Tensions Between the U.S. and Iran Remain High, But Will There Be War?

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Photo Illustration by Gluekit; Rouhani by Michael Gruber/Getty

Once again, there is a rumor of war in the Middle East.

A year after President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and six world powers, he has dramatically upped the stakes in his aggressive campaign of economic warfare against the Islamic Republic.
Since last year's withdrawal, Trump's reimposition of sanctions already has reduced Iran's 2 million barrels per day oil sales by half, sending the country's economy into a tailspin. Now, exercising a policy he calls "maximum pressure," Trump has targeted Iran's remaining exports by ending the sanctions waivers he previously had granted to eight of Tehran's biggest customers. Trump's goal: to drive Iran into penury and force Tehran's leaders to accept a new nuclear deal, this time on terms that Trump and his lieutenants insist would be far more favorable to the United States and its regional allies.

"We are going to zero," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared recently, referring to Iran's oil exports. "How long we remain there, at zero, depends solely on the Islamic Republic of Iran's senior leaders. We've made our demands very clear to the ayatollah and his cronies."

Both Trump and Iranian leaders insist they don't want to go to war. But ever since Trump tightened sanctions last month, the Middle East has seen a major spike in tensions: ominous signs of Iranian military moves against American forces in the region; a rapid buildup of U.S. military might just off the Iranian coast; attacks by suspected Iranian saboteurs on Arab oil tankers; and a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline by Yemen's Iranian-aligned Houthi tribesmen.

Then, just as suddenly, both Washington and Tehran took a grudging step back from the brink of hostilities earlier this month as Pompeo declared the United States was prepared to talk to Iran without preconditions. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded by saying talks were possible, as long as Washington treated Tehran with "respect."

"In the last three weeks, you've seen a serious escalation in which both the Iranians and the Americans have signaled that each has a way to deter the other," Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to six secretaries of State, told Newsweek. But even though U.S. and Iranian forces are now trying to stay out of each other's way, he cautions, "the danger of an armed clash still exists."

Indeed, there is no sign the administration is ready to withdraw the aircraft carrier strike group, the squadron of B-52 bombers, the detachment of 1,500 Marines and an extra Patriot air defense system that it sent to the region. And the U.S. policy of maximum economic pressure is still in force, leaving future developments highly unpredictable.

In a recent Washington Post essay, Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant defense secretary for the Middle East in the Obama administration, painted a grim scenario in which he outlined how easily the United States and Iran could blunder into war. If Iran's oil sales—the lifeblood of the country's economy—fall to a few hundred thousand barrels a day because of the U.S. sanctions, Kahl said it's entirely possible the Iranian military could order Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq to turn their guns on the 5,000 U.S. troops stationed there, as well as American diplomats in Baghdad's Green Zone. Further acts of sabotage targeting shipping in the Persian Gulf and stepped-up Houthi attacks on Saudi oil installations would also be likely, he said.

According to Kahl, the attacks on American personnel could provoke a U.S. military response against the Iraqi militias and, in turn, the retaliatory Iranian mining of the Persian Gulf. As the violence escalates, he said, U.S. warplanes could bomb military targets inside Iran, including its nuclear facilities. In response, Iran could order its Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon and Syria to open fronts against Israel, bombarding its cities with rockets that leave hundreds dead. Israel almost certainly would retaliate with massive force, destroying Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Lebanon and Syria. As oil prices surged and Iran and its proxies drew more Israeli and American blood, the Trump administration would come under intense political pressure to come to Israel's aid and finish off the Iranian regime once and for all. The next inevitable step, Kahl said, would be a U.S. ground invasion of Iran, and a full-scale war "that neither Trump nor Iranian leaders wanted."

That's the nightmare scenario. For now, however, the administration is deeply divided over its Iran policy, with Trump playing the moderate and both national security adviser John Bolton and Pompeo taking a far more hardline stance. The president, convinced of his prowess as a dealmaker, appears confident he can force Tehran to the negotiating table, where he says he will confine his efforts to winning a better nuclear agreement than the one his predecessor reached in return for sanctions relief. Bolton and Pompeo want any new Iran agreement to go far beyond the nuclear issue to include conditions that effectively would neuter Iran as a regional power.

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National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks on a morning television show from the grounds of the White House, on May 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. The previous day President Donald Trump announced that America was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Getty/Mark Wilson

Last May, Pompeo set out a dozen demands, including a halt in perpetuity to all Iranian nuclear enrichment, even peaceful, low-grade enrichment for medical isotopes. This would negate the most important face-saving concession that Iran won in its negotiations for the 2015 nuclear accord. But the demands also require Iran to end its ballistic missile program and halt its support for Syria, Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite militia, pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, and Yemen's Houthi rebels. Iran has rejected the U.S. demands as tantamount to total capitulation.

For his part, Bolton also has made no secret of his desire to topple the regime in Tehran. "America's declared policy should be ending Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th anniversary," Bolton wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in January 2018, just two months before Trump named him as his new national security adviser. "Recognizing a new Iranian regime in 2019 would reverse the shame of once seeing our diplomats held hostage for 444 days. The former hostages can cut the ribbon to open the new U.S. Embassy in Tehran."

