We should have seen the box into which our actions against Iran have put us; the signposts were glaring neon lights. Unfortunately, Americans have very short memories and, protected by geographic isolation, a foreign policy dictated primarily by domestic politics. The fact that virtually every new American administration turns over several hundred key positions in its national security team aggravates the problem. Iranians, as befits a 3,000-year-old nation, have very long memories and, living in a very rough neighborhood, cannot afford the luxury of isolation.
In the middle of the Bush ’43 administration, the Iranian regime added the “axis-of-evil” speech to the American invasion of its neighbors Afghanistan and Iraq and, not unreasonably from their point of view, concluded that Iran was the next American target. Every U.S. administration since Jimmy Carter had considered the regime in Tehran as a serious, if not vital, threat to American interests in the region. Bush ’43 elevated hostility towards the Persians to unprecedented ideological and even semi-religious levels. Tehran also perceived an Israeli hand pushing America to rid Israel of its most powerful regional rival by invading Iraq. With Iraq neutralized, Tehran feared that Israeli concerns would drive American into taking out Iran. At that point, Tehran looked around and saw somewhere upwards of 200,000 U.S. troops based to their east, west, and south.
So, the Iranians set about devising a strategy for deterring the United States. They knew they could not effectively threaten U.S. control of the sea-lanes feeding Iran, nor prevent the U.S. from massively bombing their most vital infrastructure. However, they saw that the U.S. has an Achilles’ heel in the region: the overwhelming dependence of the world’s economy on the free flow of oil and gas from the Gulf. Forget closing the straights of Hormuz; Iran might have the capability to sink a few ships and otherwise obstruct passage but the U.S. Navy has the capacity to ultimately sanitize the narrow passage from the Iranian threat. However, the oil and gas exporting facilities on the Arab side of the Gulf present largely undefendable environment.
Over the next few years, Iran’s military, both regular forces and those of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, shaped a military force with the capacity to destroy an unacceptably large chunk of the oil and gas export facilities, and even the production facilities behind them. Initially, Iran procured a large fleet of several hundred small fast boats that could carry commandos across the narrow Gulf. Iran also procured a large number of relatively unsophisticated Chinese anti-ship missiles, the SY-1 and HY-2. These missiles, although not the latest and the best against a modern surface warship, carry large warheads and can inflict catastrophic damage to offshore oil and gas drilling platforms, loading terminals and tankers.
Sometime in 2006, Iran briefed the GCC on its capabilities and told the Arab states to go tell the Americans that if the U.S. attacked Iran, Iran would respond by taking out twenty percent of the world’s internationally traded oil and gas export capacity. Deterrence depends on your potential enemy determining that his victim can inflict unacceptable damage to his interests. Iran made it clear to the GCC states that the U.S. might be able to protect its own assets in the region, but had extremely limited capacity to protect the sprawling target-rich oil production, processing and exporting facilities. Like nuclear weapons, this would be a weapon reserved for an in extremis situation. They took a leaf from Charles De Gaulle justifying the French nuclear force de frappe. He reportedly said, “France did not need to destroy an existential threat, only to be able to tear off an arm or a leg.”
The U.S., (perhaps for the reasons noted earlier in this article) did not seem to take this seriously. The Iranian deterrent never made it on to the front pages of the American pores, nor was it much discussed in the think-tank community. Instead, most informed discussion centered on assessment of Iranian capability to attack American naval and air assets in the Gulf or American troops operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since the mid-1990s, Iran has continuously upgraded and improved its own force de frappe. As with all other professional and sophisticated militaries, the Iranians have shaped and configured their forces to deal with the putative enemy’s evolving capabilities. Iran’s abortive attempt to develop nuclear weapons fits this pattern.
Enter the Trump administration, which sees foreign policy as an instrument for the reelection of the President, again linking foreign policy to domestic factors. Erasing Obama’s legacy was the bedrock of the 2016 campaign and scrapping the Iran nuclear agreement, (the JCPOA), figured prominently in that calculation. Withdrawing from the agreement, however, required that the President score a victory. An Iran concession or two would probably have sufficed. However, none of our partners in the agreement followed suit. The Iranians also rejected any change. The neocons who surround the President demonstrated that they shared in America’s woefully short memory and sold him on the policy of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions to compel Tehran to come to terms with American demands. Unfortunately, the demands presented were perceived in Tehran as a demand for collective self-immolation by the regime.
The “maximum pressure” has succeeded in terms of bringing the Iranian economy to its knees. The U.S. has blocked almost every outlet for Iranian oil exports, reducing revenues to a small fraction of what is necessary to maintain the national economy. The Trump administration failed to perceive, however, that we may have reached the in extremis situation for which Iran created its non-nuclear deterrent. Tehran decided that the situation demanded a demonstration of its capabilities. To emphasize the point, the attack on the oil facilities at Abqaiq also demonstrated the vastly improved Iranian capabilities since the 1990’s. A multifaceted attack hit a key node in Saudi Arabia undetected from launch to arrival at target.
Trump, to his credit, never wanted a shooting war. The cold reality of Iran’s ability to inflict unprecedented damage to the world economy and to his reelection chances has sunk-in. He fired Bolton, but Pompeo, Trump’s more congenial Secretary of State, appears to have the same warlike tendencies. We have now reached an impasse. Trump appears weak and at loss as to what to do next. Pompeo employs dangerous rhetoric and has initiated until now a futile campaign to generate an international alliance against Iran. But punishing sanctions continue. Tehran so far has no indication that the Americans learned the lesson and may feel forced to teach us another. Diplomacy seems restricted to a futile effort to convince Trump and Rouhani to meet, in hopes that this can produce another ‘Kim Jong Un moment’ that will allow both sides to save face and back down. As of this writing, it does not seem to be in the cards.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world appears paralyzed as well and has been reduced to hand wringing. This, at a time, when it appears that the world’s economy needs a massive international effort to avert disaster reveals how much the world order has broken down. If there was ever a time for a major international intervention, this is it. Admittedly, multilateral diplomacy does not appeal to the President who prefers one-on-one interactions with foreign leaders. Sadly, both the U.S.A. and Iran have so overloaded a Trump-Rouhani meeting with conditions as to render it impossible. If there was ever a time for the P5+1 gang to reconvene, this is it.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum