There’s danger on the Iranian side, too. Maximum pressure may be aimed at inducing Iranian capitulation. But the Iranians have every reason to look for alternatives. Idealists at the State Department say that the twelve U.S. demands on Iran ask nothing more than for it to become a normal nation. Realists looking at the underlying strategic logic will recognize that the twelve demands add up to one: that Iran abandon most of the tools it has for seeking security against its enemies. Backing down in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and beyond would remove Iran’s strategic depth and give up venues for striking back at, pressuring or diverting its foes. Abandoning its ballistic missile program, too, and Tehran would be left only with its obsolete air force to take the fight to its enemies. Abandon the nuclear program, and Iran would lose its option on the only really certain deterrent against regime change. (Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi gave up their nuclear weapons programs and were overthrown and killed; Kim Jong-un kept his and got a summit in Singapore.)
The underlying logic applies regardless of whether Iran’s ultimate intentions are expansionist or not: concede the twelve points, and Iran will have many fewer options in defensive scenarios, not just offensive ones. And Tehran has reason to be paying attention to its defenses at the moment, given the number of powers arrayed against it and the many recent incidents. Viewed through Tehran’s eyes, the twelve points request that Iran unilaterally disarm as its enemies press against it. If Iran chooses to concede and weaken itself, it would be making a bet that those enemies would not take advantage of that weakness. This would require Iran to trust those enemies, since it would have no recourse if the bet goes bad. From Iran’s perspective, the nuclear deal turned out to be just such a bet gone bad. If America were faced with a similar situation, would we see giving in as a sound path?
Thus, the more effective maximum pressure is, the more dangerous it becomes, since it will increase Tehran’s incentives to look for other ways out. Violence and potential war against the United States are very, very risky and very, very uncertain, but if the regime sees itself as facing a choice between certain collapse and certain surrender, the more uncertain alternatives will become attractive and even sound. Full-court shots usually are not smart in basketball, but they are when your team is down and there’s only a second left on the clock.
These are not the only paths. Tehran may try to wait out Trump. It may try to outfox America with negotiations, serious or not, or to get Russia or China to take more risks to get around the sanctions. (This is only likely to work in the event of much more serious U.S. confrontations with these countries.) Iran may hope that America will once again try to convert the sanctions into an imperfect deal, rather than holding fast to the twelve points. It may offer Trump a Singapore-style summit with Hassan Rouhani. But no matter what, the risk of war with Iran is higher now than it was before. The administration must tread carefully. Big, dumb, bloody wars destroyed the greater President Johnson and the lesser President Bush. The risk President Trump is taking now is not likely to yield benefits to him—to say nothing of the American people.
John Allen Gay, executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society, is coauthor of War With Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences.