What’s the point of having the world’s most powerful military if we never use it, then–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is said to have shouted at Gen. Colin Powell in 1992, over his reluctance to commit American force to the Balkan wars. President Donald Trump clearly agrees with Albright that the military is there to be used, but also with Powell that it should be kept out of quagmires in harm’s way. He has wielded the US military as a political prop—at the border, in symbolic air strikes against forewarned Syrian targets, and in a July 4 DC extravaganza. But, despite his bellicose tweeting, Trump has declined every chance for expeditionary adventurism.
That’s because a key pillar of the president’s “Make America Great Again” promise has been to reverse the interventionist legacy of President George W. Bush. “We’re charting a path to stability and peace in the Middle East, because great nations do not want to fight endless wars,” Trump reiterated at his 2020 campaign launch in Orlando last month, in language that could have just as easily come from Barack Obama. “They’ve been going on forever,” he added, promising that he was removing troops and “finally putting America first.”
Even as Trump was considering a wrist-slap air strike on Iran following its downing of a US Navy surveillance drone, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson warned him on air against being drawn into the vortex of a military confrontation with Tehran. Trump stood down (except, of course, on Twitter), and Iran saw its strategic reading vindicated: Trump wants to avoid going to war with a country three times the size of Iraq and with far better capacity to hit back.
Although the US Navy later downed an Iranian drone during a confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has continued to up the ante in that strategically vital oil shipment passageway, most recently by seizing a British tanker in response to the UK’s earlier interdiction of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar. As the International Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez told The Wall Street Journal, “The reality is that [Trump’s] maximum pressure [strategy] has rendered Tehran more, not less, reckless.”
A year ago, Trump tore up the international nuclear deal (JCPOA) and used US dominance of the international financial system to bully third parties into participating in a new sanctions regime, thereby preventing them from honoring their obligations under the nuclear deal and removing the incentives that had kept Iran compliant. Trump was persuaded by his Saudi and Israeli allies and their DC echo chambers to put Iran’s economy into a stranglehold unless it surrendered to US terms that went far beyond the nuclear deal.
It was an all-or-nothing gamble, conceived by a regime-change faction more alarmed by how the deal treated Iran as a legitimate partner than by anything happening in its nuclear program. More sober analysts warned that Iran would not capitulate, and would choose confrontation over surrender or the slow death of its economy. It’s certainly clear, now, that Iran is willing to take risks in pursuit of ending the US economic siege.
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Iran is not going to concede, and it’s betting that Trump cannot afford a war. That looks like a smart wager, but one that carries a high risk of miscalculation on either side that could spark a conflagration despite the desire on both sides to avoid one.
Iran followed its downing a US drone in June with the resumption of limited uranium enrichment and threats to shipping. This suggests a willingness of the Islamic Republic to absorb such force as Trump is willing to consider, in the hope that the resultant crisis prompts third parties to break with the US-led sanction regime. Some 20 percent of daily global oil demand passes through the Strait of Hormuz, meaning that any disruption of that shipping lane risks a major spike in global oil prices. As the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney told The Wall Street Journal, “Provocations in the Gulf help galvanize more effective European diplomacy by raising the costs.”
She added, “They remind Trump of his own domestic interests in avoiding either spikes in the price of oil or another costly, protracted US military intervention in the Middle East as he begins his re-election campaign.”
And precisely because it lacks a plausible end game—the Iranians cannot capitulate and will keep raising the stakes in hopes of forcing the US side back to the table—Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has, in fact, left the strategic initiative in Tehran’s hands.
As Iran analyst Laura Rozen recently noted, “If the United States expected that a year or so of crippling economic sanctions on Iran following Donald Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal might bring the Iranians to the table ready to yield to the long list of US grievances with the Islamic Republic, Iran has flipped the script, newly shifting its strategy from one of relative restraint to one where the United States and other powers increasingly seem to be responding to Iranian actions.”
There’s no question the collapse of the JCPOA dealt Iran a strategic setback, reversing some of the diplomatic gains Tehran had achieved through the deal, and by extension, through its nuclear work. It has effectively reset the clock, but only by about five years, to a moment when US blunders in the region had exponentially expanded Tehran’s regional influence, and alarm over its growing capacity to build nuclear weapons had brought Western powers to the negotiating table with a regime most had preferred to see isolated or destroyed.
Iran’s nuclear activities fit the pattern of post-Hiroshima global statecraft: Nuclear weapons have never been an end in themselves; instead they provide the ultimate deterrent. US politicians from Trump to Hillary Clinton casually threaten to “obliterate” Iran, a nod to US nuclear capability. Iran knows that no power can seriously contemplate an existential attack on a regime capable of responding in kind.
