A Strategy-less United States Risks Stumbling Into Conflict with Iran
BRUSSELS – There are plenty of ways to start a conflict. One of them is to clumsily stumble into confrontation without intending to do so. In those cases it is one’s own bad footing that leads into the abyss. The current lack of clarity and consistency in a U.S. strategy towards Iran increasingly resembles the premise for one such blunder, which could inadvertently lead to direct, cataclysmic confrontation.
U.S. sanctions on Iran go live again today. They will include targeting its automotive and aviation sectors as well as its trade in gold and other key metals. This is only a prelude to the November 4 milestone when the country’s oil and gas sectors are expected to be hit as well. In the meantime, the United States expects the rest of the world to fall in line and follow suit by withdrawing or refraining from any dealings in Iran. With the threat of secondary sanctions that would close their access to the U.S. market and financial system hanging over their heads, few foreign businesses will defy Washington’s extraterritorial reach.
The aim of ratcheting up sanctions is apparently to bring President Hassan Rouhani back to the negotiating table as he will face skyrocketing inflation, an ever-diving currency and mounting popular pressure. President Donald Trump’s recent call for a meeting to happen without preconditions confirms this intent. Yet, while sanctions might work in isolating and suffocating Iran’s economy, they will fail in getting the U.S. president a picture-perfect meeting with his Iranian counterpart.
One reason for this is that President Trump does not seem to have any clear understanding of what he wants to achieve out of the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). On the other hand, despite the bellicose rhetoric from him and some in his administration, it is unlikely he is convinced that an armed conflict with Iran is the way forward. Yet the chances of this happening are real. Hence, regardless of what President Trump might or might not think he wants, a few things need to happen in the coming weeks and months to ensure that both countries and their allies do not stumble into a conflict none of them wishes for.
First, the United States and Iran should seek to agree on an initiative similar to the U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreement of 1972. As renewed sanctions on oil and gas loom and as Teheran threatens to close the Straight of Hormuz in retaliation, provocations between Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) naval units and the U.S. Navy may lead to unintended consequences. An Incidents at Sea agreement would ensure that clashes that could involuntarily result from these provocations do not precipitate the two sides into direct military confrontation. This is all the more needed as Iranian naval exercises are likely to multiply as a show of force in anticipation of the sanctions.
Second, U.S. officials should finally realize that their rhetoric around the country’s malign behavior amounts for Iran to calls for regime change. Such calls have never had their intended effect in the past and are no more likely to work this time around. They might also solidify the conviction of Iran’s leadership that President Trump is not committed to finding any compromise.
Third, U.S. strategists should stay clear of any parallels with North Korea. Not only is this tantamount to erasing more than a decade of diplomatic achievements with Iran, it also misses crucial aspects of the country’s power dynamics and strategic culture. On matters related to the United States, President Rouhani’s hand is directly guided by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meaning that any change in Iran’s approach to the U.S. will not be decided by him alone. Pressure from the IRGC and other hardline factions also influences the government’s response to U.S. demands as their hold on the economy and their reach in all layers of society cannot be neglected by President Rouhani. In addition, there is nothing to be gained by the Iranian president, domestically or internationally, from what would be a photo-op with the president of the United States. Finally, Iran has positioned itself as a regional power whose growing influence and support for proxies has the capability to destabilize durably U.S. interests in the Middle East to a far greater degree than North Korea could in North East Asia.
Fourth, while they will likely not succeed in preserving their business ties with Iran without putting their larger economic interests at risk of U.S. retaliation, the EU and its member states could play a crucial role in reducing tension between the two countries. The recently amended EU Blocking Statute, which aims to protect EU interests from the adverse effects of the extra-territorial application of U.S. sanctions, has its limitations and its effectiveness will greatly depend on how strictly member states implement it. At the same time the dizzying financial arrangements being contemplated in order to allow the continuation of exchanges between them – especially imports of Iranian oil and gas – may not be enough to convince Iran of the EU commitment to the JCPOA. The EU should switch gear and ensure its diplomatic efforts are targeted at building safeguards in the region to reduce tensions. These should include engagement with Israel, Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to anticipate their reactions, should Iran eventually decide to pull out of the deal as well.
As each day comes with its new tantrum or lullaby from the Washington, one wonders if the Trump administration will ever have an Iran strategy. Perhaps Iran is a distraction that allows the president to deflect attention from domestic controversies and that solidifies his base ahead of the November mid-term elections. But there is no strategy – or even a policy – at a time when any U.S. approach to Iran needs to ensure that both sides stop tip-toeing towards the edge of the abyss. Unfortunately, in the absence of well understood U.S. goals stumbling into direct conflict is far likelier.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.