The Middle East region and the American foreign-policy establishment are breathing a collective sigh of relief, as President Donald Trump has dialed back U.S. threats to Iran and undercut his administration's top hawks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. But while tensions in the Persian Gulf may appear to be getting lower as a result, the likelihood of military exchanges between the United States and Iran are actually increasing.
In fact, this simmering crisis is entering a new, more dangerous phase. With armed forces on both sides on high alert, additional American naval and aerial hardware newly arrived in theater, and Saudi Arabia having pounded the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel force in Yemen for its attack on a major Saudi oil pipeline, there remains not only the potential for an unintended clash or misfire, but also a worrying threat that misperception may lead to conflict.
Iran prides itself on being able to ascertain what American intentions are, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and numerous other high ranking Iranian officials having studied in the United States as undergraduates or postgraduates—although their overconfidence in this regard hurt them in the eleventh hour of the negotiations between Zarif and former Secretary of State John Kerry, which in the end led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal).
The Costs of Misperception
Back in 2015, Iran incorrectly believed it had the United States over a barrel in the final phase of the JCPOA negotiations. The Obama administration had made a mistake, publicly describing the ongoing negotiations with Iran as a “foreign-policy success”—causing Iran to believe that American preferences for a deal were even stronger than they were.
This resulted in Iran failing to have a plan B when Kerry walked out of negotiations due to Iranian stalling on the strength of surveillance measures. Zarif, mistakenly believing that Washington wanted the deal even more than Tehran did, stonewalled. This led Kerry to announce (after he conferred with Obama directly) that he would walk away and return to Washington. With no backup plan in place, and having strong preferences in favor of the deal itself, Iran caved.
Fast-forward to the present crisis in the Gulf, the specter of Iran misperceiving American intentions has once again arisen—and this time with potentially more dangerous consequences. Consider, for example, that Iran is the likeliest culprit behind two recent, notable events in the region: the sabotage of four oil tankers in UAE and an armed drone attack on a Saudi pipeline (the latter was carried out by the Houthi rebel force in Yemen, who are a known client of Tehran).
Iran is likely to seek to push the ante even further, for it now perceives that it got away with these two hostile actions with no American military repercussions. Meanwhile, Trump is now openly criticizing his own forward-leaning national security advisor on how to handle Iran. This scenario is ripe for misperception on the part of the Iranians, who feel emboldened, based on the latest statements made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other top officials.
Iran and the Houthis attacked American allies (the UAE and Saudi Arabia) on a small scale in order to send them a message: if a war were to break out between Iran and the United States, then these allies would be undefendable targets of Iranian forces. Saudi Arabia itself has already taken revenge for the Houthi pipeline attack with a fresh wave of intense bombing of Houthi positions in Yemen, including in the capital of Sanaa.
With hardliners in Tehran on the ascendency, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is highly motivated to lash out at American forces in the region. Such moves might include lower-level actions, such as firing in the vicinity of patrolling American aircraft or swarming larger U.S. naval ships with armed speedboats in the Gulf.
It is only somewhat less likely that Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani may decide to target U.S. forces directly with the intention of inflicting real damage or unleash Iranian-backed militias in Iraq on the U.S. forces in there—falsely believing that the United States will not respond in kind. In fact, the United States would respond without question—and likely in a sustained and withering fashion.
Iran thus appears to be underestimating American propensity for attacking it at this stage, incentivizing it to raise the military stakes. With opposition to Bolton’s drive for regime change in Congress, America’s closest allies, the State and Defense Departments, and now even the president himself, Iran may step right across a U.S. red line with highly costly consequences almost certain to transpire.
Wagging the Dog?
While Bolton issued the full throttle threat to Iran, it was Pompeo who let it slip that “it’s something we’ve been working on for a little while.” In Washington, it is language of this sort that conjures up fear that the administration may be engaged in a “wag the dog” operation—preparing to attack Iran not for military reasons, but political ones instead.
With talk of impeaching Trump in the air and Democrats in the House of Representatives firing a battery of subpoenas at the administration, not to mention Trump being behind the top seven Democratic presidential candidates in head-to-head polling, on some level there may be a temptation for Trump to order an attack on Iran and kill two birds with one stone. There may be, however, more than meets the eye involved here.
The more likely explanation of what may be a fifty percent chance the Trump team will launch strikes on Iran appears to have more to do with the long-held animosity that both Bolton and Pompeo have harbored toward Iran. With this pair of high-placed hawks and their strong intent to “take care” of the Iran problem, as they see it, persuading their boss—with his close ties to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and two years of harsh rhetoric—appears to be almost a foregone conclusion.
Last month the United States designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization against the advice of U.S. defense and intelligence officials, who had warned of a backlash threat to American troops in the region. They were overruled by principals, including Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. This constituted a first, deeming part of an actual foreign government to be a terrorist entity.
In fact, therein lies what may have appealed to the principal decisionmakers: hope that Iran might take the bait. No doubt the Trump team knows it needs to build legitimacy for its intended action. Subsequently, almost on cue, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani approved a law declaring all U.S. troops in the region as terrorists, with the regime going even further in labeling the U.S. government a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Trump team appears to have laid a trap for Iran, attempting to provoke it into an action that crosses an administration red line. Although a high-ranking British commander of allied forces in the Middle East publicly stated that there has not been an increased threat with Iran, either in Syria or the Persian Gulf, Shanahan briefed U.S. foreign-policy principals on a military plan for decapitating the Iranian regime with 120,000 troops and a major naval assault—one of the military options ordered by Bolton.
Thus, Iran may be playing with fire more than it realizes, and appears to truly be under threat from the United States despite being in full compliance with the JCPOA. In addition, it actually is in sync with European signatories to the deal, who recently reiterated their support of it in conjunction with Washington's increasing economic pressure on Iran by canceling waivers for other countries to purchase Iranian oil.
Now We Know
In fact, even if it doesn’t go through with the military attack on Iran, the United States is risking that Iran will at long last either begin cheating on the JCPOA or initiate an actual departure from it in full, having just announced intentions along these lines. This may, in fact, be the red line the administration has in mind. But although the administration may “welcome” such a move, the bipartisan U.S. foreign-policy establishment in Washington views this as antithetical to core U.S. national-security interests.
For what we now know—after years of debate and dissension among observers of Iran—contrary to conventional wisdom, the Iranian regime not only has a strong preference in favor of the JCPOA, but it has had this preference all along. After all, it has withstood immense diplomatic and economic pressure from the Trump administration for over two years without cheating on the deal and remaining in full compliance.