Compete with Iran Without Trying to Destroy it


With tensions running high in the Persian Gulf, the Islamic Republic of Iran fired missiles at a key energy facility to punish Arab states for working with Washington to isolate the Iranian government. As part of this strategy, Tehran used subterfuge and misdirection to disrupt the shipment of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Donald Trump, contemplating his electoral chances for the country’s highest office, chastised the world for free-riding on American power and asked American allies to pay for protection, or risk losing it.

Of course, I am writing about what happened in 1987 — specifically, Trump’s dalliance with foreign policy and Iran’s assault on regional energy infrastructure to punish governments that allied with Saddam Hussein.

History repeats.

This month, Iran reportedly launched cruise missiles, perhaps in tandem with drones, to strike Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility. The strike crippled the Saudi oil industry and drove up the cost of fossil fuel around the world. The Trump administration has hinted that the missiles were launched from inside Iran, raising the possibility of retaliatory American or Saudi air strikes in response.



As the world struggles to understand the reason behind the Iranian missile attack, it is best to ask why no one anticipated it in the first place. Or, at the very least, why no one considered such a belligerent  Iranian response to the Trump administration’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal — called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — and reimposing American sanctions on Iranian energy exports. The deal traded sanctions relief for increased inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities to ensure that Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program remained shuttered. Some also hoped it would lead to a period of detente between the United States and Iran.

For the Trump administration, and much of America’s Republican Party elite, the Obama administration’s nuclear deal was a step too far. Elements of the inspection regime expired prematurely, they argued, and the deal undercut a key pillar of Washington’s longstanding effort to topple the Iranian government through economic warfare. However, neither the Trump administration nor those that support the current U.S. policy in the Middle East have put forward a workable policy to address Iranian behavior. Instead, as Nicholas Miller wrote on Twitter, the Trump administration’s policies are “dangerously escalatory” and, importantly, have ceded diplomatic and coercive leverage to Iran. The result has been to push the United States into a position where it has to contemplate air strikes, a choice neither Trump nor the Democratic opposition is enthusiastic about, or just do more of the same and apply more sanctions.

Washington has no plan to translate sanctions against Iran into diplomatic success. The result is a policy of escalation that, counterintuitively, creates conditions that favor Iran’s policy of conflict-by-client to manage escalation and damage American relationships with its Gulf Arab partners. For this reason, it is important that Washington change course, seize the diplomatic initiative, and work alongside its European allies to explore ways to augment the nuclear deal — which remains operative despite the U.S. withdrawal. The United States could further defuse regional tensions by pushing for an end to the war in Yemen and initiating a high-level conversation with Iran about regional security.

Iran Can Do Maximum Pressure Too

Engaging with Iran will not solve all of the region’s problems or deter Tehran’s support for its clients in the Middle East. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, for example, did not require Iran to sever ties with Hizballah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen, where the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exported ballistic missiles to attack targets in Saudi Arabia. For the Obama administration, the 2015 nuclear deal was intended to “silo” concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, so that it could focus more on U.S. interests in Asia, and empower the U.S. military and regional allies to compete with Iran in ways short of war.

This policy was short-lived and replaced with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach, which seeks to use economic sanctions to, in theory, force Tehran to make concessions to the United States. These concessions, listed as 12 separate bullet points, would be tantamount to capitulation. It is impossible to imagine the current Iranian regime doing these things. As such, it seems clear that the actual Trump administration intent is regime change, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claims to the contrary.

American thinking about Iran has been handicapped by the assumption that the Islamic Republic will not respond to U.S. provocations to enhance its own leverage. Much has changed in the Gulf in the 32 years since the last missile crisis with Iran. America’s force posture has increased significantly. Washington has built large air bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and expanded its naval presence in Bahrain. Likewise, Iran has steadily built up its missile arsenal.

The United States, of course, is the stronger of the two actors and can, if it chooses to, use force to topple the Iranian government. However, any such action would invite Iranian retaliation, and would necessarily require the United States to grapple with the day after state collapse in a country that has trained to fight irregular warfare since 1979. Tehran could respond using its clients, or strike regional bases within range of Iranian missiles where infrastructure has not been built to protect vulnerable (and very expensive) bombers and ships. The vulnerability of American bases to Iranian missile strikes should raise alarm bells in Washington. A cursory look at satellite imagery of America’s most important base in the Middle East, Al Udeid in Qatar, reveals planes parked out in the open, without many hardened shelters to protect expensive U.S. hardware from missile attack. Analysts more worried about “signaling American resolve” in response to Iranian provocations often fail to consider American vulnerability to Iranian attack — which was recently underscored with a Trump decision to pilfer money for air base upgrades in the Middle East and around the world to pay for border fencing.

The Credibility Gap: A Legacy of the Forever Wars

Washington’s problems in the Middle East do not stem from Iranian doubts about American military supremacy. Iran’s armed forces are no match for the United States. However, Tehran has the luxury of assuming that Washington will not even consider a large-scale invasion of Iranian territory. The costs of any such action are too large, and after Iraq and Afghanistan no U.S. leader, from either party, would even propose it. Instead, Iran can safely assume that Washington will debate policy choices hemmed in by political constraints, and vacillate between a limited cruise missile strike or more sanctions. In each case, the regime will not be toppled or seriously threatened.

