How Washington backed itself into a corner with Iran

By Bonnie Kristian

What will Britain and its muscle in Washington do in response to Iran’s retaliatory seizure last week of an oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz? Perhaps more to the point: What can they do?

The answer is not obvious, and the U.K. and United States find their options limited because of past American choices. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal despite Tehran’s compliance and re-impose strict sanctions — especially the total ban on Iranian oil exports — has backed Washington and its allies into a corner and, ironically, given Iran a certain leeway for low-level malfeasance.

The dynamic here should have been foreseen. The administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, spearheaded by the likes of National Security Adviser (and inveterate proponent of war with Iran) John Bolton, has caused Washington to mangle diplomatic relations with Tehran and all but exhaust its options for punitive measures that do not entail military intervention. And had Mr. Bolton his druthers, that elimination of non-military options would pave the pathway to war: If negotiations are not viable, the logic of maximum pressure dictates, and U.S. sanctions are already as exhaustive as they realistically may be, then any new misdeeds from Iran can prompt attack.

Indeed, Mr. Bolton has reportedly pushed the White House to go to war with Iran over past incidents of comparable scale to the tanker seizure. He was overruled in one such effort by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, The New York Times reported, after an Iranian-linked militia allegedly fired three mortars near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Mr. Mattis called the incident “insignificant” — war would have been a wildly disproportionate response to an assault on an empty lot that caused no casualties — but Mr. Bolton was ready to strike. He was likewise trigger-happy when Iran prepared to test a missile in November and when Tehran launched a satellite in January.

That maximum pressure has so far not led to Mr. Bolton’s desired conflict with Iran is not for his lack of trying. It is because even the Washington foreign policy establishment, with its bias toward intervention and demonstrated failure to learn from mistakes of the past two decades, recognizes war is not wise, not popular with the American people and not an appropriate response to Iran’s provocations. No one can credibly argue that vital U.S. interests are at stake here. U.S. security is not at risk. Iran’s conduct does not translate to any sort of realistic chance against American military might. All but the most maniacally obsessed with instigating war with Iran realize a U.S. attack is not a reasonable reaction to this tanker situation.

Iran realizes it, too. A more sensible approach to U.S.-Iran relations — one marked by a commitment to diplomacy despite inevitable setbacks and devoid of onerous and ultimately ineffective sanctions — would give Washington a range of carrots and sticks in scenarios like this. Maximum pressure has tossed out the carrots and pre-emptively used up all the small- to medium-sized sticks. If the largest stick, war, is an unsuitable tool to answer this type of behavior — and it absolutely is — a desperate Tehran knows Washington is left with little room to maneuver in response to its risky, stupid (but rational) behavior. Mr. Bolton has limited U.S. options by design.

“If the Americans are going to continue to enforce this embargo, there’s no incentive for the Iranians not to take more tankers,” British defense expert Tim Ripley told Reuters. “What have they got to lose?” This is why maximum pressure in practice is dangerous and counterproductive. It makes resolution of tensions with Tehran far more difficult than it needs to be while encouraging unnecessary U.S. military intervention and a steady stream of Iranian provocation. Maximum pressure makes eventual war more likely, and in the meantime it is a manufacturer of crises.

Realizing that the perverse incentives of maximum pressure are the context for Iran’s bad behavior makes newly obvious the reality that Tehran does not want war with the United States. “Having failed to lure [President Trump] into War of the Century,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted Sunday, Mr. Bolton “is turning his venom against the U.K. in hopes of dragging it into a quagmire. Only prudence and foresight can thwart such ploys.”

We don’t have to take Mr. Zarif’s word for it: Iran’s desire to avoid war is evident in its actions. Tehran has stuck to these petty aggressions in an attempt to coerce the sanctions relief promised by the Iran deal without sparking a larger conflict. Like a small, trapped animal lashing out in fear, they’re more scared of us than we are (or should be) of them.

So what can the U.K. do in response to Iran’s seizure of its tanker? Maybe return Iran’s ship to it. But the real question is what can the United States do to lessen the chances for Iran’s stupid behavior? Trade in maximum pressure, which has limited our immediate options and backed Mr. Trump into a corner, for a viable strategy. We should jettison Mr. Bolton and his reckless pressure policy, turning instead to a more flexible and sensible approach which uses diplomatic and economic engagement to normalize Iran and discourage further provocation by giving Tehran something to lose.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on July 24, 2019. Read more HERE.