Pollack concurred with the need to enlarge the problem. “The right way to have handled this would have been to create a security architecture for the Persian Gulf.” This way, issues could be tackled together instead of separately, allowing players to address difference countries’ real and legitimate grievances.
Finally, the panelists believed another problem was whether the Iranians might accidentally misread America’s unclear redlines and push too far, resulting in a conflict. Pillar noted that Iran appeared to be leaving the door open to diplomacy because they only partially withdrew from the JCPOA and deliberately only damaged oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, instead of sinking them. Pollack noted that, conversely, the Iranians may see Trump as weak and therefore take military actions they think are meant to deter but would cause a forceful response.
This problem is made more dangerous because America’s interests and red lines seem to shift depending on which public official is doing the speaking. “Classical security dilemma-like stuff,” said Pillar, could cause unintended escalation. He elaborated that every defensive military move made by one side is regarded as offensive and threatening by the other, raising the risk of conflict and the need to respond.
None of the participants suggested that it is likely that a breakthrough would happen anytime soon. Iran appears intent on standing firm and any non-military resolution to the crisis would likely either involve Tehran managing to outlast U.S. pressure or else a new deal being made that only slightly modified the old one. Pillar suggested that one solution might be for the Iranians to offer cosmetic changes and allow Trump to broadcast them as a great breakthrough, similar to his handling of the North American Free Trade Agreement. For now, however, the danger of escalation and war loom large.
John Dale Grover is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest.