Over a year since Washington withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, Tehran is no longer content with sitting on its hands. The Iranians—increasingly tired of being squeezed financially due to the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign—are meeting pressure with pressure of their own.
The situation between the United States and Iran is on the cusp of a dangerous conflagration that could rapidly escalate into a shooting war. This is not hyperbole, but rather a reality getting more likely every day serious diplomacy isn’t pursued. On July 18, the Pentagon confirmed that the USS Boxer jammed an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz that approached within 1,000 yards of the ship despite being issued repeated warnings to stand down The incident occurred less than a month after the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a U.S. surveillance drone, prompting a retaliatory U.S. response that President Donald Trump said was called off at the last minute. The threat of conflict will continue to hover over the situation for as long as maximum pressure dominates U.S. policy.
To his credit, President Trump doesn’t want a war with Iran. He understands that a war would not only be opposed by the American people, but would also be a violation of a central election promise of his 2016 presidential campaign: no more endless, burdensome, and counterproductive wars in the Middle East. The president would ultimately like to sit down with Iranian leaders at a table, the cameras rolling, and negotiate a new nuclear accord—one that would include more stringent terms. The chances of this happening, however, are virtually nonexistent thanks to the tools Trump has chosen to use. As demonstrated over the preceding months, the Iranians do not respond positively to economic coercion.
As John Mearsheimer wrote in a July 1 New York Times op-ed, “There is no evidence that Iran is likely to capitulate to American demands.” Indeed, Tehran has done precisely the opposite. A maximum pressure policy that was sold by its advocates inside the administration as a sledgehammer that would compel Iranian subservience to American demands has proven to be a deeply misguided approach. The main ingredient baked into the policy—that bankrupting Iran’s economy will eventually result in Iranian capitulation across its entire foreign policy—has been exposed as naive and dangerous. Iran has met sanctions and diplomatic isolation with resistance and aggression.
There is no doubt the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy is having a significant economic impact on Tehran. The Iranians have seen their oil sales plummet to new depths; crude exports have decreased approximately 88 percent between April 2018 to June 2019. Washington’s decision to revoke sanctions waivers for Iran’s biggest consumers is contributing to a weakening of an Iranian economy already suffering from mismanagement and corruption. The International Monetary Fund projects a 6 percent decline in Tehran’s GDP this year.
None of these statistics, however, mean much if they help unleash an even more dire situation in the region. Far from laying down and signing a surrender document, Iran’s foreign policy is becoming more bold and destabilizing. Tehran’s decision to enrich uranium at a higher rads than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action permits is only the start; sabotage to six civilian tankers in the Persian Gulf since May, likely perpetrated by Tehran or its proxies, was a message to Washington that fire will be met with fire.
President Trump is at a crossroads on his Iran policy. As commander-in-chief, he is responsible for the policies of his administration regardless of where in the government they originate. Bolton, Pompeo, and certain think-tanks in the Beltway may have written the policy, but Trump now owns it.
Fortunately, the president doesn’t have to settle for an approach that could very well instigate a war nobody—least of all the American people—want.
The first order of business for Trump is to stop listening to the hawks on his national security team who have helped put him in the massive hole he now finds himself in. The first rule of climbing out of a hole is to stop digging. That means realizing he was sold a bill of goods by a foreign policy establishment which has been given the benefit of the doubt despite being wrong time and time again.
After Trump takes stock, he should go in a drastically different direction. Instead than responding to Iranian retaliation by doubling down with more sanctions, export restrictions, offensive arms sales, and threats of military force, he should provide the Iranians with an opportunity to pursue a diplomatic off-ramp. The current strategy, where Iranian officials are being expected to wave the white flag before even reaching the negotiating table, is about as likely to succeed as a climber scaling Mount Everest without a coat.
There are a number of options available to Trump if he is bold enough to seize them. The least he could do is direct his subordinates to open a line of communication to senior Iranian leadership, perhaps at Secretary Pompeo’s level, to initiate a discussion about stabilizing the situation and ensuring the dispute doesn’t escalate into a crisis. He could offer an interim deal with any number of elements; for instance, Washington could reinstate conditional sanctions waivers on Tehran’s oil exports in exchange for the Iranians coming back into compliance with the JCPOA and refraining from additional attacks of tankers sailing in the Strait of Hormuz. Trump could even go big by stating to the Iranians his intention to negotiate an all-for-all deal, whereby all issues of concern between the two countries (of which there are many) could be on the table for adjudication.
Granted, having witnessed the Trump administration walking away from a nuclear agreement that was painstakingly negotiated over nearly three years, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may refuse any additional negotiations with the White House. It is highly likely Khamenei is waiting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election, hoping for a more flexible American president.
Whatever the details, the main theme remains: Trump still has time to prevent a needlessly foolish confrontation—one that would make the war in Iraq look like a picnic and which would totally upend Washington’s intention to refocus its foreign policy on peer competitors such as China.
Iran, at bottom, is a troublemaker other governments in the Middle East can handle. With solid majorities of Americans and U.S. veterans viewing the wars of the last 18 years as not worth the blood, sweat, tears, and American taxpayer money required to fight them, the last thing the United States needs is one more costly conflict.
The president seems to recognize this. After all, he ran against endless wars. The open question is whether he will exhibit the leadership necessary to turn the page on the mistakes of the past.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.
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