The US and Iran: Escalating to War?

Iran threatens preemptive action. (Source: Flickr)




Since the beginning of June, military escalation in the Middle East has been taking place in real time: first, a spokesman for the Iran Atomic Agency announced on June 17th that within the coming days, Iran would be exceeding their limit of low-grade uranium that they were allowed to stockpile under the nuclear deal (JCPOA). He also warned that Iran could be enriching uranium up to 20 percent. After reaching roughly 20 percent, the enrichment level of uranium can rapidly rise to 90 percent, enough for weapons use. In comparison, uranium only needs to reach 3-5% of enrichment levels for use in power reactors. A nuclear capacity coupled with the Iranian government’s extremely violent rhetoric could create a nightmare scenario for many in the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, which Iranian leaders have repeatedly threatened with annihilation. As well, a nuclear armed Iran would also provide cover for the terrorist activities of Iran’s proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis. Netanyahu consistently urged the international community to impose stricter sanctions on Iran. He also threatened the use of military force to stop the country from continuing its nuclear weapons program.

Shortly after Iran’s announcement, two significant events unfolded, which would directly involve the U. S. with the Iranian problem. First, two commercial oil tankers were attacked in the Strait of Hormuz which U. S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed on Iranian forces, based on U.S. intelligence, stating that only Iran had the “expertise needed for the operation.” If Iran attacked those tankers – why now?

In an interview with CNBC, Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, suggested that Iran intends to call Trump’s bluff. According to him and other experts, “Iran’s tactics […] are designed to disrupt but not provoke a military response. So far, attacks have specifically avoided civilian deaths and environmental damage like an oil spill. Instead, the Revolutionary Guard or its naval equivalent may be sending the message that it is capable of undermining U.S. and Arab Gulf states’ interests in the region […] they’re banking on President Donald Trump not wanting to actually start a war” (Hussein Ibish, CNBC, 2019).

The International Crisis Group, an independent NGO that works to prevent conflict in troubled areas, suggests a more economically pragmatic motive.  Iran wants “to deter the U.S. from further ratcheting up pressure on Iranian oil exports”, as well as “ransoming the oil market, which will jack up the price on shipping insurance premiums, and this will allow the Iranians to compensate to a certain extent for the loss of their oil exports as a result of U.S. sanctions” (Ali Vaez, Crisis Group, 2019).

About 30% of the world’s oil traffic passes through the Strait of Hormuz; disruptions in the Strait directly impacts international oil trade, including Iran’s. Given that their economy is sliding into a deep recession due to the severe sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration, the regime may feel it has little to lose. Some experts further suggest that Iran is open to renegotiating the JCPOA, which is what President Trump says he wants, but that they want to do it with a stronger hand.  These kinds of pressures, they believe, strengthen their position.

The second provocation occurred a few days after the attack on the oil tankers when Iran shot down an unmanned American drone some few dozen miles off the Iranian coast. Whether the drone was flying in international or Iranian airspace is a matter of disagreement between the U.S. and Iran. Responding to this provocation, the President announced the deployment of 1000 more troops and additional surveillance equipment to the Middle East.

Matters undoubtedly, heated up. The mainstream media raised fears that a full-fledged war was around the corner, ignited by U.S. troop deployments. However, on June 21st, Trump called off an airstrike, claiming that his generals’ estimated death toll of 150 Iranians was disproportionate to the loss of one unmanned device. A few days later, he chose the diplomatic route by signing an executive order imposing new sanctions and locking up billions of dollars in Iranian assets. These measures would deny Ayatollah Khameini, those affiliated with him and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard critical financial resources and support. Was Trump wise to de-escalate the conflict; thus providing an opportunity for the Iranians to end its provocations? Alternatively, was it a show of weakness by the U.S., and advantageous to the Iranians? Only time will tell.

As of now, each country closely watches the other. While tensions run high, an actual war between the U.S. and Iran is for the moment unlikely. Even with both countries acting aggressively, a few key factors hold them back from launching full-scale attacks against each other.  There is, for instance, the fear of international escalation.  Russian Foreign Ministry’s special envoy for Asian countries Zamir Kubulov said that “Tehran won’t be alone if the U.S., God forbid, takes wild and irresponsible actions against it.” Furthermore, in the diplomatic arena, the U.S. is having difficulties building a global coalition against Iran.

Iran, as well, does not want to enter into a full-scale war that it knows it will lose. Instead, as Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Michael Doran explains, Iran’s real strategy is to “leverage the fears that haunt these Europeans by raising the specter of war and simultaneously offering a cooperative, multilateral way to exorcise it, namely, by returning America to the JCPOA. His goal is to place Trump’s renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal on the unofficial agenda of the [G20] summit” and, ultimately, to accelerate “Iran’s relentless push to obtain nuclear weapons.” (Michael Doran, Hudson Institute, 2019).

To maintain pressure on Iran, America must convince its allies that sanctions are the only alternative to escalating military tensions. European and other countries must join the effort to isolate Iran as much as possible to put a proper stop to its nuclear program. To reach that goal, the President can “invoke the multilateral “snapback” option that the United Nations Security Council created when it endorsed the JCPOA, and which Secretary of State John Kerry insisted was an integral part of the deal. This mechanism allows any party to the agreement that thinks that Iran is in violation of the deal restore all U.N. resolutions that were in place before President Obama’s engagement with Iran, which would “place Iran’s nuclear program back outside the bounds of international law” (Michael Doran, Wall Street Journal, 2019).

There certainly is the danger of Iran escalating matters to such a degree that the U.S. will be forced to respond militarily. President Trump, though, insisted during his 2016 campaign that he will not drag the U.S. into needless wars in the Middle East. He also insisted that he will never let Iran acquire nuclear weapons. There are many alternatives to full-blown war and the US and its allies might be tempted to focus on restraining Iranian proxies in the region. Trump must act with caution in the coming months while juggling these two conflicting objectives as he seeks to secure his re-election next year but also to stop one of the West’s greatest threats from becoming even more of a menace than it already is.


(Updated on July 5th 2019)