Did America Learn the Wrong Lessons from Its Clash with Iran?
The United States and Iran are once again on the verge of conflict. On March 11, a volley of short-range rockets killed a U.S. soldier and contractor, as well as a British solider, at an Iraqi base near Baghdad. Washington blamed Iranian-backed Shia militia members in Iraq for the attack and retaliated with airstrikes against militia weapons depots in Iraq the following day. In a sign that tension is unlikely to abate, three U.S. soldiers were wounded in another rocket attack on the same base on March 14.
The sequence of events mirrors the confrontation of late 2019 and early 2020. The death of a U.S. contractor in a similar rocket attack triggered a series of events that culminated in the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian missile attack against U.S. bases in Iraq. That cycle led to competing narratives among Iran watchers. For some, the Trump administration’s response was a necessary move that “re-established deterrence,” and Washington should have pressed on with pressure as the regime was on the verge of collapse. For others, the United States had dangerously overreacted, Iran had a lucky miss, and the risk of renewed conflict was just around the corner.
Now that the dust has settled from that conflict, a more nuanced picture of events has emerged. Moreover, with Washington and Tehran potentially poised to repeat history, it is crucial to analyze the lessons from that December/January confrontation and how they apply moving forward.
Iran Doesn’t Want War but Has a Big Appetite for Risk
Iran responded to the Soleimani assassination by launching a volley of missiles at a U.S. military base — the home base of a drone involved in the killing, according to Iran — and a diplomatic facility in Iraq. The attacks did not kill any U.S. soldiers, leading to early assessments that Iran was intending to deliver a “relatively harmless show of force” to de-escalate the conflict. While the attacks did not kill anyone, more than 100 American soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries. U.S. commanders on the ground attributed this lack of deaths more to luck and preparation than Iranian forbearance.
How do these details inform our view of Iranian intentions and risk calculus? It is true that Iran tried to minimize the chance of killing American personnel. Tehran’s attack was no surprise since it clearly telegraphed that it would strike a U.S. military site in the region. Instead of using attack drones or cruise missiles, Iran employed ballistic missiles, which are easier to track. Iran also gave advance notice to Iraq and reportedly to a European country — almost certainly with an expectation that the information would be passed to the United States. The Pentagon even notified journalists of the impending strike an hour before it happened.
Still, Tehran courted a significant amount of risk. Even if Iran intended a merely symbolic strike, it could not have known for sure that the missiles would miss U.S. forces or, for that matter, where American forces were hunkered down. Iranian leaders would have known full well that, if Americans were killed, President Donald Trump may have retaliated militarily. That Iran was willing to take this chance tells Americans that, even in the aftermath of Soleimani’s assassination, Iran has a surprising tolerance for risk — a warning that Americans should not underestimate Tehran’s willingness to take further chances this year.
Iran Might be Unsettled at Home, but the State Is Adept at Repression
The Trump administration argues that Iran faces a clear choice because of its “maximum pressure” campaign: It can either negotiate or its economy will collapse. However, Tehran has charted a tumultuous third path, declining to negotiate while trying to stabilize a weak economy and contain unrest.
U.S. sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy; GDP shrunk by 9.5 percent, inflation is near 40 percent, and oil exports have fallen by 80 percent. By early this year, though, the economy appeared to be turning a corner with a return of non-oil growth and a slowdown in inflation. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus — combined with a collapse in oil prices — will probably reverse that improvement. Iran’s neighbors have imposed varying degrees of trade restrictions, severely constraining non-oil commerce and cutting off a critical source of foreign currency. Still, while Iran’s position is precarious, it has a number of tools to stave off a total collapse. In particular, Tehran will be forced to dig deeper into its reserves and print money to cover a burgeoning deficit, driving up inflation.
The same dynamic is true regarding popular discontent in Iran. Protests in November 2019 and January 2020 demonstrated widespread anger with the government’s management of the economy and attempted cover-up of the shootdown of a passenger plane; some protesters called for the downfall of the regime itself. Even before the novel coronavirus outbreak exposed significant government mismanagement, historically low voter turnout in the February parliamentary elections demonstrated public frustration with the system. However, the state has proven that it has the coercive tools to contain and disrupt protest movements —whether by shutting off the internet, detaining activists, or killing demonstrators. The presence of the virus itself may also limit the prospect of public protests. Social unrest is very unpredictable, and one should not underestimate how the government’s legitimacy has eroded among large swaths of the population — a trend that will likely continue over the long term. Nevertheless, the government will likely retain the upper hand for the foreseeable future.
