Iran’s Only Option Is to Escalate Tensions

By Nils Hägerdal

The Persian Gulf is generating headlines at an alarming rate. Oil tankers were sabotaged, attacked, and seized over the past several months, and a sophisticated air attack using drones and missiles struck a Saudi Arabian oil processing plant two weeks ago, surgically destroying key parts of its infrastructure. While mostly acting through intermediaries, and thus maintaining a veneer of plausible deniability, there is no question that the Iranian government is behind these actions or that they represent a deliberate campaign to escalate regional tensions. Why is Iran engaging in this behavior? Will these developments inevitably spiral into a regional war or are there peaceful ways to deescalate tensions? To answer in one sentence: Iran is hurting from the economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and needs to create enough regional chaos to force the U.S. government back into some form of detente after the collapse of the Iran deal.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often referred to simply as the “Iran deal,” was a signature accomplishment of the Obama administration and arguably its only successful policy in the Middle East (a rather modest record next to failures like the collapsed Arab-Israeli peace process, U.S.-imposed state failure in Libya, the rise of ISIS, and empty “red line” threats in Syria). The goal of the Iran deal was quite simply to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in return for granting sanctions relief. Technically the deal does not make it impossible for Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities—a 1940s technology that even an underdeveloped state like North Korea can produce—but it placed restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity so it would become very obvious if the Iranians decided to push for weapons capabilities and make it time-consuming for them to get there, giving Western actors enough time to realize what was going on and respond. To its proponents, the deal was a major historic accomplishment that would keep nuclear weapons out of the Persian Gulf for the medium to long term, while permitting a repositioning of U.S. military forces and attention to other theatres.

To neoconservative hawks like John Bolton, however, the deal was tantamount to an unconditional American surrender. They argue that the deal effectively made Iran a regional hegemon as it not only allowed the country to grow its economy but also keep its powerful network of armed allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza. Rather than implement the JCPOA, hawks advocated for a campaign of maximum economic pressure to bankrupt Iran’s economy, limit its ability to support armed groups in the region, and ultimately spark regime change by making the population rise up against the theocratic government like the Eastern European revolutions against Communism in 1989.

This coterie convinced President Trump, who is unversed in Middle East details but reflexively hostile to Obama’s legacy, to walk away from the Iran deal and re-impose tough economic sanctions. Sanctions have taken a major toll on the Iranian economy, which is currently contracting at a rapid pace and bringing severe hardship to the average citizen. This suffering, however, is highly unlikely to bring about a 1989-style uprising. The Iranian regime is held together by Persian nationalism rather than Shia fundamentalism, and the population appears relatively united in its opposition to the foreign threat posed by the new American president. If anything, hardliners seem poised to do well in upcoming elections because moderates have now been discredited by their failure to extract breathing room through negotiations with Western countries. Yet the Iranian government nonetheless recognizes economic contraction as a dangerous and unacceptable condition, and it understands that American hardliners explicitly advocate sanctions, in part, to force a regime change (an outcome that Western powers engineered in Iran in both 1941 and 1953).

Iran is only left with one realistic option to compel the U.S. government back to the negotiating table, and that is to cause enough trouble in the Persian Gulf to force the United States to change its strategy. This is precisely why Iran is rapidly escalating tensions. To really hit the United States where it hurts, Iran is attacking key American allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rather than peripheral allies in Iraq or Lebanon. They are also deliberately attacking the vital organs of the international oil trade, the key U.S. interest that originally drew the country into the Persian Gulf during World War II and keeps it tied to the region today. Finally, Iran has restarted and accelerated key processes and installations of its nuclear program.

Needless to say, this process of escalation cannot go on for much longer without forcing the United States to respond militarily to attacks on key allies and interests. Hawks would most likely welcome this outcome, as they dream of a war with Iran that would topple the regime and replace it with a democratic Western ally—a prospect even less realistic than the premise of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

How can war be averted? Perhaps Trump, who recently sacked Bolton as his national security adviser, realizes that he was fooled by terrible aides and that his Iran policy has completely backfired. Stepping back from the brink requires a negotiated truce between Iran and the United States. Much like NAFTA was recently “renegotiated” with relatively few substantive changes, perhaps Trump could add cosmetic differences to the Iran deal and claim its success as his own; the true “art of the deal” lies, after all, more in salesmanship than technicalities. Alternatively, an informal ceasefire or detente brokered by the European states that remain loyal adherents to the JCPOA might serve the same functional purpose. Yet time is running out and until a deal can be reached the key dynamic on the ground is escalation.

Nils Hägerdal is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies who researches ethnic conflict, civil wars, refugees, and politics of the Middle East.

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