The attraction of a nuclear deterrent for any regime with more powerful enemies is obvious. “The Iranians had good reason to acquire nuclear weapons long before the present crisis, and there is substantial evidence they were doing just that in the early 2000s,” realist US foreign policy scholar John Mearsheimer wrote recently in The New York Times. “The case for going nuclear is much more compelling today. After all, Iran now faces an existential threat from the United States, and a nuclear arsenal will go a long way toward eliminating it.”
While it may have been birthed in a chaotic revolution 40 years ago, historical circumstances have made regime-survival rather than the export of revolution the Islamic Republic’s top priority. No question, Iran “exports” its political and military influence, but those exports have for decades been shaped by a certain realpolitik. Iran had no ideological reason to expend considerable blood and treasure propping up Syria’s Assad regime, built on a militantly secular alliance of the religiously heterodox Alawite community, Syria’s Christians and other non-Muslim minorities, and the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie. Iran saved Assad to preserve the land bridge that makes it possible to directly supply weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement. This access allows Iran’s proxies to target Tel Aviv with Iranian missiles and to hold their own against Israeli ground invasions. For Tehran, Hezbollah’s substantial independent military capability serves a key asymmetrical deterrent against any Israeli or US strikes on Iran.
Iran’s regional military-political reach had expanded considerably in the decade preceding the JCPOA, principally because of the catastrophic blundering of the Bush administration. In Afghanistan and then Iraq, the United States eliminated Iran’s most threatening neighbors (the Taliban and Saddam Hussein), and then for good measure, goaded Israel into a ground invasion of Lebanon in 2006 in the hopes of eliminating Hezbollah—a military catastrophe that killed hundreds of Lebanese and left Hezbollah stronger than ever. Democracy in Iraq brought further gains as the electoral process repeatedly returned governments that put Baghdad within Iran’s sphere of influence.
Tehran appears to have begun research efforts into nuclear weapons—clerical prohibitions notwithstanding—in the early 2000s, in response to the nuclear program of its mortal enemy, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who had attacked Iran in 1980 launching a brutal eight-year war financed by the Saudis. Inspections following Operation Desert Storm in 1991 revealed a robust and sophisticated underground program that had brought Hussein perilously close to achieving nuclear-weapons capability.
And on Iran’s eastern flank, Saudi client-state Pakistan had nukes, as did Iran’s key regional rival Israel, and of course, the United States did too. Ideology aside, there is a compelling incentive to obtain nuclear weapons. The “untouchable” status afforded all nuclear-armed regimes would certainly have its appeal in Tehran.
But in its dealing with world powers, the Iranians were clearly open to other routes to take regime change off the table. In 2003, Tehran reached out to the Bush administration to offer talks in pursuit of a grand bargain that would address all US concerns about Iran, in exchange for normalizing relations. The administration, giddy with the illusion of victory in Iraq and the belief that Tehran had been intimidated by the American show of force, ignored the offer.
The Europeans continued to negotiate with Iran, hoping that offers of economic incentives could stop Iran from enriching its own uranium—which Iran is entitled to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Europeans couldn’t get Bush on board, and therefore couldn’t take regime change off the table. And after two years of restraint, Iran turned on its centrifuges, realizing the leverage obtained by slowly, and legally, expanding the civilian nuclear infrastructure that would enable it, if it wanted, to build weapons. It was this leverage that ultimately compelled world powers to negotiate.
And so Iran achieved a diplomatic innovation: It never actually began to build a nuclear weapon, but it demonstrated sufficient proof of its ability to do that it was able to accrue many of the gains that other regimes had won only once they had built and tested atomic bombs. Iran’s capacity to produce bomb materiel compelled the key international powers to recognize a regime that many would have preferred to shun.
It was the JCPOA’s effective negation of a regime-change option that ignited such fierce hostility from Israel and the Saudis. The deal clearly restricted Iran’s nuclear work and blocked pathways to weaponization, but at the expense of normalizing and legitimizing a regional challenger they’d long sought to eliminate.
Sure, the nuclear deal did not deal with many problematic aspects of Iran’s regional activities (much less of its repressive domestic policies, though that’s something international agreements to keep the peace among states almost never do). Iran’s ability to achieve nuclear breakout capacity had created a tactical urgency to conclude a deal limited to nuclear activities, but the underlying strategic assumption was that such a deal could potentially open the way to negotiate Iran’s integration in the regional security arrangements—a grand bargain. That idea is deeply threatening to the Saudis, who since World War II had enjoyed a primacy in US Middle East policy trumped only by Israel.
As Saudi historian Madawi al-Rasheed explained in The New York Times, “Any rapprochement between the United States and Iran—such as the nuclear agreement under President Obama—is viewed with intense suspicion and fear as it threatens the Saudi position as the leading American client in the region.”
