US-Iran escalation: It’s message-sending, but the risks are high

Why We Wrote This

The U.S. and Iran each want something. But they are expressing that through sanctions and military provocations. How high can they escalate tensions before it slips out of their control?

Jon Gambrell/AP
A pilot speaks to a crew member by an F/A-18 fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea on June 3. In response to harsher U.S. sanctions, Iran has broken through uranium enrichment and stockpile limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

While President Trump and Iran’s supreme leader have said they do not want war, the two countries have not been this close to open conflict since the 1980s. So what is the psychology of escalation at play? And how far can the tit-for-tat escalation go without spinning out of control?

Mr. Trump says the aim of his “maximum pressure” policy is to get Iran to negotiate a new deal that includes limiting its missile forces and curtailing regional proxies. For their part, Iranian officials vow that they will not negotiate under pressure and say America can’t be trusted.

“Iran’s strategy has shifted from strategic patience to escalation-for-escalation,” says Hassan Ahmadian, a political scientist at Tehran University. The Iranian aim, he says, is to impress a “realization of danger” upon the White House in a way that leads to “de-escalation at the end of the day.”

Wendy Sherman, chief U.S. negotiator of the 2015 nuclear deal, says Iran is “operating in a very careful way, both taking reversible steps, as well as doing this in a step-by-step process” to press Europe and others to break with the U.S. But, she adds, “this could spiral out of control quite quickly.”

Another day, another step in the apparently inexorable escalation of U.S.-Iran tensions that has brought the arch-adversaries to the brink of war since President Donald Trump last year withdrew from the nuclear deal.

The escalation has included a U.S. “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign that has crippled Iran’s economy and targeted its supreme leader and elite Revolutionary Guard; incremental Iranian violations of the landmark 2015 deal; Iran shooting down a $130 million U.S. intelligence drone; and Mr. Trump at the last minute calling off a retaliatory surgical strike – while planes were reportedly mid-route.

The result: the U.S. and Iran have not been this close to open conflict since the 1980s.

Which raises two very pressing questions: What is the psychology of escalation at play? And how far can this tit-for-tat trajectory go without stumbling into a war that leaders on both sides say they don’t want?

Mr. Trump states that his aim is to pressure the Islamic Republic to negotiate a new deal that includes limiting Iran’s missile forces and curtailing regional proxies. But hawkish aides like his national security adviser, John Bolton, have argued for years for military strikes on Iran and regime change.

For their part, Iranian officials vow that they will not negotiate under pressure, state that America can’t be trusted, and declare – as Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently did – that talking to the Trump administration would be poison “twice as deadly.”

And while Iran stuck to the nuclear deal for a year after the U.S. withdrawal – imploring the European Union, Russia, and China to uphold their side of the bargain, even if the U.S. did not, by providing Iran with economic benefits in exchange for Iran curtailing its nuclear program – analysts say the consensus has grown in Iran to take action.

“Realization of danger”

“Iran’s strategy has shifted from strategic patience to escalation-for-escalation,” says Hassan Ahmadian, a political scientist at Tehran University and research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“That’s because Iran cannot afford, I think, to live in a situation of strategic stalemate, so it has to change the situation, it has to create a way out of a stalemate that the Trump administration is trying to box Iran in,” says Mr. Ahmadian.

The Iranian aim, he says, is to impress a “realization of danger” upon the White House in a way that leads to “de-escalation at the end of the day.”

Iran “has no choice but to either accept U.S. diktats, so to speak, or do something to make the U.S. understand that [Iran] is not only sabre rattling, it can really turn ugly, and that Iran – though its power is not comparable with the United States, of course – can hurt the U.S. and its interests,” says Mr. Ahmadian. “It has decided to make that clear and very obvious for the United States. ... But we are on an escalatory road.”

Alex Brandon/AP/File
A year after he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to increase sanctions on Iran, flanked by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, in the Oval Office, June 24, 2019.