Maximum Nuclear Flexibility
Tehran seems to have opted for a strategy of “maximum flexibility” on the nuclear front, where it gets to decide if, when, and how it increases its nuclear activities. Iran announced in January that it would no longer respect key constraints on its enrichment program, although it would remain in the nuclear deal and not impede international inspections of its nuclear sites. Tehran also noted that it would stop announcing new violations every 60 days, as it had done since May 2019, as part of its own “maximum pressure” campaign.
Iran could have used the assassination of Soleimani — which occurred just two days before Iran’s nuclear announcement — to justify more aggressive steps, such as increasing its enrichment level to 20 percent, but it did not. This shift in tactics suggests that Iran saw some risks in continuing to follow its self-imposed timeline of ramping up its nuclear program every 60 days or else appear to be weak by not doing so. Indeed, despite the announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency Director General reported in March that Iran hasn’t actually made significant changes to its nuclear program since its January announcement.
Tehran might have let up on the gas, but it hasn’t taken its foot off altogether. Iran continues to accumulate low-enriched uranium over the limits set by the deal, which is gradually shrinking its breakout timeline. As of March 2020, Tehran appears to have enough low enriched uranium for a weapon if Iran were to further enrich the material to be weapons grade. Doing so, however, would take many months and be easily detected by international inspectors. Tehran is also conducting centrifuge research and development activities that provide Iranian scientists with important knowledge that can’t be wiped away. These steps have worried European countries and, in part, led them to trigger the Dispute Resolution Mechanism under the deal — a significant step because it could result in U.N. sanctions.
As fall approaches, several developments and milestones give Iran reason to keep its nuclear activities in check. First, Iran’s refusal to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to several sites likely associated with its past nuclear weapons program has once again put Iran under the international spotlight and united the United States, Europe, and others in pressing Tehran to provide such access. Dramatically ramping up its nuclear program would make it harder for Iran to fend off pressure at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In addition, in October and under the terms of the nuclear deal, the U.N. arms embargo on Iran will end, enabling Iran to purchase conventional weapons from countries like Russia and China. In November, U.S. voters will go to the polls and could elect a Democrat more inclined to go back into the nuclear agreement and de-escalate tensions. In contrast, the Trump administration appears to view these dates as the deadline for attempting to crater the nuclear agreement.
The Trump administration recognizes that each new Iranian violation — and Tehran’s obstruction of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s attempts to follow up on new questions about Iran’s nuclear past— makes it more difficult for Europe to sustain the agreement. The administration’s implicit logic is that these violations show the futility of the deal and, therefore, that Europe must pull the plug — even though it was the U.S. withdrawal that precipitated the crisis and threatened a functioning agreement in the first place.
Iran still holds the nuclear cards, but it might be the United States that sees escalation on the nuclear portfolio to its advantage. The United States threatened to impose tariffs to push the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to trigger the Dispute Resolution Mechanism. Moreover, in a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that Trump will decide in the coming months about whether to seek the “snapback” of U.N. sanctions. The International Atomic Energy Agency presents another venue for the administration to showcase Tehran’s defiance of its international obligations — and potentially a means to put Iran’s “nuclear file” front and center at the U.N. Security Council. Yet, rushing to kill the agreement at all costs fails to consider that doing so would easily worsen the nuclear problem.
Trump’s Red Lines Are a Mystery to All
Trump has been consistent about one red line: If Iran kills Americans, he will retaliate militarily. When a U.S. contractor was killed in a rocket attack in December — an attack linked to Iranian-backed Iraqi militias — Trump responded by bombing their bases in Iraq, although he refrained from retaliating against Iran itself. So far, his response to the two U.S. soldiers killed in the strikes this month followed the same pattern. The inverse of this red line has also proven true: If Iran conducts attacks that do not kill U.S. forces, Trump has not responded militarily. In June, Trump pulled the plug on a military retaliation in response to the downing of an unmanned surveillance drone, saying that killing Iranian soldiers would not be “proportionate.” Then, Trump did not respond to the Iranian attack on Saudi Aramco facilities in September.
