On Friday, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile, leading to an eruption of concern from the security community. The Trump White House, however, has this week focused its belligerence less on Pyongyang and the weapons it has, and more on Iran, despite the nuclear weapons it is prevented from getting. Last week, Secretary of State Tillerson pleasantly surprised his critics by certifying that Iran is complying with the terms of the 2015 deal that iced its nuclear ambitions and subjected it to intense inspections and restrictions for the next decade and more. This week, his boss fired back: “I would be surprised if they were in compliance” at the next review in 90 days, President Trump told The Wall Street Journal.
This has less to do with Iran and more to do with Trump’s frustration with his own Cabinet for supporting the deal — reportedly so great that he commissioned a parallel working group of lower-level, less-experienced officials to advise him before the next review.
So the threat of a major conflict with Iran is high — because the administration wants it that way. Most if not all of the administration’s key national security players, and their allies in Congress, see stepped-up U.S. military activity in the region as important to confronting Iran. Far from believing that the Iran deal contained the most serious U.S.-Iran flashpoint, they believe Iran, even without nuclear weapons, poses an existential threat to the U.S. and our allies. They believe that regime change — switching out Iran’s theocracy for a (hypothetical) secular democracy — is the only way, long-term, to deal with that threat. (Hands up if you recall hearing that one before about a country beginning with I.)
This belief, by itself, isn’t the problem. Many, though far from most, Iranians, share their longing for a government that is more liberal and democratic, and less allied with extremist groups elsewhere in the Middle East. And though there is often hyperbole in the accusations, they are grounded in truth: Iran supports armed extremist groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, and to a lesser extent Yemen — including the world’s most potent non-state fighting force, Hezbollah. Iran’s government mistreats its people badly — though not, say, worse than our Saudi allies. The anti-Tehran faction believes that it’s worth putting pressure on Iran’s willingness to comply with the nuclear deal in order to push on these other issues — while the Obama administration believed the U.S. and the region could live with problematic behavior but not with nuclear empowerment.
No, the problem is that the combination of a highly militarized standoff, multiple shooting wars across the region, and an administration that combines high rhetoric and low predictability is a recipe for escalation.
Just Tuesday, a U.S. Navy vessel fired warning shots at an Iranian boat, apparently operated by the hard-line Revolutionary National Guard forces, that came within 150 yards of it. Such incidents had decreased significantly during 2016, but still occur with some regularity. As far as we can tell, the hotline communication Secretary Kerry developed with Iranian foreign minister Zarif has been discontinued. The Iranians are well aware — though most Americans are not — of the stepped-up tempo of U.S. military operations in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and the heightened presence of ground and naval forces.
Add to that the package of new sanctions that the president apparently demanded as the price for certifying the deal this time. Within 24 hours of the certification, the administration put economic sanctions on 18 new Iranian individuals and corporate entities for a range of alleged offenses including harassment of U.S. naval vessels and attempts to build ballistic missiles or steal U.S. software. Most offenses had no direct connection to the nuclear deal. Tehran responded with rage, saying that these sanctions themselves violated the terms of the nuclear deal.
The White House has help from Congress in ratcheting up tensions. The House and Senate have now each passed versions of a bipartisan sanctions bill. While it has gotten attention for the new penalties it imposes on Russian entities and foreigners who collaborate with them to harm U.S. interests on cybersecurity, energy, human rights, and other areas, it also sets a range of new penalties on Iranians for actions related to ballistic missiles, regional terrorism, or human-rights violations. Now we wait to see whether President Trump will sign or veto legislation that puts on Moscow the very pressures they hope will bend Tehran to the breaking point.
So anyone in Iran who wants to claim that the U.S. is implacably opposed to Iran’s existing government and actively seeking to undermine it economically, while challenging it militarily, has plenty of data to point to.
Given Iran’s regional goals, the means it believes are acceptable to employ, and the groups with which it is allied, defending U.S. interests and the nuclear deal was always going to require both strong regional presence and adroit diplomacy. What we have instead, though, is the unpredictable and bellicose rhetoric of the president and his team. Deterrence theory says that countries can be frightened into remaining peaceful if they know exactly what the consequences for aggression would be.
But the range of tweets, offhand remarks, threats, and past ruminations about regime change leave quite a bit of room for Iranian actors to believe that Washington is determined not just to contain their government, but to remove it from power. Michael Crowley points out at Politico that “key Trump officials are on the record as saying that Iran will remain a U.S. enemy until the clerical leaders and military officials who control the country’s political system are deposed.” And they have continued to make such statements — earlier this spring, Secretary Tillerson sparked a public protest from the Iranian government when he told Congress that the U.S. should work with opposition groups “toward the peaceful transition of that government.”
The nuclear deal was never intended to resolve all the problems between the U.S. and Iran. It was intended to take off the table the question of nuclear weapons, which all sides had identified as the flashpoint that could most easily flare into war. But given both Washington’s differences with Tehran on key issues from human rights to Syria, and this administration’s addiction to incendiary and off-the-cuff rhetoric, that’s exactly where we (still) are.