Situated between Iraq and Afghanistan — two countries which have felt and fought against the might of the U.S. military for nearly two decades — Iran sees the writing on the wall. Iran's President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei don't want war with the U.S. They want to push the U.S. to fold and remove newly installed economic sanctions without pushing President Trump to war. Iranian strikes against oil pipelines and tankers have contributed to raising global oil prices. This seems to be an attempt to encourage Europe to work harder to push Trump to pull sanctions. However, Iran's recent downing of a U.S. drone reportedly led to President Trump approving then calling off air strikes against Iran.
The U.S. cannot afford another conflict in the Middle East/South Asia region. Attempts at a Taliban peace deal in Afghanistan are in a process of start and stop, and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq saw the rise of the Islamic State in the power vacuum caused by the removal of U.S. troops. Americans have long been weary of drawn-out conflicts which bleed money that could go to solving other pressing issues like immigration, education, and health care.
Though President Trump has demonstrated his willingness for limited strikes against Middle Eastern adversaries, like when he, France, and the United Kingdom ordered a missile strike against Syrian chemical weapons facilities in early 2018, he recognizes that direct military intervention in Iran would be political suicide. Though the Democratic presidential campaign is currently divided among over two dozen candidates, that number will soon begin to drop. If a somewhat moderate Democrat is able to secure party nomination, President Trump will need all the political capital he can muster to ensure that his potential voters do not decide to go for the Democrat who promises solutions to problems that have or may arise under Trump's leadership. If President Trump begins a war with Iran, that would certainly be a central topic in future debates.
At the same time, Trump cannot look weak in the face of Iranian belligerence. The JCPOA and Iranian nuclear aspirations have been a central talking point of his campaign and administration since the beginning. As such, he has been using non-kinetic means of threatening Iran to bring its leaders to the negotiating table through rhetoric, the removal of non-essential personnel from U.S. Embassy Baghdad, and the recent approval and canceling of an air strike. So far this has not borne any fruits. Nevertheless, it is too soon to tell if this non-kinetic approach will be successful.2 comments on this story
The nature of things will hopefully ensure that neither party starts a war which both cannot afford. Though it is possible that much of Europe would avoid involvement, Saudi Arabia and Israel will likely make sure to get their hits against Iran. The three nations could place official hostilities between themselves on hold and form a coalition if the conflict were to drag on for some time. Iran, meanwhile, can rest assured that Russia and maybe China will veto any UN Security Council resolutions. It can also potentially rely on some material support from Russia in the form of equipment and other necessities; nevertheless, Russia will not directly engage the American forces in conflict for fear of starting war between it and the U.S. Such a conflict is a Pandora's box which has been kept tightly shut for the past 70 years.
However, the nature of war footing may cloud perceptions and could potentially lead to a situation where one or both sides miscalculate the other's actions and unintentionally escalates to a direct conflict between the two nations. To hedge against this undesired possibility, the political and military leaders of both nations must be discerning of the other's intentions and sober in decision-making.