Bilateral relations between the United States and Iran have been hostile and adversarial for decades, yet the last few weeks have taken the typically high temperature to a boiling point. If Washington fails to leave the bellicosity at the door and isn’t careful with its words and actions, we could be a single miscalculation away from a war that would be wholly unjustified and unnecessary to U.S. security.
This is not an exaggeration to be casually dismissed, but a real-world scenario of the Trump administration’s own making. Consider the events of the last few weeks.
In pursuit of a “maximum pressure” campaign, Washington has unleashed an arsenal of economic sanctions on Tehran that are aimed to bankrupt the Iranian government, collapse the Iranian economy, and force the country to come back to the table to negotiate a better nuclear deal. On April 21, the White House eliminated the last remaining oil waivers, compelling countries that purchase Iranian crude oil to either stop those imports immediately or face a cut off from the U.S. market.
This decision came roughly two weeks after President Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization—the first time an arm of a foreign government has been treated as a terrorist group. Tehran retaliated by designating U.S. Central Command a terrorist organization, all but putting targets on the backs of tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the region.
National Security Advisor John Bolton’s late-night statement of an accelerated U.S. aircraft carrier and bomber deployment to the Persian Gulf (purportedly in response to Iranian attack planning on U.S. personnel) has only increased the tension and the chances of a miscalculation leading to war.
Tehran is in no mood for accommodation. President Hassan Rouhani’s declaration that his government will begin to breach the cap on uranium enrichment in 60 days unless it starts receiving the economic benefits it is entitled to under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a direct result of the administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal.
The Iranians have escalated in other ways as well. U.S. intelligence has purportedly assessed that Tehran has ordered its proxies to attack U.S. personnel in the region in preparation for hostilities. It’s a threat Washington should take seriously given the country’s recent history; according to the administration, Iran was responsible for the deaths of more than 600 U.S. troops during the eight-year war in Iraq.
One can argue whether the JCPOA was strong enough, or whether the deal could have been structured more to Washington’s liking. The fact that enrichment and research and development provisions eventually expire clearly rattled President Trump, who has consistently called the accord the worst in history.
What one can’t argue, however, is that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy—when combined with the Iranian regime’s inherent mistrust of U.S. intentions—has only further deteriorated the state of relations between Washington and Tehran. The White House’s insistence on Iran’s complete and unconditional surrender on all matters of concern only reinforces the regime’s tendency to double down in the face of American demands.
Our Iran policy is being led off a cliff by two men—Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who have recklessly rooted for regime change in Tehran throughout their careers. As has become quite obvious over the last two decades, regime change in the Middle East is a blatantly bad idea that leads to even bigger problems, endless U.S. military and financial commitments, and more opportunity for competitors (like China) to exploit Washington’s distraction to their own geopolitical advantage.
It is not too late for Trump to step back from the brink, but a shift toward a more prudent approach will require him to stop listening to interventionist advisors who are pursuing their own agendas and appear to be content with sparking another conflict regardless of the cost.
Trump claims he is the world’s most competent negotiator with all the tools of the trade. So rather than getting suckered by his own national security advisor into launching another foolish war the American people don’t want (and one he promised on the campaign trail to avoid), Trump should negotiate. Or, in the likely event Tehran rejects his entreaties, Trump should at least authorize his administration to open lines of communication with Iran for the purpose of cooling down what could otherwise be a road to long-term conflict.
This could include establishing a dialogue between senior officials in the U.S. State Department and the Iranian Foreign Ministry, if not a direct channel between Pompeo and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to hash out sudden disputes before they transform into crises. This isn’t unprecedented: After all, U.S. and North Korean diplomats are in discussions right now, and U.S. and Soviet officials spoke with one another regularly, even during the hottest days of the Cold War.
Some of those talks softened the ground for serious arms-control negotiations in the future, while others helped both sides gain information about the other’s intentions and enhanced understanding of each other’s positions. If we could talk with the former Soviet Union, a far larger power and geopolitical player than Iran will ever be, there is no reason we can’t follow the same play with Tehran.
Bolton and Pompeo believe the United States and Iran are unable to coexist. In their minds, the only solution to the Iranian problem is to change the regime. Both of these beliefs are dead wrong. The United States can manage Iran and even improve relations with the country with the deterrence and hard-nosed diplomacy that has proved so effective for the United States in the past.
We don’t need a war, with all of its unintended and catastrophic consequences, to defend U.S. interests. What we need is a level head, reason, and the courage to engage in tough but necessary diplomacy with our adversaries.