Trump and Iran Are Climbing a Shaky Ladder of Escalation

Trump and Iran Are Climbing a Shaky Ladder of Escalation

President Donald Trump after announcing his decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran.

SourceSAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Diplomatic opportunities to blink or save face in Washington and Tehran’s game of chicken are running thin.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

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).

In my last column, I was struggling to understand U.S. strategy on Iran. Two weeks later, I still am. What’s clearer, especially since Iran’s downing of an unmanned U.S. drone yesterday, is that tensions are rapidly spiking. What remains unclear is how we got here and where this will end up.

Eighteen months ago, the U.S. and Iran were signatories to an agreement that had frozen the most threatening aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, no ships were being attacked in the Persian Gulf, no drones were being downed and we were on the same page with our allies and with Russia and China about how to deal with Tehran — at least on nuclear matters. Now, we have seen Japanese and Norwegian oil freighters attacked in the Gulf, attacks that Washington attributes to Iran. At the same time, Iran is threatening to start backing away from parts of the nuclear agreement; it says it will start enriching uranium to a higher level than permitted in the agreement and stockpiling more of it, which would shorten the time for Iran to produce a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, our allies are expressing doubts about American claims of Iranian culpability for the Gulf attacks.

Exactly how we got here is doomed to be a chicken-and-egg argument between supporters and critics of President Donald Trump. Supporters will say it’s because Iran is an inherently bad actor and would have started producing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium as soon as the nuclear agreement’s clauses began to expire over the next decade. They also point out that the agreement did not constrain Iran’s support of terrorism or its missile program. Trump critics, meanwhile, will say it was the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and the ramping up of sanctions that started us on this path, provoking Iranian retaliation and giving Tehran an excuse to back away from its nuclear commitments.

Trump must convince allies that Iran is behind the attacks on Gulf shipping.

In truth, we’ve passed the point where it’s worth arguing about how this started. More important is to anticipate where it might go and how to head off the worst possibilities. At this point, both countries are on a shaky ladder of escalation, which carries a high risk of miscalculation. I say miscalculation because I seriously doubt that either side really wants a big shooting war. Trump has repeatedly emphasized that he does not want to get bogged down in a regional conflict and Iran is hurting so badly from economic sanctions that war would stress it to the max. But international games of chicken always involve issues of saving “face,” as this one increasingly does, inspiring hard-liners on all sides to push things along in ways that almost always lead to conflict. Iran’s drone strike yesterday is exhibit A; there is probably great pressure on our side for at least a proportional response. And so it goes …

The only way out without increasing the risk of violence is through diplomacy and compromise, but many obstacles lie along that path. The Iranian leadership has so far contemptuously brushed off Trump’s proposals for talks. Trump says he wants to get them back to the bargaining table, but Tehran says, rightly I’m afraid, that he is the one who left it.

About the only way diplomacy can come effectively back into play is if the U.S. can first bring its European allies, and perhaps Russia and China, back into a common understanding of what needs to be done regarding Iran — and then confront Tehran with a united front. This would be an uphill battle for Washington because European leaders maintain that the confrontation stems from Trump’s abandoning the nuclear agreement last year. They all urged him not to do it because Iran was continuing to comply with the deal at that time. I witnessed from the audience the stony silence Vice President Mike Pence received at the Munich Security Conference in February when he said “the time had come” for the Europeans to pull out also. European resentment runs deep.

To partially offset that resentment, Trump must convince allies that Iran is behind the attacks on Gulf shipping. The administration says this is backed up by solid intelligence, and press reports indicate that some Europeans — such as the Brits — say they have similar intelligence. Trump’s problem is not so much doubt about U.S. intelligence as it is whether to believe Trump personally. His loose relationship with facts in other matters leaves allies uncertain about whether they can buy what he says on issues with such large international consequences. In a sense, Trump’s habitual mendacity is coming home to roost.

As those of us who were in the Vietnam War used to say in seemingly hopeless situations: “There it is.” Which was another way of saying: Deal with the realities. And the realities are not pretty. The Trump administration is caught in an escalating confrontation with an adversary threatening to resume its march toward nuclear weapons; the administration has very little if any sympathy or support from its treaty allies; and the only ones nervously pleased are the Saudis and Israelis, for whom Iran is enemy No. 1.

Given all this, the hope has to be that someone blinks or that diplomacy miraculously kicks in (don’t be surprised if Putin, smelling opportunity, offers to mediate). Or, perhaps the most likely outcome is that the situation just drags on with minor skirmishes, threats and counterthreats, until Trump loses interest and pulls a North Korea — that is, ignores the realities and somehow redefines his actions as a success.

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