Last fall, Bolton, long a cheerleader for the use of military force, asked the Pentagon to provide options for a military strike against Iran after Iranian-backed militants fired three rockets that exploded harmlessly in an empty lot on the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Alarmed, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis blocked the request.

During the latest escalation of tensions, Bolton ordered the Pentagon to provide a revised military plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East in the event of an Iranian attack on U.S. forces or a resumption of its nuclear program. The size of the force approached the number of troops that invaded Iraq in 2003.
In an indication of the sharp divisions within the administration over Iran policy, Trump, an opponent of America's open-ended troop presence in the Middle East, later approved of sending only 1,500 additional troops to the region.

Recently, there's been some speculation that Trump might fire Bolton for being too hawkish. White House officials acknowledge that the two men do not have a close relationship. But for now, they add, the president appears to be content to use Bolton in the role of "bad cop," if only to keep Iran guessing about U.S. intentions.

"The nice thing I like about our policy is that I'm quite sure that the Iranians have no idea what President Trump might do," retired Gen. James Jones, a former Obama national security adviser, told The Hill recently. "They're off balance, and they might wake up one morning and find they no longer have a navy, for example."

The example Jones chose was not random. In April 1988, in the largest naval engagement since World War II, the U.S. Navy attacked Iranian naval forces in retaliation for Iran's mining of the Persian Gulf during the Iraq-Iran war, a move that heavily damaged an American warship. By the end of the battle, U.S. forces had sunk or crippled half of Iran's operational fleet.

Regional experts say the Iranian military learned valuable tactical lessons from that engagement —lessons that American officials and independent analysts believe they're now using in the current confrontation with the U.S. forces. "The lessons the Iranians learned was you don't go at the U.S. military conventionally; you go at U.S. interests asymmetrically," says Miller, now vice president of the Wilson Center, a foreign policy think tank in Washington. "So using mini-subs manned by Iranian special forces, they plant mines on Saudi and Emirati tankers. Meanwhile, the Houthis send a drone to attack a portion of Saudi's East-west pipeline."

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A military parade held in front of former Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei's shrine due to the Sacred Defence Week in Tehran, Iran on September 22, 2017. Getty/Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency

Miller says both of these attacks were significant—and an ominous preview of what's likely in store as long as the Trump administration maintains its economic stranglehold on Iran. "They struck these tankers five to 12 miles off the coast of Fujairah," one of the United Arab Emirates, he says. "The pipeline was taking Saudi oil to terminals on the Red Sea. The attacks were unconventional—no one was killed—and very hard to prove authorship. They're certainly no cause at this point for the United States to attack the Iranians directly."

Other regional experts agree that Iran was most likely behind the tanker and pipeline attacks, adding they were probably aimed at raising the price of oil as Tehran feels the bite of reduced exports. So far, that hasn't happened," said Henry Rome, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group, an international business consultancy. "But it's not for want of trying."

In addition, analysts anticipate the Iranians will gradually revive prohibited elements of its nuclear program in a bid to extract some economic relief from the Europeans in return for discontinuing such activities, or to build up leverage if negotiations with the United States begin.

"From the Iranian point of view, the status quo is not sustainable," Rome told Newsweek. "Their economy cannot survive on zero oil exports. So they're finding themselves forced to act out in a variety of ways to relieve the pressure." Iran has denied its forces carried out the attacks.

Some observers detect a potential bright spot in the sudden willingness of the administration and the Iranians to resume negotiations. But bringing both sides to the table will be no easy task; like the administration, Iran has some demands of its own: Tehran insists it won't consider negotiating any new nuclear accord until the Trump administration first comes back into compliance with the 2015 agreement, which would mean lifting the sanctions and ending its maximum pressure campaign.

"By withdrawing from the nuclear deal, it was the U.S., not Iran, who left the negotiating table," Sayed Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iran's nuclear negotiations with the international community and now a professor at Princeton, told Newsweek. "Therefore, if you want negotiations, you should come back to the nuclear deal, show your commitment to your signature and your words, and then we can negotiate on the other issues."

While Trump has shown it's impossible to predict with any certainty what he might do, many analysts believe any return to the nuclear deal that Trump campaigned so hard to discredit would be political suicide for the president, who hopes to be reelected in 2020. "The administration cannot, under any circumstances, return to the original incarnation of the Iran deal without undermining its own credibility and its politics," Miller says. "They would be skewered if, in fact, the purpose of the whole exercise was simply to return to the deal and try to sell sanctions relief twice."

Rome reckons that there's a possibility for talks over the release of six Americans that the Iranians are holding "if Tehran feels it can get some sanctions relief out of it." But he adds the likelihood of a broader diplomatic stalemate and the tightening squeeze on Iran's economy over the next six months remains a prescription for the kind of instability that can lead to armed conflict—even if U.S. and Iranian leaders insist they don't want one.

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