And that road brings the risk of misreading signals and frequent miscalculation, of the kind that have plagued mutual U.S.-Iran hostility since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the pro-West Shah of Iran.

Yet rarely has the flow of vituperative rhetoric from both sides – a constant for more than four decades – been so closely connected to the risk of kinetic conflict.

In the past 12 days alone, Iran took its first steps to violate the nuclear deal, by increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium beyond agreed limits on July 1, and then on July 7 edging up its enrichment level from 3.67% purity to almost 5%.

Those steps barely bring Iran closer to the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, analysts say. But they mark a crucial step away from the deal and come with a 60-day deadline from Iran that it will take more dramatic steps unless pressure eases.

“Reversible steps”

“Iran is, I think, operating in a very careful way, both taking reversible steps, as well as doing this in a step-by-step process to put pressure on Europe, in particular, and Russia and China to break with the United States,” said Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator of the 2015 nuclear deal, in a call with journalists organized by the International Crisis Group.

“This could spiral out of control quite quickly,” said Ms. Sherman. “Without a doubt, both John Bolton and Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo believe it is important to use every piece of pressure they can on Iran. If that leads to military conflict, so be it.”

Military action, she said, “would be not only dangerous, but disastrous.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump claimed in a tweet that Iran had been “secretly” enriching uranium – contrary to multiple reports by United Nations nuclear inspectors – and vowed that sanctions “will soon be increased, substantially!”

Also Wednesday, three Iranian boats “attempted to impede” a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, the United Kingdom said in a statement. Iran denied any role, yet earlier in the day, President Hassan Rouhani warned the U.K. of “consequences,” after British Marines seized a Syria-bound supertanker loaded with Iranian crude oil last week off the coast of Gibraltar.

Those events come as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the U.S. was in discussions with other countries to create a naval task force to “ensure freedom of navigation” in waters close to Iran and Yemen.

Half a dozen tankers were struck with explosions in the Persian Gulf in May and June, causing modest damage. The U.S. blamed Iran, which denied involvement.

One possible overture from Iran may have been the June release of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with U.S. residency, after four years in prison. Reuters quoted Western sources suggesting it was meant to communicate Iran’s desire to ease tensions, though Washington did not pursue it.

Rouhani under fire

Iran’s decision to breach the nuclear accord is, for the time being, “more political signaling than proliferation [risk],” said Rob Malley, a former Obama administration official who is now president of the International Crisis Group, on the organization’s call.

Iran’s message is that “things will continue to get worse, that Iran will continue along this escalatory ladder of moving away from the [nuclear deal] if things don’t change,” said Mr. Malley, who recently met with Iranian officials in Europe.

“In other words, telling the United States that, if it is engaged in brinkmanship by violating the [deal], then two can play this game,” he said.

Yet in Iran, Mr. Rouhani has been targeted for not acting forcefully enough, amid calls by hardliners to immediately boost uranium enrichment to 20% or higher, to completely reject the nuclear deal, and, in the Persian Gulf, to seize a British oil tanker in a reciprocal measure.

The hard-line Kayhan newspaper said new talks under current circumstances would be a “signal of weakness and playing in the U.S. game.”

And the Mizan news agency said that Iranian “firmness” would “draw more concessions” from world powers. It said there was a “time when our enemy did not tolerate even a single centrifuge to spin” in Iran, in the early 2000s, and noted that years later, when Iran had amassed thousands of centrifuges, “they had no choice but to give in and accept it.”

“That was not kindness from the Americans toward us, it was an achievement that we gained thanks to our own power,” wrote Mizan.

“The U.S. and its allies are wise to think twice before escalating,” says Mr. Ahmadian, from Tehran University. “Because Iranians really got into a situation where they cannot not answer, leave the escalation unanswered, because it will harm them internally, will harm their legitimacy, will harm the unity this policy has brought up.”

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.