A long, hot summer in the Persian Gulf

By Joe Barnes
Bonner Means Baker Fellow


The good news: we managed to get through June and July without war in the Persian Gulf.  It was a close call. In late June, President Donald J. Trump called off an air strike against Iran at the last moment. The proximate cause of the aborted attack was Iran downing a U.S. drone in international airspace. (Iran claims the drone was in Iranian airspace.)  But the planned U.S. strike followed a series of attacks, by Iran or its proxies, on a number of oil tankers in the Gulf and nearby. True, the U.S. strike was going to be limited. It nonetheless risked a series of escalatory moves that could spread throughout much of the Middle East. The use of military force – particularly in so volatile a region – can create a dangerous dynamic, one where sober calculation yields to the often emotional imperative of the moment. Trump’s decision was the right one.

Now the bad news: the risk of conflict remains high. The dogs of war may not have been unleashed. But they are still straining at their collars. The tensions that led to the crisis in June are still bubbling. Iran has seized a British tanker in the Gulf, retaliation for the United Kingdom doing the same to an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar. (London claims that the tanker was transporting oil to Syria in contravention of EU sanctions.) Trump has ordered additional troops to the Persian Gulf.  He has also called for a multinational flotilla to police the strategic Straits of Hormuz; Europeans countries have been understandably hesitant to join in an effort that might plunge them into conflict with Iran.

In addition, Tehran has exceeded the limit on enriched uranium under the nuclear deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Weary of waiting for European countries to assist Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions, Iran is reminding them that Tehran expects the economic relief that was, after all, Iran’s reason for entering the nuclear deal in the first place. How much, practically, the Europeans can do for Iran without risking a complete breach with the United States is, however, unclear. Special purpose financial vehicles might help at the margin. But they will do little to offset the aggregate damage of U.S. sanctions.

The ultimate cause of rising tensions is clear: the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Since leaving the nuclear deal in 2018, Washington has continuously ratcheted up pressure against Tehran. In May of this year, the Trump administration re-imposed sanctions against firms importing Iranian oil, a punishing blow to the Iranian economy. Sanctions against other sectors of the Iranian economy have followed. So have sanctions against Iranian leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. In a narrow sense, the sanctions are working. The Iranian economy is hurting badly. But at a more important level, the sanctions have failed. Iran, after all, remains defiant. Tehran’s provocations suggest that Iran is simply not prepared either to yield to U.S. demands or to hunker down and hope that Trump is defeated in 2020.

Complicating the picture is uncertainty about U.S. goals in its policy toward Iran.  A certain ambiguity can be useful in diplomacy.  But, as is so often the case with the Trump administration’s foreign policy, the ambiguity appears to be less a strategy than a reflection of fractured, factional policymaking.  The president, for instance, has said that the United States is not interested in regime change in Iran.  But his national security advisor, John Bolton, has called for it in the past. An outright invasion of Iran may be off the table. But there are elements within the administration, including Bolton, who would like to see sanctions weaken and, indeed, bring down the current Iranian government. (There is no evidence, by the way, that this is happening.)

Perhaps the clearest formal expression of U.S. goals remains Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands announced in May 2018. But these conditions – which go far beyond Iran’s nuclear program and would essentially require a reversal of Tehran’s foreign policy in the region – were never going to be met by the Iranian government.  Indeed, Pompeo’s list reads more like an ultimatum than a genuine invitation for negotiations.  True, he has since suggested that the United States is prepared for talks without conditions. But Tehran surely – and perhaps rightly – remains suspicious. Powerful elements within the Trump administration plainly believe that any new agreement must go well beyond simply tightening the nuclear deal or even expanding it to included ballistic missiles; it must also roll back Iranian influence throughout the Middle East.

Nobody stands to gain from war between the United States and Iran. The United States can surely do immense harm to Iran’s conventional military, particularly its navy and air force. But Iran is a past master of asymmetric warfare and could, directly or through proxies, attack U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere. There is little taste for conflict among the Gulf Arab states. And instability in the Persian Gulf would surely rattle oil and gas markets, leading to sharp price increases, at least in the short term.

There is only one way to avoid the miscalculations that could lead to war:  diplomacy. Suzanne Maloney of Brookings argues that Iran’s recent actions are part of an approach that actually signals flexibility. (I highly recommend Maloney’s work on Iran.) But this begs two fundamental and related questions. First, how flexible is Tehran prepared to be? And would that flexibility be enough to bring the Trump administration to the table?  We do not know the answers to either question. This is where quiet diplomacy serves a critical purpose.  It can allow parties to test each other’s positions, gauge limits, and discover areas, however narrow, for agreement. But the likelihood for such diplomacy, at least for the moment, appears slim, despite some talk of Sen. Rand Paul serving as an U.S. interlocutor with Iran.  It’s hard to find an exit ramp when you’re driving at 90 miles an hour.