In Iran Showdown, Conflict Could Explode Quickly – and Disastrously

Yves here. This article gives important and depressing context into how armed conflict, far more often than people realize, tips into deadly wars.

By Bear F. Braumoeller, Baranov and Timashev Chair in Data Analytics and Professor of Political Science, The Ohio State University. Originally published at The Conversation

Despite the claims of optimists, the odds that an international conflict will snowball into a bloody war haven’t gone down significantly since the end of World War II. Trump administration officials’ confidence that the present conflict with Iran can be managed could be dangerously misplaced.

Since a drone strike at Baghdad airport that killed a top Iranian general, Iranians have been protesting in the streets in massive numbers, and their country has pulled out of the 2015 deallimiting its development of nuclear weapons. Iraq’s prime minister and Parliament have moved to kick the U.S. military outof their country – troops who have in the meantime stopped fighting the Islamic State group and are instead focusing on keeping themselves safe.

Iran has vowed “harsh revenge” for the Jan. 3 killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Policymakers in the Trump administration have said they believe that the use of force will prompt Iran to back down, or at least that any escalation will be manageable. My research into how conflicts begin and how deadly they get shows that while most wars don’t escalate very far, those that do can easily become catastrophic.


As memories of World War II and the Cold War fade into history, policymakers and the public are increasingly prone to think of large-scale warfare as a thing of the past.

But while most wars remain small, my own analysis of trends in warfare concludes that the threat of wars with large numbers of casualties has not decreased. It’s dangerous to assume that Iran will not escalate the crisis further, much less that the U.S. could limit any violence that might ensue.

Big Wars Are More Common Than People Think

Especially bloody deadly wars, while rare, are not actually as rare as most Westerners may think.

World War I and World War II are not even in the top three deadliest international wars in the past two centuries, based on the number of battle deaths as compared with the combined populations of the warring nations.

Two South American wars, the Paraguayan War of the late 1860s and the Chaco War from the mid-1930s, are the deadliest on record. The Paraguayan War, little known outside of military history circles, may have cost Paraguay half – or more – of its total prewar population. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the most recent of the top five, was the third when ranked by death rates. Only then come the two world wars.

Not every conflict becomes a massive war, of course. It is possible that Iran could be deterred by the threat of large-scale American retaliation, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued on Jan. 5. But it is dangerous to assume there won’t be a war, even if it’s true that neither Iran nor the U.S. wants one.

Escalation Is Very Hard to Predict

In late summer 1914, as World War I began, German Kaiser Wilhelm II famously promised his troops that they would be “home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.”

In World War II, even after Hitler had invaded Poland in 1939, American diplomats believed that economic pressure alone would suffice to bring Nazi Germany to its knees. In both cases, years of bloody warfare followed.

What I’ve found is that escalation typically results from chance occurrences that simply can’t be foreseen.

Virtually no one predicted the fall of France to the Nazis in the summer of 1940. No one could have known that President Harry Truman would decide, against the advice of his National Security Council, to send U.S. forces across the 38th parallel during the Korean War, and few observers anticipated that doing so would bring China into the conflict.

Major wars are “black swans” – rare but incredibly consequential events that cannot be predicted.

Chance Plays a Huge Role in War

The role of chance events in warfare can be dramatic.

Hitler’s successful invasion of France transformed what had been a problem of regional containment into a years-long global conflict with more than 16 million people killed in battle. A driver’s wrong turn in Sarajevo in 1914 turned what would have been a botched assassination attempt into World War I.

Chance works both ways, of course: The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented a hair-raising array of nuclear near-misses that mostly caused no harm but could have resulted in millions of deaths.

War can be volatile – while most remain small, big ones can come out of almost nowhere. I see in this imbalance a similarity to a concept called the “80/20” rule, in which 80% of outcomes come from 20% of cases: About 80% of world income, for example, is held by 20% of the global population.

In warfare, lethality of international conflict is considerably more concentrated. The data I analyzed shows that over the past 200 years, the deadliest 20% of wars are responsible for 98% of all battle deaths.

No one wants very large wars, and most wars do end up being relatively small. But the potential for chance events to blow up into massive conflicts means nobody really knows, and nobody can predict, when the next really big one will come along.

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28 comments

  1. marcel

    Interesting (but depressing) point of view. I have two qualms however.
    1. in the 2nd para., the author assembles so much nonsense I almost quit reading.