For the Israelis, removing the “Iran nuclear threat”—which Israel’s own security establishment had long warned was hyped beyond credulity by Netanyahu—also removed the chief red herring deployed by the Israelis for avoiding even serious discussion of ending its occupation of Palestinian territories.
Obama did not disguise the fact that détente with Iran aligned with a wider rethink of US priorities in the region, at the expense of Saudi primacy. His administration openly advocated “offshore rebalancing,” a doctrine under which Washington would retreat from efforts to remake and micromanage the region’s balance of power and, instead, allow a new status quo balancing the interests of the most powerful players—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel—to emerge organically.
As Obama expressed it in an interview with The Atlantic, “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” It was not in US interests, he argued, to back the hard-line positions of regional allies that risked starting wars that they could not finish without US involvement.
The Saudis, though, were never going to settle for an end to their primacy in US national security doctrine, and they and their allies worked hard to persuade Trump to reverse the deal brokered by his predecessor. But precisely because his aversion to new military entanglements in the Middle East, his “maximum pressure” strategy has hit a wall.
Not only is Iran willing to raise the risk of a military clash, its actions in recent weeks suggests it has not forgotten its own leverage in the nuclear talks.
Much has been made of how Obama’s sanctions had brought Iran to the table for the JCPOA; scant attention is given to that fact that it was Iran’s uranium enrichment capability, effectively shortening the time frame of any breakout sprint to weaponization, that brought the Western powers to the same table.
Iran has now sought to revive that leverage by pushing its enrichment efforts past the limits it agreed to in the JCPOA, first of its stockpile of reactor fuel enriched to 3.7 percent and then, as it escalates, to the 20 percent level used in cancer treatment (which significantly shrinks the reprocessing time required to bring it to weapons-grade)—those limits remember are far more restrictive than those required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, within whose parameters Iran’s current nuclear work remains.
But the damage the United States has done to the JCPOA could be irreversible, vindicating the warnings of Iran hardliners that the “Great Satan” can’t be trusted. “No sensible Iranian leader is going to wager his country’s survival on who gets elected president of the United States,” writes Mearsheimer. “American policy toward Iran over the past year makes it clear that Iranian leaders were foolish not to develop a nuclear deterrent in the early 2000s.”
Mearsheimer believes that the short-term Iranian response will include a variety of military provocations designed to alarm the Europeans and others into defying the US sanctions that are killing Iran’s economy.
But the Europeans have been squeamish about openly defying the United States, and prospects for a do-over are fraught, not only for the Iranians, but for the five foreign powers that stood by and allowed Trump to destroy the JCPOA and replace it with a nothing-left-to-lose scenario for Tehran. Consider the incentives placed before Iran’s leaders, right now, and it’s not hard to see how they’d read them as a creating a surrender-or-fight choice.
Having been burned before, Iran will expect significant, tangible concessions for a new deal. Effectively, Trump would have to reverse himself, regardless of how such a move was spun. He may also have to find ways of restraining his regional allies, particularly Israel, from launching attacks on Iran designed to draw Trump into the war he’s desperate to avoid. (And restraining Israel is not part of the administration’s playbook.)
Right now, though, Iran is not being shown any incentive for restraint. Mearsheimer predicts that the result will likely be Iran’s following a more traditional path to securing the “untouchable” status nuclear weapons confer.
The clearest sign that Trump may be panicking—Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called him “desperate and confused”—may be his tapping of Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican and a critic of foreign military interventions, as a back-channel emissary to Iran.
The sense that Trump’s retreat will be to paint some version of existing agreements as some bold breakthrough are reflected in Paul’s recent comments on Fox News: “I think there is a possible opening that Iran would sign an agreement saying that they won’t develop a nuclear weapon, ever. That would be a huge breakthrough.”
Well, no, it wouldn’t, since that’s essentially what Iran agreed to when it adopted the NPT in 1970, and has maintained ever since. But Paul was almost comically sycophantic in adding, “I think President Trump is one of the few people who actually could get that deal…because he’s strong, and he is showing maximum pressure, but he is also willing to talk.”
Iran has separately offered to ratify the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which would allow more intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities on a permanent basis if Trump lifts sanctions. But under the JCPOA, Iran was required to take that step in 2023, so Tehran is simply offering to expedite a step to which it had previously agreed.
Restoring calm and reducing the rising danger of hostilities triggered by miscalculation will require that Iran’s regime is credibly persuaded that its existence is not threatened by outside powers. Essentially, the United States will be relitigating much of what was achieved by the JCPOA, but under less favorable circumstances after Trump has provided Tehran’s hard-liners a compelling case study in the danger of trusting the United States as a negotiating partner.