Covert action against Gulf shipping might be another tactic to gain leverage. What is the proper response to this tactic? War requires congressional approval; the 2001 authorization for use of military force that Congress passed after 9/11 won’t do. Dredging up long-ignored claims of supposed Iranian ties to the terrorist organization is just a pretext, especially since successive administrations ignored Saudi and Emirati connections to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the Yemen war and the Obama administration aided an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
More important, Washington does not want to go to war with Iran, which is larger than Iraq, has three times the population, and is a real country. The regime, while unpopular with many Iranians, is much better rooted than Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Tehran possesses unconventional weapons, missiles, and allies which could spread chaos throughout the region. American forces in Syria and Iraq would be vulnerable, while Baghdad’s stability could be put at risk. If Americans liked the Iraq debacle, then they would love the chaos likely to result from attempting to violently destroy the Iranian state. David Frum, one of the most avid neoconservative advocates of the Iraq invasion, warned that war with Iran would repeat Iraqi blunders on “a much bigger sale, without allies, without justification, and without any plan at all for what comes next.”
Iran also has no desire for war, which it would lose. However, Washington’s aggressive economic and military policies create pressure on Tehran to respond. Especially since administration policy—sanctions designed to crash the economy, military moves preparing for war—almost certainly have left hardliners, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who opposed negotiations with Washington, ascendant in Tehran.
Carefully calibrated military action, such as tanker attacks, might be intended to show “resolve” to gain credibility. Washington policymakers constantly justify military action as necessary to demonstrate that they are willing to take military action. Doing so is even more important for a weaker power. Moreover, observed the Eurasia Group, Iranian security agencies “have a decades-long history of conducting attacks and other operations aimed precisely at undermining the diplomatic objectives of a country’s elected representatives.” If Iran is responsible, observed Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, then administration policy perversely “is rendering Iran more aggressive, not less,” thereby making the Mideast more, not less dangerous.
Of course, Tehran has denied any role in the attacks and there is good reason to question unsupported Trump administration claims of Iranian guilt. The president’s indifferent relationship to the truth alone raises serious questions. Europeans also point to Bush administration lies about Iraq and the fabricated 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident used to justify America’s entry into the Vietnam War. Even more important, the administration ostentatiously fomented the current crisis by trashing the JCPOA, launching economic war against Iran, threatening Tehran’s economic partners, and insisting on Iran’s submission. A cynic might reasonably conclude that the president and his aides hoped to trigger a violent Iranian response.
Other malicious actors also could be responsible for tanker attacks. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel, ISIS, and Al Qaeda all likely believe they would benefit from an American war on Tehran and might decide to speed the process along by fomenting an incident. Indeed, a newspaper owned by the Saudi royal family recently called for U.S. strikes on Iran. One or the reasons Al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks was to trigger an American military response against a Muslim nation. A U.S.-Iran war would be the mother of all Mideast conflagrations.
Rather than continue a military spiral upward, Washington should defuse Gulf tensions. The administration brought the Middle East to a boil. It can calm the waters. Washington should stand down its military, offering to host multilateral discussions with oil consuming nations, energy companies, and tanker operators over establishing shared naval security in sensitive waterways, including in the Middle East. Given America’s growing domestic energy production, the issue no longer should be considered Washington’s responsibility. Other wealthy industrialized states should do what is necessary for their economic security.
The administration also should make a serious proposal for talks. It won’t be easy. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared “negotiation has no benefit and carries harm.” He further argued that “negotiations are a tactic of this pressure,” which is the ultimate “strategic aim.” Even President Hassan Rouhani rejected contact without a change in U.S. policy. “Whenever they lift the unjust sanctions and fulfill their commitments and return to the negotiations table, which they left themselves, the door is not closed,” he said. In back channel discussions Iranians supposedly suggested that the U.S. reverse the latest sanctions, at least on oil sales, ending attempts to wreck Iran’s economy.
If the president seriously desires talks with Tehran, then he should demonstrate that he does not expect preemptive surrender. The administration should suspend its “maximum pressure” campaign and propose multilateral talks on tightening the nuclear agreement in return for additional American and allied concessions, such as further sanctions relief.
In parallel, Washington should propose negotiations to lower tensions in other issues. But there truly should be no preconditions, requiring the president to consign the Pompeo list to a White House fireplace. In return for Iranian willingness to drop confrontational behavior in the region, the U.S. should offer to reciprocate—for instance, indicate a willingness to cut arms sales to the Saudis and Emiratis, end support for the Yemen war, and withdraw American forces from Syria and Iraq. Tehran has far greater interest in neighborhood security than the United States, which Washington must respect if the latter seeks to effectively disarm Iran. The administration should invite the Europeans to join such an initiative, since they have an even greater reason to worry about Iranian missiles and more.
Most important, American policymakers should play the long-game. Rather than try to crash the Islamic Republic and hope for the best, Washington should encourage Iran to open up, creating more opportunity and influence for a younger generation that desires a freer society. That requires greater engagement, not isolation. Washington’s ultimate objective should be the liberal transformation of Iran, freeing an ancient civilization to regain its leading role in today’s world, which would have a huge impact on the region.
The Trump administration is essentially a one-trick pony when it comes to foreign policy toward hostile states. The standard quo is to apply massive economic pressure and demand surrender. This approach has failed in every case. Washington has caused enormous economic hardship, but no target regime has capitulated. In Iran, like North Korea, U.S. policy sharply raised tensions and the chances of conflict.
War would be a disaster. Instead, the administration must, explained James Fallows, “through bluff and patience, change the actions of a government whose motives he does not understand well, and over which his influence is limited.” Which requires the administration to adopt a new, more serious strategy toward Tehran, and quickly.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. This first appeared earlier in 2019.