    Iranians have been protesting in the streets in massive numbers, and their country has pulled out of the 2015 deal limiting its development of nuclear weapons. Iraq’s prime minister and Parliament have moved to kick the U.S. military out of their country…

    For the record:
    – The Iranians were as much mourning their assassinated hero as ‘protesting’ (against what or whom?)
    – It is the US that pulled out of the deal (and EU ignoring the same deal). Iran is still acting withing the boundary of that deal.
    – Iran never had a plan for nuclear weapons (they have a fatwa against them). The deal was about nuclear energy not nuclear weapons.
    – Parliament has just made a statement that US should leave after its breach of contract, which is less strong than ‘kicking out’.

    2. It is a pity that only international conflicts are counted. So we don’t see e.g. the (relative) violence of the US Civil war, the Armenian or Rwandan genocide, the East-Kivu massacre, or the millions killed during colonial times.

    And yes, lots of possibilities for accidental tipping, and not much statemanship to avoid/redress it. I read Muslims are manifesting against the US embassy in Delhi of all places. Situation over there is already complex over Kashmir and the new citizenship laws.

    I think 2020 wil be an interesting year – in the Chinese sense.

    Reply
    1. Eureka Springs

      I’ll add:
      Slightly more than a majority of Iraqi parliament showed up for the vote to tell the U.S. it should leave with a non-binding resolution. A lot did not show up to vote at all.
      This post ignores the U.S. is the occupying aggressive beast farthest from it’s own borders with the most aggressive, dishonest, bloody record when it comes to “snowballing” all around the world for the last 75 years.
      One could easily argue the Iran Iraq war would not have happened without the likes of the U.S. encouraging Saddam. Similar arguments could be made about Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Libya today.
      And then there’s the company we keep, our best friends, Israel, Saudi Arabia.

      Reply
      1. redleg

        Apparently, the Sunnis and Kurds skipped the session. But the Sunni PM proposed the expulsion so that probably isn’t a big deal.

        Reply
    2. rusti

      The Iranians were as much mourning their assassinated hero as ‘protesting’ (against what or whom?)

      The link embedded in the “protesting” quote you cite makes it pretty clear that the author probably meant “mourning” rather than “protesting”.

      As always I think it’s a foolish to treat Iranians as a homogeneous blob. I was talking to a few Iranian friends this morning and they were incredulous at the idea that everyone would be stricken with grief over the assassination of “one of those Sepah jerks” and figured a lot of the people wearing black did so because they were expected to. They were surprised that I thought this represented a huge and genuine escalation in tensions when they say everyone they know has “impending doom fatigue” after years of false alarms. But these were highly educated women who have been living here in Europe for more than a decade for whom the ’79 revolution meant a terrible setback for their civilization.

      Reply
    1. Samuel Conner

      As I understand it, aside from the question of stockpiling products that they are supposed to export under the terms of the JCPOA but can’t because of sanctions, they are still operating entirely within the framework of the agreement, which specifies what limits they are allowed to exceed if other signatories violate their obligations.

      From their perspective, the JCPOA is still in effect.

      Reply
  2. xkeyscored

    Until I saw the line about Pompeo, I wasn’t sure if Oliver Knox’s tweet was serious or a spoof. It’s truly scary that idiots like these are anywhere near any levers of power, let alone the mighty USA’s. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, and big wars can come out of almost nowhere. What does Pompeo imagine US aggression will deter Iran from doing – being there? I doubt he’d be satisfied with less.
    And it should be unbelievable to see “We’ve got 40 years of acts of war that this regime has committed against countries in five continents.” Is 40 years insufficient to qualify as a Good Guy? If other nations adopted the Bethlehem Doctrine, they’d feel fully entitled to take out Pompeo, Elsper, Haspel, and a whole host of them immediately, on the grounds that they’re probably plotting more attacks. And wouldn’t they be obviously and absolutely right? The evidence is overwhelming, certainly by Bethlehem’s criteria.

    Reply
  3. Ignacio

    Arrogance can clearly be a cause for war. And what is more arrogant than believing you have control over the Future?

    Reply
  4. PlutoniumKun

    Just to note that the methodology on that graph seems to downplay deaths that the US (and China) is involved in by counting in the US population (or the Chinese population with the Korean War). Both the Korean and Vietnamese wars had death rates that far exceeded WWI and WWII when you simply look at the populations of those countries. Since neither the US nor China officially declared war on anyone, its legitimate I think to see those wars as Civil Wars with outside agents having a disproportionate impact in causing civilian deaths.

    Reply
    1. The Rev Kev

      An explanation in the high death rates in Vietnam may be explained by what I saw in Ken Burns’s “Vietnam” documentary series. He stated that the US strategy was to kill the Vietnamese fighting them at a faster rate than the Vietnamese birth rate. That is why the obsession with those body counts – it was the only way that they could measure for this.

      When the Vietnamese were being killed faster than they could be replaced, then eventually the Vietnamese would run out of replacements. But then Burns stated that this never happened in the war. And we know now that those body counts were mostly bogus anyway. A joke I heard at the time was that if an airstrike killed an 90 year-old and two 5-year olds, then they would report back a 100 body count to headquarters.

