ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—Tensions between the U.S. and Iran in the Gulf ratcheted up sharply after the USS Thunderbolt fired warning shots at a fast-approaching Iranian vessel on July 25.
Such incidents—classified as unsafe and unprofessional encounters—attract attention, and are often seen as potential sparks in what is an extremely volatile region.
Because they could degenerate quickly into serious events, the U.S. Navy deals with such incidents with measured professionalism. The rules of engagement are clear, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy knows—despite its bravado—the red lines it should not cross.
Unsafe military interactions have decreased: There were 35 in 2016 and, according to U.S. officials, that figure is now “way below” what it was the same time last year. The capture of 10 U.S. sailors in May 2016 may have been a key factor in this decrease; military escalation was only avoided as a result of the personal relationship between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, one that was developed through long hours of negotiations.
The absence of communication between the two administrations since President Donald Trump’s inauguration should, therefore, be a source of concern.
The Iranians feel they can sit out Trump’s presidency, as they consider it ahistorical and transitory. They are benefiting from the 2015 nuclear agreement and reviving their economy with the assistance of European, Chinese, and Russian companies, which are pleasantly surprised by the absence of U.S. competitors.
But Trump’s rhetoric against the nuclear agreement, which he noted as the “worst deal ever,” is slowly getting real. His decisions to reinforce the inspections, and charge a number of trusted White House staffers to make a case for decertifying Iran during the next 90-day review of the deal are the latest examples.
While Iran and the other signatories will continue to uphold it, Trump seems determined to renege on the deal, even if that means ignoring the evidence and sidelining his administration. He is even unwilling to listen to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and members of the intelligence community, who have said repeatedly the nuclear agreement is working imperfectly, but as designed.
The sanctions limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not its ballistic missile program, its alleged support for terrorist groups, or the regime’s human right violations. As Tillerson reiterated in a recent press conference, “that agreement dealt with a very small slice of Iran’s threats, and that was their nuclear program.” But as Zarif said last month, short of putting a gun to someone’s head and making them “sign a surrender,” the Trump administration “would not like the terms of any negotiated deal.”
The nuclear agreement is supposed to be a step in the right direction. During the same press conference, Tillerson confirmed “the conversation on Iran does not begin and end with the [nuclear deal].” But Trump does not seem to want a dialogue. Evidence suggests the U.S. president is looking to push Iran into refusing further inspections and will use the refusal to decertify Iran. This roll-back strategy could have a destabilizing effect on the region, as it would prevent Iran from accessing the international banking market and offering jobs to its 80 million people.
For ideological reasons, or out of sheer ignorance, Trump is sidelining moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who recently was re-elected with 57 percent of the votes on a program promising further negotiations with the international community to lift the remaining sanctions. Rouhani is supported by the leaders of the Green Revolution, the movement that opposed former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 and fought for more reforms.
But even more troubling is the Trump administration’s embrace of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) as a legitimate external opposition. The NCRI is one of the many aliases of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, an organization that supported the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 before turning its back on the Islamic Revolution and launching a bombing campaign in the country.
Considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. until 2012, it has since gained the support of some Democrats and many hawkish Republicans such as John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Joe Lieberman, and Newt Gingrich. Most have been paid to participate in conferences, but only Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary, confirmed having received $50,000 for a five-minute speech in 2015.
With less success, Reza Pahlavi, son of the Shah who was ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, is also trying to gain favour with the Trump administration. Criticizing the Mujahideen-e Khalq as a “cult-type structure,” he presents himself as the champion of the status quo ante. While Iranians were re-electing President Rouhani, he was on Fox News calling for a revolution.
The current absence of communication, intelligence cherry-picking, and reliance on dubious opposition movements bears many similarities to the invasion of Iraq, which was launched by President George W. Bush after exiled politician Ahmad Chalabi’s intense lobbying and false allegations regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda.
After failed attempts at engineering democracy in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, can the region afford another staged regime change? The current, moderate Iranian president received a clear mandate to improve relations with the international community; it is not the time to destabilize a country that is simply too big to fail.
While some, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, appear committed to revenge against Iran, the majority of Americans would most likely be opposed to a war. But as tensions increase and external advisers push for an even tougher stance, Trump’s Twitter diplomacy will not be enough to prevent the next incident from escalating.
Many different actors would love to stop the economic and political re-emergence of Iran, including many actors in the region. But as Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense, once said to the French foreign minister about the Saudis, they always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”