A Guide to Getting Real on Iran
The United States got very lucky, but there’s no reason to think its luck will last. Any one of the Iranian ballistic missiles fired at Iraqi bases could have killed an American. President Donald Trump had, before the strike, warned that an attack would prompt a U.S. counter strike, purportedly at up to 52 pre-selected targets inside Iran. During the strike, Iran warned that it would target bases that host American forces in the Persian Gulf if they supported a counter strike. This action, in retrospect, could have led to more U.S. strikes, raising questions about when and where both sides would be satisfied with the outcome. Knowing all this, Iran acted, risking an American military response — a fact that should not be overlooked as people try to assign winners and losers to a crisis largely of its own making.
As Danielle Lupton argued in the Washington Post, the lessons of this self-inflicted crisis are a reaffirmation of the limited efficacy of airstrikes in shaping state behavior, precisely because of what this signals about American intent. As airplane watchers on Twitter breathlessly tracked the movement of C-17s around the globe, few stopped to note how the 3,500 or so troops the United States has sent to the Middle East since the assassination of Qassim Soleimani cannot and will not be used in a ground campaign against Iran. Even President Trump’s threats to destroy cultural sites betrayed a lack of resolve. While the president’s language roiled the commentariat because it threatened a war crime — the destruction of cultural sites — it also betrayed the intent to take minuscule action — a pinprick, so to speak.
As tensions with Iran have devolved to armed action, the escalatory pattern Washington has created for itself underscores just how limited America’s options are when faced with debating a military strike. These limitations are, fundamentally, about domestic politics and the country’s correct aversion to using military force with dubious goals, after the monumentally expensive and destabilizing American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, there is a notion that the United States can simultaneously be risk adverse and omnipotent; that it can use brute force alone to coerce countries to do as it says without inviting real consequences for itself or those it cares about.
Of course, this is not the case, but Washington is terminally incapable of grappling with the constraints on American power. In an era where it is possible to put a missile through a window from a great distance, American leaders feel free to use military force more often, while achieving little more than a well-planned explosion. As a result, American diplomacy withers on the vine along with American interests. This is not strength or swagger. It is weakness.
To respond to a crisis, any crisis, whether it be a civil war in Syria or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is a tendency to default to three recent staples of American power: cruise missiles, special operations forces, and economic sanctions. This policy default comes about precisely because these three entail minimal risk to American forces, or because military deployments can be hidden and not directly sanctioned by vote in Congress. Absent being able to stomach true risk — sanctioning the use of force that may get large numbers of Americans killed — the United States confines itself to a carefully scripted set of tools that just aren’t that scary, and politicians can escape blame for any outcome — as recent tensions with Iran have demonstrated. It is a neat trick to pretend to be serious and thoughtful without actually being either.
This lack of political buy-in to adequately support wars of choice cedes leverage to the country the United States is trying to coerce. The Iranian leadership need only read the New York Times or watch a segment on Fox News to get a sense of the fundamental political constraints placed upon American power and the lack of support for anything beyond relatively small airstrikes. These assumptions, in turn, allow the Iranian leadership to make critical assumptions about U.S. intent before making the decision to escalate. And this is just what happened.
Iran took care to minimize the chance of killing Americans, but still chose to launch the most ballistic missiles at American forces since Saddam Hussein in the two Gulf Wars, lofting on a ballistic trajectory tons of high explosive that fell into the center of a military base in Iraq famous for its American contingent. This was a demonstration of Iran’s stand-off capabilities. It could have been much worse than a demonstration, but it is still an undesired outcome — and requires thinking about how to convince Iran, politically, not to fire them again. Iran will not give up these assets, and has instead indicated that it will use them to coerce the United States and its regional allies if threatened.
So now what? Hours after the strike, flanked by the joint chiefs of staff and the vice president, Trump announced that the United States “will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.” The president’s prepared text was riddled with falsehoods about the scope and intent of the Iran nuclear deal and, critically, the policy tools included to “de-escalate” are precisely the measures that have prompted this crisis with Iran. This crisis is, at its core, about the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the political decision to reimpose sanctions when Iran was in compliance with an agreement it had signed with the P5+1 premised on a bargain of sanctions relief for good behavior.
