Iran is dominating the escalation cycle, but the risk of miscalculation is high.
Iran is reeling under the pressure of US economic sanctions. With the US offering no credible path to sanctions relief, the Iranian government is striving to impose a cost on what it considers economic warfare. Moreover, it needs to be seen to be pushing back if it is to retain credibility with the Iranian public. So far Iran has retaliated with worsening attacks on shipping, underpinned by the threat to eventually close the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions are not eased.
But while Iran is suffering under the status quo, in the short term Tehran retains escalation dominance. The Iranian government does not believe that the US is prepared to undertake a ground invasion. With the US military seeking to reorient itself for strategic competition with China, Tehran judges there to be no appetite for another Middle Eastern quagmire. Nor is the Iranian government deeply concerned by the prospects of a limited campaign of airstrikes, which it would likely survive, and could in fact benefit from. Few things would better reinforce the narrative that Iran’s woes are inflicted from abroad than US cruise missile strikes. The only Western red line Iran believes to be certain is if it attempts to build a nuclear weapon.
Conversely, there are a great many Iranian courses of action that give its adversaries cause for concern. The threat of missile strikes against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in the event of a full-blown exchange, would be devastating. Probably the most serious threat is that Iran could mine the Strait of Hormuz. The mines themselves would take a fortnight to clear, but the minesweepers could only do their work once the Iranian navy was sunk and its anti-ship missile sites destroyed. The cost to the global economy would be catastrophic.
For now, therefore, Iran will keep ramping up the pressure. If sanctions go on indefinitely, the Iranian economy will be crippled. Four Iranian ships found themselves trapped in Brazil – unable to buy fuel because of sanctions – just as the IRGC boarded the British tanker. Tehran fears the US’s retaliatory options far less than the status quo, and there are plenty of things Iran can do to apply pressure on its adversaries to negotiate.
Now, therefore, is the time to present Iran with some genuine choices. US policymakers need to come up with responses that the Iranian government will fear and signal the US’s preparedness to implement them. Tehran must be presented with a choice between an escalation that actually imposes a cost and a negotiated de-escalation with a path to sanctions relief.
The problem here is that the US does not yet have a credible negotiating position. As a senior Middle Eastern diplomat told the author recently, the aim of the ‘maximum pressure strategy is to get it all’, meaning Iran’s abandonment of its nuclear programme, a halt to missile development and a cessation of proxy activity. This is fantasy. In the wake of Libya and the US departure from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian officials are increasingly convinced that they would be in a far worse position if disarmed. US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s list of 12 demands as far as Iran is concerned amount to unconditional surrender and the complete loss of any deterrent capability.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the merits of the JCPOA, the negotiating strategy underpinning it was sound: steadily applying pressure to manoeuvre Iran into making the deal the US and its allies wanted. Today the pressure is building, but there are significant differences amongst allies as to a desired end state, and the US government has failed to articulate a realistic outline for a mutually acceptable relationship with Tehran.
At each escalatory step, the risk of miscalculation or accident triggering runaway escalation is real and rising. As the US government reveals itself to be less and less prepared to act kinetically, Tehran could begin to question other US red lines, such as attacks on US citizens by Iranian proxies. The resultant war is one that no party wants and the US cannot strategically afford. But until the US establishes control of the escalation cycle, the potential for catastrophe looms ever closer.
Jack Watling is Research Fellow for Land Warfare at RUSI.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare