Iran and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

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At this point of the crisis the United States has laid its cards out on the table. Any sort of Iranian retaliation will likely result in air and cruise missile strikes against Iranian targets. The dilemma for Iran is how to retaliate and obtain revenge without it resulting in Tehran becoming the world’s largest parking lot. Pretty neat trick if they can pull it off, but highly improbable. The US killing of Qasem Soliemani must be avenged otherwise Iran will lose a tremendous amount of influence across the region. Saving face is an important aspect of geopolitics in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Iran has placed itself in a corner and has limited options to work with right now.

Many of my colleagues on the academic side of the IR field are using the Prisoner’s Dilemma model for this particular situation. I certainly understand their reasoning. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a standard model of game theory explaining how two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce an optimal outcome in a given situation. It is a clean, logical, straightforward instrument. Unfortunately, logic exists only in a controlled environment such as a lecture hall, or a lab. In the real world, there are hundreds of variables that can produce a desultory effect on a situation, and therefore cannot be effectively modeled ahead of time. There are countless examples of this found in economics, politics, international relations, and military strategy throughout history.

It would be counterproductive for me to lay out some models of strategic interaction, and use them to explain the present crisis, and forecast what might come next. The main purpose of this blog is to discuss current geopolitical developments unfolding around the world, and to do so in a manner less formal than what you’d find at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, or the Kennedy School of Government up at Harvard. In any event, now is not the time for this crisis to be modeled, or analyzed through game theory. That comes in the postgame period when folks will sit down and review the crisis with all of the facts available, and the benefit of hindsight applicable.

The time for this will come, however, that time is not the present. There is still a lot of crisis left to play out and this one will include a number of unanticipated twists and turns. As mentioned above, this is the real world where things are not as neat and clear as they are in a lecture hall or conference room.

Waiting For Iran’s Response

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The world waits anxiously for Iran’s response to the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani on Friday. Iran’s leaders wasted little time vowing revenge against the United States, and punctuating those words with symbolic acts designed to inflame the passions of the Iranian people, and of Muslims worldwide. Today, Iran raised a red flag over the Holy Dome Jamkarān Mosque as a representation of a severe battle to come. At this point Iran is almost entirely obligated to retaliate, and Tehran understands this. Soleimani was a senior member of the regime, and largely responsible for the expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East. His death cannot go unanswered.

As Iran considers its next move, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon are trying to locate clues which might give a hint about what is coming, when, and where. Iran’s fiery rhetoric in the last 24 hours makes it clear emotions are running high. Statements about striking vital US targets have filled the airwaves, and world wide web. Tehran’s first instinct has likely been to strike a high-value, high-visibility US target in the region. An attack that will put the United States, and the world on notice, as well as showcase Iran’s capabilities.

Unfortunately for the regime in Tehran, its eyes are bigger than its stomach. If it wants to challenge the US militarily in the Persian Gulf region, the fight will be brief and the end result not in Iran’s favor. Since late spring, the US has been quietly building up its forces in the region in dribs and drabs. A handful of fighters here, a battery of Patriots there. The media has been so obsessed with the impeachment soap opera in Washington that it has barely noticed the movement of forces. Suffice to say, the US has enough hardware on hand around the Persian Gulf to fulfill a host of offensive, and defensive operations should Iran decide to respond militarily, and on a large scale.

On Friday, Iran declared a three-day public mourning period for Soleimani’s death. Once it draws to an close, Iran probably will not waste much time before retaliating. Until then, the waiting game goes on.

Targeting Soleimani was the Right Choice

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President Trump made the right decision in ordering the airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general officer and commander of the Quds force. He was a legitimate target, a man responsible for previous attacks against US interests in the region. The US government was current on Soleimani’s activities, and keenly aware of the reasons for Soleimani’s presence in Baghdad  Even more significant than his status as a legitimate target, is the fact that Soleimani was a terrorist responsible for the deaths of Americans. To not take advantage of the opportunity to neutralize him would’ve been irresponsible at the very least. The Trump administration’s handling of Iran has been strikingly different from how the Obama administration dealt with Iran. It’s more than fair to say President Trump’s approach has been far more effective. In this case, the president wasted no time, took decisive action, and dealt a considerable blow to Iran’s Quds force, and to Tehran’s shadowy activities across the region.

Having said all of that, we are going to see an Iranian response and possibly soon. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wasted little time in vowing revenge for the killing of Soleimani. This morning has seen much speculation in media circles as to what form Iranian retaliation will take. This matter has also been analyzed at length on this side of the fence by the US intelligence community, Pentagon, and outside advisers brought in to consult.

In short, the conclusion drawn is that the coming Iranian action will not adversely affect the calculus in the Persian Gulf area for US forces, or national interests. In all likelihood, the response will follow along the same lines of previous action, meaning attacks against US embassies, rocket strikes on bases where US troops are stationed, and perhaps a resumption of strikes against oil tankers operating in the Strait of Hormuz and Red Sea. Iran may also seek to punish US allies in the region for what Tehran views as their complicity in the killing of Soleimani. The coming 24-36 hours will reveal much about the direction Iran has chosen.

In any event, it did not take long for 2020 to produce its first geopolitical crisis.