President Donald Trump has imposed more economic sanctions on Iran. In response, Iranian officials denounced the sanctions. Does diplomacy have a chance in this situation? Or is war inevitable?

Going to war is the highest responsibility of any government. Once violence is unleashed, it is difficult to keep under control because emotions recede into enmity and often blur into hatred. For those who experience death in any conflict — from a limited action to a war fought to a definitive and absolute conclusion — death is always total.

President Trump’s decision not to use military force against a limited number of targets in retaliation for shooting down an unmanned drone probably was wise — especially given the estimated casualty rate of 150 Iranians. There would have been an arguable issue of disproportionality when put up against the loss of a drone estimated to have cost $130,000,000. The ratio would have valued each life lost at $886,666.67, and that’s not a cost-benefit analysis a civilized society can embrace.

The Iranian leadership epitomizes the term “bad actors.” Its declared strategic objective is to destroy Israel (“Little Satan”) and the United States (“Great Satan”). Many Americans, whether liberal or conservative, may well see these declarations as hyperbolic scimitar-rattling. Israelis, however, will not — given Adolf Hitler stated clearly in Mein Kampf what he intended with the rubric of a Judenfreies Europa, “Jew-Free from the Baltic to the Caspian, not one Jew.” For Israel, there can be no limited war with Iran because three nuclear detonations renders a Jew-Free Palestine from Haifa south to Gaza.

As President Trump and his advisers well know, Iran has been at war with the United States since Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranian mobs invaded the United States embassy in Tehran. Since then Iran has conducted a proxy war with the United States by supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. Tehran’s bloody hands are behind the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans; bombing the U.S. Marine compound in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, killing 220 Marines and 21 other service personnel; and bombing Kobar Towers on June 25, 1996, killing 19 members of the U.S. Air Force along with 488 other people of various nationalities. Hundreds of other Americans have been targeted and killed throughout the region, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Africa by groups with direct ties to Tehran and its Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The United States already has plenty of pretexts for a showdown with the ayatollahs. If this situation continues, as is certainly possible, the increasingly likely outcome will be war.

In August 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson — in an election year race against Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater — faced his opponent’s charges of being soft on communism and not ardent enough in support of the Saigon regime’s escalating war with the indigenous Communist Viet Cong guerrillas supported by North Vietnam. Then, in response to U.S. Naval intelligence gathering operations off the coast of North Vietnam, combined with a U.S.-supported South Vietnamese commando raid on one of North Vietnam’s islands, several patrol boats made a run on two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin on the night of Aug. 7, 1964. Not wanting to risk deeper involvement, President Johnson demurred. His Republican opponents lambasted Johnson’s indecisiveness. The next night, with reports of another attack, Johnson reacted — as it turns out without conclusive evidence the raid had, in fact, occurred. The reaction was both limited and seemingly worthwhile. President Johnson had demonstrated resolve by taking military action and restraint by limiting the attack to specific torpedo-boat bases and radar installations. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that followed provided a nearly free hand to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia. It passed with only two dissenting votes in the Senate. The ultimate cost was nine more years of war, 58,000 dead Americans, and a nation rife with division.

In August 1964, Johnson took action with the nation solidly behind him. Today, that is not the case for President Trump. The United States found itself somewhat isolated from allies during its Vietnam experience, but it didn’t need allies. Whatever was happening in Southeast Asia didn’t affect the world economically or in a geo-strategic sense. It was the ultimate “limited war.” It did, however, divide the American people and end three presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford.

Although the cost would be high, war with Iran is something the United States is capable of doing militarily. The United States would win on the battlefield, but Iran would unleash a worldwide terror attack. Economies in Asia, including China and Japan, would be jeopardized. Russia would become more bellicose, and its intervention could not be ruled out.

If, however, Iran proceeds unimpeded toward obtaining nuclear weapons, Israel will strike. The United States likely would support Israel. If Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, then Jerusalem would respond in kind, along with the United States. Then Armageddon has arrived. America could experience nuclear strikes.

The point here is clear: This is a dangerous situation without attractive options.

Earl Tilford, Ph.D., is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East and terrorism with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Tilford earned his Ph.D. in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he became a professor at Grove City College.

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