Yet, in January, Trump gave reason to doubt how closely he would stick to his red lines. Inconsistency can breed miscalculation in an environment of low trust and limited communications. It is still unclear whether the Soleimani assassination was intended to enforce the existing red line about threats to U.S. personnel or not. While American officials insisted that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on embassies, Pompeo said that “we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where” an attack would take place. That the United States launched a simultaneous but unsuccessful attack on an Iranian general in Yemen appears to undermine the claim that the president was solely motivated by an imminent threat.
Further, after the United States killed Soleimani, Trump warned:
….targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2020
Iran responded with the attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq — an obvious strike on “American assets.” Yet, after Trump drew such a bright red line, he stood down. It’s possible that uncertainty will produce caution in Tehran, but it may instead encourage the Revolutionary Guards to resume testing Trump’s limits, meaning more volatility in the months ahead. Indeed, the recent rocket attacks by Iranian-backed forces against U.S. targets indicate that U.S. strikes on Iranian proxy groups and the assassination of Soleimani did not “re-establish deterrence” as U.S. officials have claimed.
Iran is Stuck in a Tough Status Quo
Iran can’t accept the status quo — defined as either idly absorbing the U.S. pressure campaign or succumbing to U.S. demands — but it has few good alternatives. Between now and November, Iran has three general paths. It can escalate in an attempt to force Washington to reduce sanctions pressure, it can enter negotiations with Washington from a weak position, or it can continue to scrape by until the U.S. presidential election.
The first option is risky. Iran’s steadily escalating threats in 2019 — from harassing commercial shipping to shooting down a U.S. drone to attacking Saudi oil facilities — spooked oil markets and alarmed American allies but did not produce a shift in American strategy. Instead, Washington upped the pressure and added to its military presence in the region. When Iran turned up the temperature in Iraq in December and January, the U.S. response was severe. Iran probably seeks to take steps that will increase pressure on Washington to change its strategy without triggering a massive response. But, given the risks, it’s not clear how Iran would try to thread that needle.
On the other hand, capitulation is not in the cards. If Iran concluded that it was facing a genuine existential political or economic crisis — and, critically, that coming to the negotiating table would actually result in the relief necessary to stave off collapse — Iranian leadership would likely do so. But the Trump administration’s inconsistent attitude toward negotiations over the past two years and its excessive list of demands has likely convinced Tehran that, in the near term, there is little to be gained from reaching out.
Iran will likely choose to “muddle through” — building up negotiating leverage on the nuclear front, concentrating on mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus, supporting domestic industries, and taking steps to push back on U.S. pressure while avoiding the provocation of a major crisis in the region — all in anticipation of what will happen in the U.S. presidential election. The March 11 attack fits into this paradigm: Iran is trying to shift the rules of the game without triggering war. There is likely no direct connection between the novel coronavirus outbreak and a more adventurous Iranian foreign policy. While Tehran will continue malign activity at a low level as it did before the virus outbreak, it probably does not have the bandwidth to risk, much less fight, a major war now.
Under a Democratic president, there is a decent shot of the United States and Iran being able to negotiate America’s return to the deal, or something like it — and the sanctions relief and Iranian nuclear restraint that come with it — if the deal hasn’t completely collapsed. The two leading Democratic candidates have both expressed a commitment to re-enter the nuclear agreement and relieve sanctions provided that Iran returns to compliance. With adequate political will, a new president could move quickly and unilaterally through executive orders and waivers to put that commitment into practice.
On the other hand, even if Trump wins, one cannot rule out Iran coming back to the table. “Muddling through” for a year or two is one thing; doing so for the next four years of the Trump administration is probably too much to ask. If the regime decides that dialogue with the United States is the best path, it can find a messaging campaign that allows it to sell that decision inside the regime, and out, especially if the United States shows some flexibility. This is not to say that Iran will make any and all concessions — indeed, the vast majority of U.S. demands remain unacceptable — but Tehran might at least be willing to test the waters.
If American voters elect Trump for a second term, he would have the best shot at achieving his goal of getting Iran to negotiate by prioritizing the nuclear issue above all else and offering Iran a face-saving opportunity with modest sanctions relief. While Pompeo has outlined 12 demands on Iran that amount to regime change, Trump’s demands have been more modest. He appears to intuitively recognize that the United States does not need to overhaul the entire Iranian state in order to both prevent an Iranian bomb and reduce Tehran’s risk to the region.
Eric Brewer is deputy director and fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Henry Rome is an Iran analyst at Eurasia Group.