ArgumentOn the Current Confrontation with Iran

Published 10 January 2020

Robert Jervis, the eminent scholar of international relations, writes that in trying to predict the next move in the U.S.-Iran confrontation, “Most obviously, humility is in order”: “Most of our generalizations are probabilistic,” Jervis notes. He writes that Trump may have calculated that the bold move of killing Soleimani would deter Iran from continuing to pursue the kind of malign activities Soleimani had orchestrated, and coerce Iran to be more accommodating on other issues, for example, the nuclear issue. But for the target country, being deterred or coerced is a matter of choice – a costly choice, but still a choice. And we should not discount the unexpected: “World politics rarely follows straight paths,” he writes.

“Most obviously, humility is in order,” Professor Robert Jervis, the author of many important books on international relations — among them How Statesmen Think: The Psychology of International Politics (2017); Perception and Misperception in International Politics, New Edition (2017); Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (2011); and System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (1999) – writes in War on the Rocks in a discussion of the likely repercussions of the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

Most of our generalizations are probabilistic, and we are in a situation of strategic interaction where multiple actors are trying to anticipate what others will do, knowing that others are doing likewise. As Erik Gartzke explained in his important article years ago, to the extent that the people scholars study come to believe these theories, they will become self-denying prophecies as people behave in ways to avoid the undesired consequences. My guess is that neither President Donald Trump nor the Iranians know what they will do next (and what they think they will do may be different from what they will do when the time comes). While it is possible for analysts to do a better job of predicting how events will unfold than the decision-makers themselves, we should not count on this. The fact that no one I know predicted that Trump would order Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s assassination should give us further pause about our ability to estimate what will come next.

Jervis notes that Trump may have calculated that a decisive move, such as killing a leading Iranian general, would serve two purposes: Deterring Iran from continuing to pursue the kind of malign activities Soleimani orchestrated, and coercing Iran to be more accommodating on other issues, for example, the nuclear issue.

But “[t]he success of coercion depends on the adversary’s choices,” Jervis writes. “In making a bold move, as Trump did, he may think that he has taken the initiative and is in control. But this is not the case. Iran may choose acquiescence as the path most in its interest, but this indeed is a choice. Although the United States has great influence over how things develop, American well-being and Trump’s reelection prospects are now in Iranian hands. American and Iranian futures are interdependent.”

Jervis suggests we should discount the unexpected. He writes that just as the Cuban missile crisis was followed by a warming of U.S.-Soviet relations, the United States and Iran may well learn from the current episode that if they continue on the current course, they are running unacceptably high risks. [I]f not a rapprochement, then at least an informal understanding is needed to avoid disasters,” Jervise writes, adding: “World politics rarely follows straight paths.”