Why you should care
Tensions between Tehran and the U.S. and U.K. are heating up, risking dangerous escalation.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Gulf on Friday, sparking a heightening of tensions between Tehran and the West. We turned to former CIA deputy director and OZY columnist John McLaughlin for insights.
What’s Iran’s game plan, in your view, in seizing a British tanker Friday in the Strait of Hormuz?
This gets more dangerous by the day. I fear that neither side has a real game plan. It’s more like we are testing each other to see where the red lines are — the danger being that this keeps Iran and the U.S. on the edge of escalation, even though I don’t think either side really wants to go to war.
If I had to guess, the closest thing Iran has to a game plan is in two parts: First, they are stressing that they can cause trouble at the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20 percent of the world’s oil moves. Second, they are retaliating for the recent British seizure at Gibraltar of an Iranian oil tanker heading for Syria.
Would you describe recent events as escalatory or proportionate responses to Iran shooting down a U.S. drone and Britain seizing an Iranian ship?
It seems proportionate to me. Call it what you will — tit for tat, a game of chicken — the danger is that even proportionate attacks can escalate in the absence of a functioning diplomatic process.
What should we make of the rumored meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Trump’s unofficial negotiator, Sen. Rand Paul?
On Saturday, Trump confirmed that he had authorized Sen. Rand Paul to enter into some undefined negotiations with unknown Iranian counterparts. Rand Paul does favor negotiations and is in that sense a natural, but I would worry that he does not have enough experience dealing with Iranian negotiators, who more or less invented bazaar bargaining centuries ago.
This said, the only way out of this mess is by fighting or negotiating. Negotiation is much to be preferred. Zarif, the foreign minister, this week opened the door a crack. He said Iran would ratify the so-called Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) now instead of by the 2023 deadline in return for the U.S. lifting some key sanctions. The protocol would give international inspectors more robust and intrusive powers, including the ability to visit any suspected spot with only two hours’ notice. This is one of the first overt signs that the Iranians want to talk. It probably reflects the harsh economic effect of U.S. sanctions removing waivers that permitted eight countries, including China and India, to continue buying Iranian oil. In short, Iran is going broke.
Have these recent events strengthened or weakened America’s position in any negotiations with Iran?
Well, certainly the sanctions are biting deeply enough to get the Iranians’ attention and provoke the proposal from Zarif. Now the question is whether the U.S. will seize that opportunity to try opening a dialogue. The way to do that would be by working in consultation with the other signatories of the Iran nuclear agreement — the U.K., France, Germany, the E.U., Russia and China — to coordinate a position for discussion with Iran; Zarif’s idea is only a starting point that would require skilled diplomacy to develop agreed details that carry some assurance of ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Could Iran’s seizure of a British tanker serve as a turning point in uniting Europe in criticizing Iran alongside the U.K.?
I don’t think so. Most Europeans see the current tensions as the result of Trump unilaterally pulling out of the 2015 agreement. They do not think it makes sense now for Trump to say that all he wants is for Iran to have no nuclear weapons. In their view, that’s what they accomplished with the agreement they all urged him not to abandon. This said, the Europeans have no illusions about Iran’s bad behavior in other areas — terrorism, missile development, support for Syria’s Assad regime. But their view is that keeping the nuclear agreement intact would have allowed everyone to turn to these other issues with that one burden at least temporarily set aside.
What, in your assessment, should the U.S. do next?
The U.S. needs to settle on a strategy for Iran. So far it has been a confusing pattern: abandoning the nuclear agreement, making U.S. demands that amount to a call for regime change, saying we don’t want war while keeping up pressure sure to provoke Iranian retaliation, responding to Iranian attacks on U.S. drones by preparing a military operation and calling it off at the last minute. This leaves everyone confused about what the U.S. really wants and where its red lines are.
Taking Trump at his word that all he really wants is a revised agreement ensuring Iran never gets nukes, the smartest course right now is to hold in place and take any opportunity to start talking — at any level, not just Trump’s (he keeps saying he’s willing, but Iran is nowhere near to ready for that). This is one of those moments in international relations when process can have its own value even if the end point cannot be assured. But it requires everyone to take a deep breath and not insist on winning the argument in round one. In other words, good old-fashioned diplomacy.