responsibly negotiating a world of free and independent states is a tricky business. It requires intelligence and empathy, above all to understand the motives of our adversaries. A political community galvanized by nationalist sentiments will not necessarily respond to threats and the imposition of economic penalties (sanctions) by backing down, even when the country threatening it is vastly more powerful and the prospect of war could be catastrophic. Rather, it may respond with anger, its national pride inflamed by the dishonor of being bossed around and humiliated on the world stage. Taking a stand against this foreign power may even become a political necessity and a source of enhanced domestic strength. (The most foolish of our cheerleaders for war actually believe an American attack will weaken the hold of the mullahs on power when it's far more likely to make them more popular.)
Once again, this doesn't mean the U.S. should let the Iranian military take out American drones or menace international shipping without consequence. It does mean that our actions need to take into account the logic of nationalist conflict, the passions it can provoke, and the actions those passions can demand. On both sides.