With public impeachment hearings underway, Washington has reached a much higher than normal level of self-absorption. But as the combatants take their places on the political battlefield, the possibility of an honest-to-God military confrontation might be taking shape 7,000 miles away in the Persian Gulf.
In the age of Trumpian hyperdistraction, Iran probably penetrated most Americans’ consciousness eons ago, before attention was diverted by Ukraine and quid pro quos or Syria and the abandonment of the Kurds. Last week, however, Iran took its boldest step yet to rattle the international community over the fate of the Iran nuclear deal: Tehran announced that it had begun operating 60 advanced centrifuges, which are essential to separating out the uranium isotope used in atomic bombs, and that it was planning to install more. In doing so, Iran doubled the number of the more efficient centrifuges it started running in April, though the total number still remains small compared with the many thousands needed to acquire the fissile material necessary to make a nuclear weapon.
If past is indeed prologue, Iran’s action will set off another cycle of actions and reactions. The United States will continue to tighten the sanction screws, and Iran will use force to underscore its determination to change the status quo. Americans, their eyes focused elsewhere but still having a sense that they’ve been through this before, might not realize that we are sliding closer to a military conflict.
Last week’s announcement was Iran’s latest move to signal its dissatisfaction with an accord that, in the main, it still adheres to, even though the Trump administration pulled out of it in May 2018 to pursue a campaign of “maximum pressure”—aka renewed sanctions. The administration has pinned its hopes on this policy of forcing Tehran to renegotiate what President Donald Trump had called “the worst deal ever.” Several days prior to the announcement about the centrifuges, Tehran also blocked an inspector from the International Atomic Energy Association from entering the Natanz nuclear facility for the first time since the nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was signed in 2015.
None of these actions got much attention. The New York Times buried its story about the increased number of centrifuges on page A8. The Washington Post has relied on Associated Press wire copy, not bothering to publish its own article about Iran’s actions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned that Iran’s move heralds a “breakout” effort to build a bomb as soon as possible. (Just a year ago, when the administration moved to reimpose sanctions, he expressed confidence that Tehran would not restart those efforts.) Many experts, though, frame the Iranian action as a way to elicit diplomatic intervention by the Europeans and others to keep the JCPOA intact, as well as to intimidate neighbors. Iran still relies too heavily on trade with Europe, Russia and China, all of whom continue to support the JCPOA. A more justifiable fear is that last week’s step presages another use of force in the Gulf that would further ratchet up the tension, as has happened twice before in recent months.
First, there was the announcement in April of the initial installation of advanced centrifuges, followed by attacks in June on tankers in the Gulf, which U.S. officials have blamed on Iran, and the downing of a $120 million U.S. drone that Iranian officials acknowledge they were responsible for. Then, in July, Iran declared it would no longer limit its enriched uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms and would purify uranium to levels above the 3.67 percent specified in the nuclear agreement. A little more than two months later, a stunning air attack severely damaged Saudi Arabia’s massive Abqaiq facility and oil field, taking 5 percent of the world’s daily oil production offline. Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, the United States and most Western governments have attributed the attack to Iran, which backs the Houthis.
It seems evident that Tehran is calibrating its actions to send increasingly strong signals. So far, however, nothing has succeeded in moving the White House; Trump has resisted any pressure to retaliate militarily. The obvious questions now, after last week’s announcement about the centrifuges, are will Iran attack again? If so, where? And what will the response be?
The short answer is we don’t know, but there’s a pattern at work here. In the aftermath of the Iranian announcement last week, Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, announced another raft of sanctions on “700 individuals, entities, aircraft and vessels,” and reaffirmed his confidence that this approach would bring Iran to the negotiating table. Pompeo has been equally categorical about Washington’s determination to keep up the pressure.
This suggests we are on course for another unwanted attack somewhere in the region—and that the administration’s policy is delivering the opposite of what is needed. Iran shows no sign of succumbing, despite sanctions that have succeeded beyond what most imagined (Iranian oil exports have plummeted from 2.5 million barrels a day to as little as one tenth of that). And the U.S. refusal to strike back militarily after multiple attacks has undoubtedly emboldened Tehran, while our allies in the region peel off to make their own accommodations with Iran.
