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Maximum Pressure on Iran Means Maximum Risk of War
Trump’s strategy is creating a crisis, not solving one.
Reports of attacks Thursday in the Gulf of Oman against a Norwegian and a Japanese oil tanker signal a potentially significant increase of tensions in the Middle East among Iran, the United States, and the Gulf States. Washington should not let Iran off the hook, as Tehran is likely responsible for this inexcusable attack. At the same time, observers should recognize that the attack is a direct result of the Trump administration’s failing so-called maximum pressure strategy, which is aimed at bringing Iran back to the negotiating table with the United States but is instead leading the two countries to the brink of conflict.
Even though U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration lacks credibility, and there are certainly hawks inside the administration willing to inflate intelligence, Iran almost certainly carried out the attack. Iran has a history of conducting these types of operations—and reportedly conducted a similar attack just last month.
Acknowledging that this was most likely an Iranian operation and that the United States should hold Iran accountable, it is equally important to remain cleareyed about what motivated the attack: the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. Since leaving the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, the Trump administration has been doing all it can to strangle the Iranian economy through sanctions. For a year, Iran responded by remaining in the deal and trying to use that restraint to isolate the United States and pick up support from China, Russia, and Europe. Iran did achieve the effect of splitting the United States from the rest of the P5+1 that signed the 2015 nuclear deal (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany), but it could never translate that political achievement into economic benefits, as companies in these countries were unwilling to risk losing market access to the United States. So Trump thought he could have it both ways: continuing to squeeze Iran without facing retaliation.
But it appears Iran has had enough. The straw that broke the camel’s back was most likely the Trump administration’s decision in early May to not grant any more waivers for countries buying Iranian oil in an attempt to drive Iranian oil sales to zero. With little to lose, Iran now seems to have begun striking out at oil tankers in the Gulf as a way of sending a message to the United States and the Gulf States that there are costs for continuing the maximum pressure campaign.
When attacks began last month, the Trump administration responded by very publicly moving military assets to the Middle East and putting out a threatening message from National Security Advisor John Bolton. The White House said it had restored the deterrence that had evaporated under the Obama administration—a ridiculous claim, because Iran had not pursued these types of actions since Washington and Tehran began seriously negotiating in 2013. There was nothing to restore—this was a crisis of the Trump administration’s own making.
Perhaps most worrying are the timing of the attacks and what they say about who is driving policy in Tehran. The attacks came as Shinzo Abe was conducting the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Tehran in 40 years. More pragmatic voices such as Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif might support some quiet sabotage attacks to send a message, but they would never support carrying them out in a way that would embarrass Abe and completely undercut a historic visit. The fact that these attacks occurred after the same day Abe met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who then tweeted a rejection of Abe’s effort to mediate between Iran and the United States, seems to signal that the pragmatists are no longer at the helm.
Ever since Trump’s election in 2016 and the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal last year, Zarif and Rouhani have managed to continue controlling the diplomatic file but have been fighting off intense criticism from hard-liners. Even Rouhani’s announcement last month that Iran would give the world powers 60 days to make good on the economic benefits that it was promised in the nuclear deal before starting to violate the agreement had the hallmarks of a cautious gradualist approach that the president has advocated for in the past year. Thursday’s events represent a dramatic departure from that strategy and might signal a decision by Khamenei and those around him to pursue a much more aggressive and confrontational policy with the United States, which would dramatically increase the chances of conflict.
Abe was in Iran at the encouragement of Trump, who continues to want new negotiations with Iran even as he tries to strangle its economy. The best way to communicate with Trump directly is through a head of state who can go around Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Bolton, and others. It was South Korea’s direct appeal to Trump that got the North Korea negotiations started last year and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s phone call with Trump in December 2018 that almost resulted in all U.S. troops being pulled out of Syria. Abe could have presented a similar channel for Iran to de-escalate tensions. Instead, the bridge is burned. And worse, Trump might see these developments as a direct affront. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Trump does not want a prolonged war in the Middle East, but one way to provoke him is to publicly embarrass him.
Pompeo’s initial reaction to the tanker attacks called for diplomacy at the United Nations—not military action. But there is no question that in the days ahead there will be voices in Washington and in the administration pushing for strikes on Iran. They will argue for something analogous to the limited strikes Trump ordered against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in 2017. They will claim that Iran will not respond if the United States sends a clear message by striking Iranian naval facilities.
Do not believe these arguments. The same logic held that leaving the nuclear deal and pursuing maximum pressure would not result in any Iranian response. Iran is not Assad’s shell of a state, devastated by years of civil war. It has the capacity to respond aggressively and would most likely respond to strikes with attacks on U.S. troops, more naval actions, or by launching missiles at military bases in the Gulf States. The risk of escalation is high and not worth the cost. This would be a wise moment for Trump to follow his own advice and not get the United States mired in another war in the Middle East.