      Reply
    2. skk

      Good point – one should question adding up the deaths on both sides and then dividing it by adding up the populations of both sides. it leads to their number of 2.79 per 1000 for the Vietnam war ( 1000*1.02m/365m). Looking at Vietnam alone and using my stats gives it as 20 ! ( 1000*1.1m/50m).

      Then there’s excluding civilian deaths – the line between civilian and combatant has always been blurred ( cf Nader Shah’s massacre in Delhi in 1740s ).

      Reply
      1. The Historian

        Can you clarify? Are you saying, for instance, that we should count up all the deaths in Afghanistan and then divide those deaths by the total populations of Afghanistan and the US? That would hardly make sense, would it, since the killing was going on in Afghanistan and not in the US.

        Reply
  5. David

    “What I’ve found is that escalation typically results from chance occurrences that simply can’t be foreseen”

    Yes, well thanks for that blinding statement of the obvious. We’ll get back to you about your internship application.
    For several decades there’s been a thriving trade in attempts to use statistical and economic tools and methodologies to predict or analyze conflicts. Generally, as here, they show an ignorance of the historical background. For instance, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 was not the “cause” of the First World War. Indeed, it’s not clear that there was a cause in the ordinary sense of the term. Conrad, the Chief of the Hapsburg Army was looking for any excuse to humiliate Serbia militarily, and if it hadn’t been Sarajevo it would have been something else. He was confident in doing this because he thought that the Russians would not intervene on behalf of Serbia, fearing the Germans. And the rest is history, but of a very complicated and contorted type, which was highly contingent and could have turned out very differently . (The war could well have been over before the end of 1914, for example, if a few things had gone slightly differently). And I’m not sure what the example of France in 1940 is supposed to mean (Hitler always had settling scores with France as a priority) but I’m not going to go through the history in detail.
    There are some methodological points as well. If you are going to focus on battle deaths only, then wars between advanced states with conventional armies will appear far bloodier than wars where militia groups and armed groups of civilians are involved. Set-piece battles only happen in certain types of wars. And that means leaving civilian deaths out, when counting the dead. In some cases (WW1 on the Western Front ) that’s acceptable, but it clearly isn’t in the case of, for example, the wars in the DRC in the 1990s. Battle casualties probably never amounted to more than a few tens of thousands, but the overall death-toll was anything between 1-4 million, depending on how you calculate it (mostly excess deaths caused by hunger and disease). And that war was far from the product of chance: it was a deliberate attempt to Rwanda and Uganda to control the mineral resources of the DRC by placing a puppet on the Presidential throne in Kinshasa.
    So yes, wars can start by accident or inadvertence, and they can be very destructive. But I think we probably knew that, and I’m not sure that it has any particular applicability to this case.

    Reply
  6. rrennel

    I cannot help but recall the attack on US marines in Lebanon in 1983, where our “show of force” strategy was reversed by President Reagan, who decided to “cut and run.” A feckless show of force is more hopeless than doing nothing, but few leaders (especially an egotist person with narcissist personality disorder) have the courage to back-down (which is different than leading from behind).
    I am also reminded of the Kevin Costner movie No Way Out.

    Reply
    1. The Rev Kev

      That attack on US Marines was triggered by, how after professing they would not take any sides, the US doing precisely that and having two US Navy ships move in and heavily shell one side that was winning a fight onshore. The French were hit by a bombing too because they did an airstrike on a favoured side-

      http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/setting-the-record-straight-the-beirut-barracks-bombing/

      Senator John Glenn warned Reagan that deploying troops to Lebanon was a a bad idea and that you would have Americans come back in body bags and he was right. Pulling out was one of the most smartest things that Reagan ever did.

      Reply
      1. rrennel

        It is not possible for the French to be impartial. Like Trump, they always side with the best interests of their own wallet.

        Reply
  7. Peter L.

    I don’t believe it is true that “their country has pulled out of the 2015 deal limiting its development of nuclear weapons.” The AP article referenced is headlined, “Blowback: Iran abandons nuclear limits after US killing.” However, this is probably false.

    Iran claims to be sticking with the JCPOA, which allows for the actions Iran is currently taking, giving the behaviour of the other parties. See for example Zarif statement:

    https://twitter.com/JZarif/status/1213900666164432900

    “As 5th & final REMEDIAL step under paragraph 36 of JCPOA, there will no longer be any restriction on number of centrifuges

    This step is within JCPOA & all 5 steps are reversible upon EFFECTIVE implementation of reciprocal obligations

    Iran’s full cooperation w/IAEA will continue”

    I assume it is more complicated than this, and I’m misunderstanding. Yet, I believe that the facile claim that Iran is “abandoning” the JCPOA is highly misleading. It is dumbfounding given the role of the United States in trying to destroy the deal.

