President Donald Trump announced yesterday that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) restricting Iranian nuclear development. This could have disastrous consequences for American servicemembers in the Middle East.
Iran has the ability to destabilize the region, and it often does so to promote or protect its interests. This is not unique to the Middle East; other regional powers around the world engage in similar behavior. But Iran is bordered by Afghanistan and Iraq, countries with high concentrations of Americans engaged in long-running nation-building operations. The laws of geopolitical physics make destabilization much easier than stabilization, so Iran can wreak havoc on our efforts with exponentially less investment than we put in.
Iran's destabilizing presence in Iraq since 2003 has been pronounced and devastating. Following the downfall of Saddam Hussein, Iran manipulated the sectarian tensions in Iraq and helped instigate a drawn-out civil conflict that has caused tens of thousands of Allied casualties. In 2015, General Joseph Dunford estimated that more than 500 American deaths in Iraq between 2005 and 2011 could be directly linked to Iran. Tehran's political and military influence on Iraq's Shia population not only prolonged the war but helped alienate Iraqi Sunni tribes, delivering that population into the hands of Al Qaeda and later ISIS with reverberations throughout the world.
In Afghanistan the situation is more complicated, since the Iranians and Americans share a common foe in the Taliban and affiliated groups. But Tehran opposes an American presence on its borders, and it suspects the U.S. of using Afghanistan as a base of intelligence activities against it. A 2014 RAND corporation study concluded that the Iranian government can increase pressure through economic, political, and military means on Washington's efforts in Afghanistan if it chooses.
With the U.S. pulling out of the JCPOA and reinstating sanctions on Iran, any good will that exists between our countries will evaporate. If history is a guide, Tehran will retaliate by ramping up efforts across its borders against Americans and American objectives.
And that will run headlong into two of President Trump's—and the American people's—other priorities: defeating ISIS and ending the conflict in Afghanistan.
Should a jilted Iran seek vengeance against the United States, they will likely start by reenergizing the Shia militias in Iraq and increasing support for Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. Both actions would compromise counterterrorism objectives and reopen the Sunni grievances that empower radical groups like ISIS. Washington's triumph over ISIS could quickly be undone or, worse, lead to a more violent sectarian fragmentation in the Levant that pulls in U.S. allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
On the campaign trail, Trump said the Afghan war "wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure." But as president, Trump sided with his predecessors by increasing troop levels there to battle insurgents, hoping that stability will follow and give us the elusive graceful exit. While the merits of that strategy were already dubious at best, any chance at success could be greatly jeopardized by a disgruntled Iranian government. The United States would actually have more leverage over Iran and its nuclear ambitions if we were not stuck in a conflict right next door.
The Afghan and Iraqi conflicts have taken a terrible toll on our warriors already, and it would be unwise to assume they won't be targeted again if relations deteriorate. Obviously, the United States has the ability to overwhelmingly retaliate against Tehran. But a war with Iran is not in our interest either. At a time when we should be reducing our Middle East presence and re-focusing on higher-priority threats, an Iran war would draw us in further, at great expense in both money and lives.
Protecting the lives of American servicemembers and minimizing the risk of war should be high priorities for the commander-in-chief. Those responsibilities became significantly tougher this week.