And guess what? As Iran escalates, and Washington places considerable goal posts around the type of response that is politically tolerable, the default settings have once again kicked in. As Robert Jervis argued in these pages, we are not seeing “a search for effective solutions, but rather the reaching for a familiar proposal that has been developed for other purposes. It is at hand, convenient, and doesn’t call for rethinking even if it should.” In this case, Iran policy has long been written and requires just a few keystrokes to adapt to any new situation. Jervis notes this has been called the “garbage can model” but today, it would be more aptly described as the dumpster fire model.
As the president sought to clearly lessen tensions with Iran, he indicated that the forthcoming “powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior.” This policy won’t work. Sanctions are intended to hurt the Islamic Republic and to make suffering so great that its victims try to avoid it. The Iran nuclear deal, which Trump lambasted as “foolish,” used economic coercion and, critically, the offer of a positive inducement to incentivize changes in Iranian foreign policy. This approach worked. Iran was offered a benefit (sanctions relief) for accepting greater access to its nuclear program to verify a change in policy (the end of a clandestine nuclear weapons program).
The Trump administration removed Iran’s assurance that its behavior would be rewarded and resorted to a policy of all sticks and no carrots. This, in turn, has incentivized Iranian escalatory actions to impose a cost on the United States, focused first on its regional allies, and now extended to include strikes on American forces with ballistic missiles. This is the definition of escalation, if one stops and thinks about how things have shifted over the past 612 days since the United States withdrew from the multi-lateral nuclear deal. The U.S. military has been hit with ballistic missiles, troops are in lockdown, and the effort to defeat Islamic State has deteriorated because of it. The National Security Strategy remains unimplemented, as finite assets have had to be sent to a region where there is no great power, only Iran. And, inside the Middle East, the United States has firmly established through action and deed that it will not respond if Iran attacks its partners and will only take limited action if an American is killed.
After Trump’s remarks, there was widespread relief that America wasn’t going to war. But that’s only because the bar is so low it is a quarter of an inch off the floor. There is no reason to celebrate. The United States is back to its default ineffectual setting: sanctions and threats. Washington cannot articulate how it will get Iran to negotiate and, when pressed, officials bluster and threaten without offering a roadmap for diplomacy. This is because to truly engage with Iran, the United States would have to acknowledge that the regime — the Islamic Republic — will receive a positive benefit for cooperation and will need to be trusted to follow through on an agreement it reached with the international community. This entails many of Trump’s supporters doing something they are probably incapable of doing: accepting that the Islamic Republic will not collapse at the hands of U.S. coercive pressure. This regime will not last forever. Everything ends. But until that happens, Washington has an incentive to engage with Iran as a fellow state. This does not excuse Iran’s egregious policy of supporting terrorism, propping up Bashar al Assad, and helping him commit widespread war crimes and atrocities. It is simply acknowledging the obvious, that Washington won’t militarily topple the regime and would be better served pursuing a policy within the bounds of the possible: carrots and sticks to shape regime behavior in a way that allows for actual diplomacy.
The United States can and should continue to address these issues, working through regional allies and making hard asks of Iran to modify its policy. These talks do not mean the end of sanctions as a useful tool for diplomacy. They do, however, require the definition of how Iran could have sanctions eased and under what conditions that would take place. This mechanism, imposing a hurt but then underscoring guarantees for accommodation if changes are made, is what coercion is primarily about.
The United States does not need more sanctions. It needs a roadmap to remove them, and to stick to that roadmap to engage Iran on comprehensive security talks. These talks would be iterative, painful, and prone to failure, with ups and downs and only incremental progress. They would also break the status quo and require political courage to begin, largely because the likelihood of failure is so high. However, this would place the risk for failure on the civilians who make policy, and not the military personnel who are tasked with carrying it out. As of now, that risk calculus is inverted, with the military being asked to shelter in place for hours on end, without adequate defenses, for a policy choice made during an election campaign.
There is little hope the Trump administration will make these calculations. It will likely instead default to sanctions and missile threats, not realizing that these tools are not working, and in a few months — when faced with the same deadlock — both sides will have an incentive to escalate again. Iran may still yet get its chance to kill an American. It may be more subtle, but the outcome the same — a dead body. To truly ease tensions, Trump ought to take a different course than the one he has chosen. Rather than threatening more sanctions, he should offer to lift select sanctions in exchange for confidence-building measures, leading to the diplomacy that the president has claimed to support.
Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.