The Saudis have begun to recognize that the Iranians might target even more of their oil facilities, and the Emiratis have pondered possible damage (financial or physical) to Dubai, which they have long acknowledged to diplomats as a vulnerability. As both countries recognize that Trump is not inclined to any military action needed to deter Iran, their emissaries have begun quietly speaking with Iran. The UAE has told Washington it does not want a war in the region—a big change for a country whose ambassador in Washington had publicly urged a military strike against Iran a few years ago. Saudi Arabia has even declared that it is communicating with the Houthis, a group it has vilified as an Iranian proxy for years.
This is not what success for the United States looks like. And if anyone on the Trump team had studied the history of the U.S.- Iran relationship, they would know that this strategy won’t end well. The Clinton administration was committed to its own maximum pressure campaign and, like Trump’s administration, threatened to impose secondary sanctions on U.S. allies that maintained trade with Iran in certain goods and services. This happened against the backdrop of a twilight war between our respective intelligence services and the consolidation of U.S. bases in the region. Tehran, however, did not like the feeling it was being cornered in its own neighborhood. In response, it carried out possibly the most devastating truck bomb to date, using an estimated two or more tons of explosives at the U.S. military barracks known as Khobar Towers. Nineteen Air Force members lost their lives. In the crowning irony of the episode, the Saudis slow-rolled the FBI on assistance in the investigation, denying the U.S. access to suspects because the Saudi leadership was fearful that America would start a war with Iran once it had hard evidence of who was behind the bombing.
The lesson is clear: Iranian policymakers believe they must not give in to coercion but rather lash out. The United States, they seem confident, views the situation as less of an existential matter than they do, and thus won’t take drastic action to force them to knuckle under.
What would be the sensible move now for the White House? U.S. policymakers don’t typically return to the negotiating table with an adversary whose violent provocations have gone unanswered. But given the likelihood that retaliating for Iranian misdeeds would lead to a broader conflict, and given that the United States still has a degree of leverage because of sanctions, the administration should nonetheless come to the table. There is a possibility that the Iranians have already written off a deal with the Trump administration, as President Hassan Rouhani’s rebuff of Trump’s entreaties to meet at the United Nations would suggest. But, at a minimum, the Iranians won’t talk until there is sanctions relief, and the United States should test them on this score. Trump has flirted publicly with delivering such relief. In the best of all worlds, he would progress from flirtation to engagement and negotiate an updated JCPOA, then declare victory and give regional tensions a chance to dissipate.
Any sign of flexibility, however, would probably anger right-wing legislators who are deeply invested in forcing Iran to its knees, and Trump is unlikely to want to alienate the jurors at his potential impeachment trial. We will be left to hope that the Iranians don’t miscalculate and carry out another attack on Saudi Arabia or on shipping that elicits a clamor for retaliation, in which case the biggest worry is that Trump could decide now is the time to strike back at Iran.
It is worth considering whether continuing trouble in the Gulf is something Trump, the master of distraction, could resist amid his impeachment inquiry. His laudable aversion to plunging the country into another Middle East war has been amply demonstrated by his refusal to respond to the bombing of tankers, the destruction of the drone and the attack on Abqaiq. But with impeachment hearings underway on Capitol Hill, would he be so restrained? One can well imagine Trump, a man not known for resisting temptation, might be attracted to the ultimate change of subject.
If Trump does take action against Iran, it could be a fateful error. Iran could respond by unleashing the militant group Hezbollah against Israel and by stimulating terrorist attacks around the world. Even if he thought he could go no further than an air campaign, Trump would be making a dangerous gamble. As a rule, aggression demands a response. But when the aggression is a predictable reaction to a misguided campaign of pressure—and better alternatives are available—it’s a lot wiser to turn down the heat rather than fan the flames.