The year is less than halfway over, but 2020’s window for war with Iran may be nearly closed.
Tehran has lately drawn down its regional provocations in the Middle East, reportedly advising even its Quds Force to “act conservatively” and maintain “a holding pattern” until after the US presidential election in November. In recent weeks, the Iranian regime has backed the US-supported prime minister in Iraq and even gone through with a prisoner swap.
This lull in hostilities serves American interests as much as Iranian, but it comes no thanks to Washington. The Trump administration’s policy of needless antagonism toward Iran — beginning with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal and continuing with his failed policy of “maximum pressure” in the years since — deserves credit for fostering Iranian misbehavior, not its cessation.
If Tehran is taking a more tepid approach, the administration should use this fortuitous opportunity to reset US-Iran relations toward diplomacy and peace instead of doubling down on a reckless strategy that could too easily return us to the brink of war.
Unfortunately, the administration at present seems entirely uninterested in a reset.
“Pressure works,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran policy, said earlier this month of Tehran’s newly cooperative stance. “For over three years we have contained and countered Iran through deterrence and diplomacy. The regime is also broke because of our sanctions. Iran’s leaders today face a choice: either negotiate with President Trump or manage economic collapse.”
The administration’s story of US engagement with Iran since 2017 is a three-step sequence of leaving a bad deal, applying maximum pressure and, now, receiving the due result of Iranian compliance. This is a tidy and dangerous lie.
Here’s what actually happened: Trump withdrew the United States from a nuclear deal that was limited in scope but serviceable for US foreign policy and effective in what it sought to accomplish. Before Trump’s exit, international inspections consistently found Iran to be in compliance with the agreement, which, had it been left intact, could have served as a basis for broader diplomacy in the future.
The president’s insistence that scrapping the first deal would produce a better second deal betrayed an embarrassing ignorance of negotiating tactics; building on the first deal was far and away the most probable path to further constraints on Tehran.
After carelessly undoing what little progress had been made in US-Iran relations after decades of mutual antagonism — apparently verifying Iranian hardliners’ claim that America cannot be trusted and undermining more moderate voices — the administration next instigated an ill-advised escalatory cycle. The punishing sanctions core to maximum pressure have hurt ordinary Iranians without successfully coercing more desirable behavior from their government.
This approach has put US forces in danger, brought us perilously close to war, and accomplished none of the administration’s purported goals. The one time a new deal was potentially viable, Trump’s public enthusiasm for maximum pressure promptly killed it.
Iran’s present pause on regional trouble-making is not a victory for maximum pressure, whatever the administration may claim. It is merely a new tactic in Iran’s strategy to avoid a second round of US-orchestrated regime change in the pattern of ongoing US wars in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iranian provocation and retreat alike are attempts to forestall US attack. This recent tactical shift is dictated not by a pressure campaign to which Tehran will never submit but by domestic exigencies (especially COVID-19 and the economic damage of pandemic-decimated oil prices) as well as the American electoral calendar.
Crediting maximum pressure for a change it did not effect would be a disastrous mistake. The Trump administration should instead take a page from Iran’s book and turn its attention homeward during the coronavirus crisis.
Put US-Iran relations significantly on pause, relying on US deterrence and Tehran’s self-interest in regime survival to prevent any significant Iranian aggression. Drop the threat inflation and withdraw from counterproductive, no-win wars in the Middle East, which provide constant occasion for unintended conflict with Iran. Stop endlessly layering on new sanctions and pointedly displaying the “awesome firepower” of our military on Iran’s very doorstep — in fact, offer sanctions relief as a show of goodwill for the duration of the pandemic. And instead of again cracking the window to war, open a door to realistic diplomacy so we might finally take strides toward peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.