    And another thing! . . . there is a strong implication in the statement “their country has pulled out of the 2015 deal limiting its development of nuclear weapons.” In my reading of this statement, the author must be presupposing that Iran is in fact developing nuclear weapons, otherwise there would be no development to limit. Iran is almost certainly not developing nuclear weapons.

    Reply
  8. redleg

    Lets not forget that Pompeo et al. are religious extremists. This cult generally believes that a nuclear war in Megiddo area of Israel that involves Russia (Magog) will somehow initiate the second coming and the rapture.
    A tiny minority with control of the levers of power can kill millions and are immune to any rational thought or arguments.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      Let’s discuss the difference between Dogma and Belief.

      It’s the cult’s Dogma that Nukes are the trigger for the rapture. This must be a dogma created after WW II, and a reinterpretation of the Book of Revelations.

      I’d assert Pompeo only “believes in” his career.

      Reply
  9. ptb

    Firstly, the US very clearly violated and JCOPA, and has provoked the series of events leading up to this every step of the way. Our recent history in Iraq and the region is an epic series of deliberate crimes, not mistakes. I wish analysts would stop ignoring this, they do their own future a disservice.

    Secondly, what is happening now is that the Trump administration is deliberately picking a fight. It is not a matter of there being a “chance”… there is an intention. It would be tempting to think the simplest and most depressing explanation is not the correct one, but based on the record of the last 20 years, and consistent with the individuals making or providing support for Trump’s foreign policy decisions, it would be.

    Even aside from Trump’s inner team, there is a big reason that his political opponents will allow him to continue. With the ~50% possibility that Trump leaves office after 2020, the perfect scapegoat might be gone. In the super cynical view of foreign policy bigwigs doing their best to emulate the ruthless but revered ways of Kissinger, they will conclude that the time to do any really nasty foreign policy actions is now, while Trump can take the blame for it. 2020 is not going to be pretty.

    The quote about violence being the only language they speak is instructive. At the moment, it describes our country perfectly, has for a number of years now, but this might be a good opportunity to wake up to this grim reality. We’re living in an evil empire. The appropriate thing to do is to dismantle it in a peaceful way while that is still possible. In 10 or 20 years, that option will be gone too.

    Reply
    1. Anthony G Stegman

      The American evil empire can never be dismantled from within. The reason for this is quite simple: Expansion, empire, murder, and genocide is in our very DNA as a nation. The only reason for the existence of the United States is imperialism driven by capitalism. Outside forces will be required to dismantle this most evil of empires. These outside forces may include the impacts of climate change and ecocide, but will also likely include nuclear war that will destroy many American cities and render the countryside uninhabitable. There will be no “soft landing” for the American empire.

      Reply
  10. VietnamVet

    As the chart shows, wars are continuous. Humans fight over resources, for power. The 1812, Mexican and Indian Wars were all to seize more territory for the USA. In the American Civil War and WWI and II, industrialization increased the magnitude of the slaughter.

    Humans evolved in tribes. We can identify tiny differences in the faces of others. It aids survival. With the rise of nations and empires; nationalism, patriotism and propaganda rely on the innate human distrust of others.

    A world war would have ignited again sometime in the last 74 years except for the invention of atomic and then hydrogen bombs. Australia, Siberia and Western North America wildfires indicate that climate change if unaddressed will kill billions. Only by extraordinary luck or outside intervention has a human mass extinction event been avoided to date. Other species are already dying off.

    At least Donald Trump has made it explicit. There really is not a damn thing the Islamic Republic of Iran can do that will satisfy the rulers of the Western Empire. They don’t have nuclear weapons. Their pride and religion won’t allow them to be colonized again. They will not allow their oil fields to be run by western corporations. They won’t dismantle the conventional weapons that assure mutually assured destruction with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    The killing of the Iranian and Iraqi Shiite Militia Generals is so stupid that it is clear that White House is in the grip of insane delusion. All the big spikes in deaths are due to hubris and ignorance. That is what will ignite WWIII, finally.

    Reply
  11. Tony Wright

    The inevitable consequences of overpopulation as apply to any species, (including we arrogant humans who think we are above the laws of nature/ecology):
    Conflict,
    Famine,
    Disease.
    In our infinite wisdom we have added Climate Change due to our profligate use of fossil fuels.
    Too Many People and an economic system addicted to endless growth.
    If we do not address these two fundamental problems soon conflict, famine and disease will do it for us. Very destructively.
    Humans. Big Brains. Start using them.

    Reply

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