Wars don’t just happen; there is always an underlying cause. Sometimes a predator sees an easy target (Mexican-American War 1846, Korea 1951), sometimes God or some ideology decrees it (The Crusades 1087, Iraq 2003), sometimes domestic politics demand it (War of 1812, Israel-Lebanon 2006), and sometimes war occurs merely as a result of stupid accidents (World War I). The attack on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman highlights the dangers in the current confrontation between the United States and Iran. We have yet no information on the provenance of the attacks, but major wars have started for less. For those seeking de-escalation, a review of the President’s past diplomatic efforts show that a staged photo-op may be the best means to diffuse the situation, even if that means giving the President the appearances of a ‘win.’
Most observers see the current American confrontation with Iran as having originated from domestic political issues in the United States, namely President Trump’s fixation on the 2020 elections. If one examines the President’s foreign policy practices, a distinct pattern emerges, one in which the road to electoral victory demands erasing President Obama’s legacy and obtaining concessions from foreign countries by threatening economic or physical devastation. We saw this tactic in action last week when he threatened Mexico with devastating tariffs if it did not stop illegal immigrants from reaching the US border. Mexico panicked and sent a delegation to negotiate. The talks produced some limited Mexican actions, some of which had been previously agreed to. Regardless, the President declared victory. He did the same with North Korea. For his electoral purposes, two friendly but fruitless summit meetings with Kim Jong Un sufficed. It does not strain incredulity to imagine that an Iranian offer to negotiate followed by one or two reasonably upbeat meetings between Trump and Rouhani might take the edge off the confrontation and give President Trump the appearances of a ‘win’ at a time when he so desperately needs to be seen as a fitting Commander-and-Chief.
Unfortunately, the ongoing Iran affair presents a much more complicated scenario than the President’s previous diplomatic overtures. Mexico’s new President had sufficient domestic popularity to get away with bending to extortion. In contrast, North Korea’s leader has no domestic constituency to satisfy and therefore shares with President Trump the belief that substance-less summits do indeed bear public relations fruit. Unlike President Obrador and Chairman Kim Jong Un, Iran’s reformist President Rouhani faces a determined hardline opposition that could destroy him should he be seen as going hat-in-hand to the Americans for a meeting. Overcoming Iranian hardliners to negotiate the JCPOA had stressed the limits of his authority. Now his opponents crow over his humiliation at Trump’s hands.
Outside players also complicate the Iran affair. In the case of North Korea, no outside nation has any interest in seeing an armed confrontation between the two. In the case of Iran however, a number of international players have demonstrated that they would welcome an American attack on Tehran. Saudi Arabia has made clear that it regards Iran as an existential threat to the continued rule of the Al-Saud family. Riyadh has magnified Sunni-Shia competition to levels unseen in centuries and has apparently even gone to war in Yemen to keep the Ayatollahs from seizing Mecca and Medina. The UAE, more pragmatically, sees value in the confrontation and would almost certainly welcome American military action to recover Abu Musa and the Tunbs, islands occupied by the Shah’s Iran in 1971. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s current posturing reminds one of Israel’s demonization of Iraq as an existential threat to the very existence of Israel before 2003. At its most bizarre, the Washington Post reported on an Iraqi Kurdish sheikh who sought to revive his own political fortunes by advocating an American war with Iraq. He stayed for weeks at the Trump Hotel in Washington in an apparently vain effort to connect to the White House.
Additionally, one cannot discount the fact that many Americans hold a deep resentment for Iran stemming from the humiliation of the Ayatollah’s revolution, during which American diplomats were held hostage for more than a year. That wound, unlike the Korean or Vietnam Wars, has not healed with time. This resentment made abrogating Obama’s JCPOA an easier sell domestically. No American politician would have advocated war with Korea, however using sticks to teach Iran a lesson has advocates not just in the National Security Council, but also across the American political spectrum.
