intelligencer chats

How Worried Should We Be About Escalation With Iran?

The aftermath of last week’s tanker attack. Photo: ISNA via AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart and Heather Hurlburt discuss the still-mounting tensions between the United States and Iran.

Ben: When we last chatted a few weeks ago, you said that some of the coverage of Iran-American tensions, which were high but not yet at their current level, had been a bit breathless. Since then, the U.S. has accused Iran of multiple acts of naval aggression, and Iran is now threatening to pull out of at least part of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which the Trump administration exited in a huff last year. And while President Trump has expressed interest in speaking with Iranian leadership, there’s been no such enthusiasm for dialogue from the other side. Are you more worried now than you were then that this could all be leading somewhere truly dangerous?

Heather: Well, let’s break that down. Both the alleged attacks on tankers and today’s announcement that Iran would restart enriching above the limits in the Iran deal are escalations. They’re worrying escalations,  because they invite Washington to up the ante in return — as you see Secretary of State Pompeo and others doing with lines like “everything including military force is on the table.” The conservative commentators calling for retaliation really scare me, because that amps up the pressure on Trump from part of his base.

At the same time, it looks like at least parts of the Iranian regime are signaling that they do want to talk.That’s what Japanese PM Abe was in Iran for. And today’s announcement was an explicit shove to the Europeans — help us more or else!

Ben: Iran says it will breach the 2015 nuclear agreement for the first time by stockpiling a forbidden amount of uranium — that is, if Europe doesn’t help the country circumvent harsh American sanctions, which so far the continent has been unable and/or unwilling to do. Is there any way Europe will be able to meet Iran’s demands without incurring the wrath of the Trump administration? Will the trade-off of keeping the Iran deal alive be worth it for countries like Germany and France?

Heather: No, Europe can’t do enough, and not fast enough, to alleviate the economic pain Tehran is in.

Ben: So when Europe inevitably fails at this task and Iran goes ahead with its threat, won’t the U.S. simply say, “See? Iran really was intent on breaking the deal this whole time!” — regardless of how little sense that makes? And then we get into another cycle of blame and recrimination?

Heather: As Vali Nasr and Ilan Goldenberg have both pointed out in the last few days, we’re in a cycle that keeps giving the Iranians more and the U.S. less. So now Iran looks to be attacking ships, which it was not doing when the nuclear deal was in effect. And do our allies trust us more? Noooo. Instead, the Japanese still haven’t said they agree with us about what happened last week to one of the attacked ships, which they owned. Meanwhile, the region is MORE afraid of Iran, not less. I loved a line from U.K. military historian Lawrence Freedman on Twitter: Allies haven’t spoken up not because they disagree with our assessment but because they don’t want to be associated with our response. It’s really striking when you see national security Establishment figures who are not sympathetic to the Iranian regime asserting that Trump admin actions are driving Iran into violent responses.

Ben: You wrote yesterday that there is little reason to give the U.S. government the benefit of the doubt on its claims that Iran was responsible for last week’s mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Would the fact that the Trump administration has roughly zero credibility at the moment make it any more difficult for them to start the war that some people (cough, John Bolton) so clearly seem to want?

Heather: Since the only allies this administration really seems concerned with are the Saudis and UAE, whose leaders may think a war would serve their purposes, U.S. credibility problems are not going to slow them down much. The credibility problems will show up when a different administration says “trust us, we have the intel” and they get treated like U.S. women’s soccer after scoring 13 goals.

Ben: The wishful thinking on the Trump administration’s part has been that this maximum pressure campaign will magically force a regime change in Iran, as the people grow increasingly tired of their rigid leadership. Economic conditions are clearly very poor, but is there any sign of the kind of unrest the U.S. government seems to be rooting for?

Heather: Oh, there’s lots of unrest. But there’s no sign that a force could emerge and govern that enormous country better, and in a way that accords more with U.S. interests. Maximum pressure has hurt the “moderates” who, while not actually moderate on women’s, LGBT rights, or democracy, were actually willing to make concessions and then live up to them. The hard-liners — who gain power from using force on their neighbors and threatening Israel — are empowered the more we cut off other links to the outside world.
And we need to mention here that one of the groups the regime-change folks put their hopes in, the MEK, is a straight-up cult that also uses money to influence U.S. politics.

Ben: So what do you think is the most likely scenario for the medium term here? More low-level provocations that don’t lead to all-out disaster? It is true that President Trump seems to have no enthusiasm for actually getting into any kind of violent conflict …

Heather: Yes, that scenario is the most likely. But it also means more low-level violence in Iraq and Syria, possibly Lebanon. And all that amps up the possibility of something worse, and increases the possibility that the Israelis get pulled in. Exactly the scenario that the originators of the Iran deal sought to move us away from, by the way.

How Worried Should We Be About Escalation With Iran?