US-Iran Tensions: From Maximum Pressure to Maximum Leverage?

Iran has now exceeded the amount of low enriched uranium that it can have stockpiled as part of the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal.  Its Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, announced it will soon start enriching uranium above the 3.67 percent of purification that is permitted in the deal.  Shia proxy attacks have continued with increasing regularity against America’s partners in the region, with Saudi Arabia experiencing missile and drone attacks by the Houthis against oil pumping facilities and civilian airports.  And, of course, sabotage against shipping has taken place and even if paused for a while, we should not assume that it has ended.

What is going on?  Put simply, the Iranian leadership is practicing its own version of maximum pressure in response to the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” policy.  The Iranian maximum pressure is probably designed to achieve several aims: first, show President Trump that pressure is a two-way street and Iran has many options for deniable ways of applying its own pressure on American interests and friends in the region.  Second, raise the oil price because the president has shown sensitivity to that but also because with Iran’s ability to export severely limited, it wants to maximize the revenue it can generate.  Third, give America’s friends and partners a reason to urge the Administration a reason to ease off of the pressure. 

On the latter point of getting the US to ease off the pressure, it is worth noting a speech that Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, gave on May 29th.  In it, he said that the US was trying to pressure the Islamic Republic to come to negotiations in a weakened condition.  He declared Iran would not give into the pressure and instead would apply its own “leverage.”  We have been seeing the signs of Iranian leverage with the proxy attacks, the deniable acts of sabotage and now the breaching of the JCPOA—a breach that could slowly reduce the Iranian break-out time again.

President Trump may say that the Iranians “are playing with fire,” but right now, they don’t seem to believe it.  The irony is that the both sides may see their maximum pressure as a prelude to negotiations, but negotiations in which their positions have been strengthened and the other sides’ weakened.  The danger, of course, is a miscalculation. 

At this point, it is hard not to conclude that the Iranians believe that the Trump Administration will only act militarily against it if American forces are killed directly by the Iranians.  Proxy rocket attacks on bases in Iraq have taken place in which US forces are present; fortunately, none have been hurt.  What would happen if they were?  Does Iran think that as long as they can deny that they did anything—much like the limpet mines attached to the hulls of ships—that the US won’t react?  I am not sure they should believe that, but suspect that they do.

The question for the Administration is how does it signal that Iran is in danger of misreading what the US will do?  The problem with great public pronouncements is that once you say them either you act or you face a loss of credibility.  John Bolton declared on May 5th that we were sending a carrier strike force to the Gulf because we had intelligence that the Iranians were preparing attacks against US forces and our friends.  He proclaimed that we would use “relentless force” if our forces, our interests or our friends were threatened.  Since that time we were have seen six ships were attacked, Saudi facilities hit by Iranian proxies, similar missile attacks against Iraqi bases and an oil facility used by Exxon, and the destruction of the American drone.  I have no doubt that National Security Advisor Bolton meant what he said.  But his boss, the president, does not want to get sucked into another “endless Middle Eastern war.”  That is an understandable sentiment but when the gap between words and actions opens up, it weakens credibility and deterrence.

Another irony:  if deterrence is weakened, the prospect of war goes up.  There are a number of things the Administration could do to restore deterrence.  For starters, it needs to make it harder for the Iranians to believe they can continue to carry out deniable attacks and not be publicly blamed for them.  Outside of the Middle East, only the British and Germans (belatedly) were prepared to say publicly Iran was responsible for the attacks on shipping.  Find out what it takes to get others to place the blame on the Iranians.  Produce a multinational naval task force in response to show there is an international coalition prepared to protect shipping from such attacks.  The less ability Iran has to deny attacks and get away with it, the less likely such attacks will take place.

Secondly, so long as the Administration does not have its own direct communications with the Iranians which would allow it to make points very clearly in private, it will have to rely on others.  The problem is that if the Administration uses the Omanis, the Swiss, the Iraqis, and others to send messages, it runs the risk of each messenger tailoring the message.  It makes more sense to use just one messenger and one messenger that the Iranians will take seriously.  Since the president has such trust in Vladimir Putin, why not use the Russians to convey the message that the Iranians are close to provoking a serious military response by Trump.  Now Putin, of course, has to believe it—indeed has to believe that the US will act militarily if these attacks continue.  Putin does not mind rising tensions—especially if it increases the price of oil—but he does not want to see US power used to shape what happens in the region. A warning by Putin won’t be dismissed in Tehran.

Could other steps reduce the risk of miscalculation and restore deterrence?  Yes, but any military actions—even limited ones like risk the tit for tat escalatory cycle that Trump clearly wanted to avoid.  However, unless the Trump administration, does more to convince the Supreme Leader of the risks Iran is running, that is the very scenario we may be looking at.