Trump initiated “maximum pressure” by cutting Iran’s oil exports. In doing so he has done real damage to the Iranian economy. The U.S. President has also reinforced the U.S’s military presence in the region and has threatened to “end Iran” if provoked. If Pompeo’s 12 demands presented at the Heritage Foundation are indeed what is required of Iran, then they are asking the Ayatollahs to commit suicide. Trump has surrounded himself with a foreign policy team that appears to have focused on regime change in Tehran, despite protest to the contrary. These American decisionmakers appear to also profoundly fail to understand the Iranian people, who have a sense of three millennia of Persian history. No matter how much they may dislike their leaders, few will succumb to foreign pressure, especially when they see Trump acting on behalf of their declared enemies: Israel and Saudi Arabia. If North Korea and Mexico are indeed examples, the President only needs negotiations and some simulacrum of concessions to declare victory. Under these circumstances, Iranian President Rouhani’s refusal to accept the US invitation to negotiate (unfortunately couched as an ultimatum requiring concessions in advance) should surprise no one.
President Trump appears determined to avoid war, a promise he made to his voters. The leadership in Tehran wants to do the same. The Iranians are skilled diplomats and can manage provocations. However, the US administration seems to lack the skill set necessary to manage the unexpected. It has alienated all its allies, coerced otherwise friendly countries into acting against their own interests, and has put the least capable of the neocon crowd (that organized the war in Iraq) to run his team. Worse, he has put himself at the mercy of other players who openly desire an American attack on Iran.
These outside actors do have the skill set to create incidents that will help the hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton make the case for war. We still do not know if the apparently controlled attacks (minimal damage, no casualties) on ships anchored off Fujairah were black ops or, indeed, an Iranian message to the UAE. The same ambiguity applies to this week’s attacks in the Gulf of Oman. Still, blaming Iran for the incidents, or the stray rocket fired into Baghdad’s Green Zone has left most observers unconvinced. However, as demonstrated by the June 13th attacks, if an outside party wishes, it can create an incident that will inflict significant American casualties, providing the opportunity for hawks in the White House to try and stampede the President into war.
Dissident elements within the Iranian security forces might take it upon themselves to exact a price should they feel the pressure of American sanctions is becoming unbearable or because they seek to undermine Rouhani’s government. This could take various indirect forms such as attacking American forces in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan through proxies. Politicizing the American military, as occurred recently when some mid-level White House official ordered a Navy destroyer to cover up its name so as to not offend the President, should make us all worry. If left unpunished, what would prevent another such official from ordering the Navy to take some other action that could provoke hostilities? Or, Iran may finally respond to Israel’s continued attacks on Iranian forces or proxies in Syria. If they inflict sufficient Israeli casualties, the current Israeli government, facing reelection may find itself forced to escalate.
Furthermore, accidents happen even amongst the most disciplined of militaries. On July 3, 1988, the American cruiser USS Vincennes shot down a commercial Iranian airliner over Iranian territorial waters killing 290 people, including 66 children. The Vincennes had highly sophisticated sensors but still failed to properly identify its target. Increased tensions exaggerate stress on even the best-trained forces, sometimes leading to tragic mistakes. Unless both the US and Iranian national command authorities at the highest levels keep their forces at a significant distance from the other (which does not appear to be happening), the repetition of such an incident appears frighteningly probable. Furthermore, we should worry about simple human fatigue in an overstretched Navy, as seen in recent accidents at sea involving US warships.
The potential for things getting out of hand grows with each day of ugly rhetoric and real economic hardship. Europe’s effort to rescue the JCPOA and the Iranian economy seems too weak and too late. If the example of Mexico and North Korea are any indicator, the best way to quickly defuse the situation would be for a third party to bring Trump and Rouhani to a summit meeting. They will not do so on their own. So far, Iraq, Qatar, and Oman have all offered, but no one seems to have taken them up on it yet.
By Ambassador Patrick Theros, Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.