This reality gives Iran tactical flexibility to claim attacks only when it is in its interests. For the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, working through clients allows it to provoke Washington and attack its allies with relative impunity. As a result, the region’s Arab leadership appears feckless, and Washington seems weak. Armed with this coercive tool box, Iranian diplomats can feign ignorance when accused of regional malfeasance and hammer Washington for implicating Iran without sufficient evidence. This strategy is coherent and effective, largely because global trust in Washington is low, and popular support for Arab monarchs is almost nonexistent.

A Call for Detente

In the latest tit-for-tat with the Islamic Republic, the United States has several disadvantages in terms of global opinion. The president is unpopular in much of the world, and Washington, not Tehran, is seen as responsible for triggering the recent crisis by leaving the nuclear deal. Without allied support, or at the very least, tepid acquiescence to an American policy, the United States will struggle to win political support for coercive action, ranging from sanctions to military strikes. If one assumes that the Trump administration is not prepared to use the force required to alter Iranian behavior, it is prudent to ask how Washington intends to end Iran’s maximum pressure policy and turn Iran’s desire for sanctions relief into a positive outcome for American interests.

It may be unpopular, but a more coherent American approach to the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities would be to float, again, high-level talks. These talks should be expansive, aimed at addressing regional tensions. This effort should focus on finding common ground regarding the wars in Yemen and in Afghanistan, where both the United States and Iran have a stake in pressuring the Taliban, and on nuclear and missile issues.

These talks would not be without precedent. The United States has talked in secret to this current group of Iranian elites intermittently for almost 20 years, about regional security issues and during the nuclear deal negotiations. This approach would also win the support of America’s most important allies in Europe. On the nuclear issue, the United States would be wise to take “yes” for an answer and agree to a French proposal to offer Iran a $15 billion letter of credit to access oil revenues   in return for Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal and a pledge to return to talks with Europe on a collective proposal to trade more sanctions relief for expanded Iranian concessions on its missile program. The United States and Europe were close to agreement on a “JCPOA plus” designed to augment the nuclear pact with limits on Iran’s missile program.

This approach may draw the ire of Israel and the Gulf Arab states, similar to the backlash to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But, in the almost 500 days since the United States announced its withdrawal from the nuclear deal, tensions in the region have gotten worse, Iran has succeeded in splitting the United Arab Emirates from Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, and Israeli policy has been limited to “mowing the grass” and striking Iranian-linked targets in Iraq and Syria. A more useful strategy would be to match ends with means and push for achievable interim goals, like a cessation of Iranian missile attacks, as part of a broader set of talks to defuse regional tensions. This would require a solution to Yemen, along with a hard, introspective look amongst America’s allies about how to compete with Iran, but without making the goal regime destruction, and instead propose ways to realistically manage tensions in ways short of war. This approach is the basis of a policy of containment, not direct conflict.

This approach, anchored in diplomacy and an embrace of containment, may not be popular. Diplomacy rarely is in Washington. Critics would accuse the administration of rewarding bad behavior, although they themselves would be unable to present a credible and real alternative to the status quo. Critics will also argue this approach undermines American credibility and resolve, without noting that U.S. credibility is low where it most matters, in Iran, and Washington’s leaders have no resolve to topple the Iranian regime. Finally, many will argue that the United States need to “re-establish deterrence,” while meaning the need to use force to compel changes in Iranian behavior, and not admitting that a strategy of “compellance” is escalatory. This is particularly true if the adversary doesn’t view American threats as credible, or the message is muddled in a mess of contradictory presidential tweets. To truly deter Iran, the United States would have to be willing to use force on behalf of its allies, in ways that would risk American lives for Iranian aggression on regional targets. And, to date, no policymaker in Washington has been willing to do that. And so, in this reality, it is Iran that is best placed to compel.

If détente were successful, one outcome would be to silo, again, Iran’s nuclear program and to open talks on missiles. This policy would, in essence, be buying off Iran and bribing them to improve elements of their foreign policy. This may seem like a lot to give up, but the current cost, $15 billion, is far less than the indirect costs of the spike in oil prices after the missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia. It also is far, far less than the costs of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. For proof of that, one need only look at North Korea, which defied U.S. pressure, shrugged off Washington for decades, and now has an arsenal of ballistic missiles and thermonuclear warheads to strike targets in America. Iran chose a different path once, and it could be enticed to do so again. This requires embracing diplomacy over militancy, recognizing American and regional vulnerabilities, and seeking ways to offset those vulnerabilities in ways that are advantageous to U.S. interests. A limited strike to compel Iranian behavior changes may feel good, but may not solve the problem. Only talks can seriously grapple with the current regional crisis. And that requires acknowledging vulnerabilities and taking steps to address them.



Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Adam Dublinske)