In China, 2019 is not 1989
Tensions with Iran are escalating into a dangerous chain of events
The new announcement by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Tehran would cease compliance with parts of the 2015 nuclear agreement is the logical consequence of the decision that President Trump made to walk away from the landmark deal one year ago today. The move increases the prospects that the deal will collapse entirely, which could in turn lead to a dangerous escalation, or even war. The reckless foreign policy decision by Trump to walk away from a deal that was working has now placed the United States into a corner with no realistic strategy for how to get out.
Recent United States actions on Iran almost seem to have been designed to force Iran to quit the agreement. Over the past few weeks alone, the administration designated the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist group, ended the waivers that allowed a handful of countries to purchase Iranian oil without running afoul of American sanctions, and announced that the United States would penalize countries engaged in certain nuclear activities that are designed to allow Iran to implement the agreement. Moreover, national security adviser John Bolton has warned that the United States is deploying an aircraft carrier strike group to the region to send a "clear and unmistakable message" to the Iranian regime.
Administration officials have offered a whole range of rationales for this intensifying campaign, from forcing Iran to accept a "better" nuclear deal, preventing it from meddling in the region, or even provoking a popular uprising that would overthrow the Iranian regime. The problem is that there is no evidence the administration is any closer to these objectives, or that it can achieve them regardless of how much it turns up the heat.
The administration boasts that renewed oil sanctions have driven down Iranian oil exports by some two million barrels a day, depriving it of very badly needed resources and increasing frustration among its citizens. But ensuring Iran suffers is not, or at least should not be, an end in itself, especially as the hardship is felt more by the population than by the regime. This raises the question of what they think their policies will accomplish. Far from recognizing the problem they have created, Trump officials seem to think that they have created a "win win win" situation.
If Iran comes back to the table and accepts a more comprehensive and stringent deal, Trump will assert that he bested his predecessor. Yet, it is hard to imagine the Iranian leadership reopening negotiations with an administration it does not trust after a unilateral violation by the United States of the existing agreement that others still support. It is even harder imagining it agreeing to the terms the administration has laid out of zero nuclear enrichment, a ban on ballistic missile development, even more intrusive inspections, plus a dramatic change in its regional behavior.
If, alternatively, Iran refuses to renegotiate but stays in the deal despite its threats to withdraw, Trump officials would also claim success because Iran would enjoy few of the benefits of the agreement while remaining bound by all its constraints. But as United States pressure on Iran grows, so too does the likelihood that the Islamic Republic will abandon the agreement entirely. This brings us to the most troubling scenario, in which a cornered Iran chooses to respond aggressively. The Islamic Republic might quit the deal, kick out nuclear inspectors, and fully resume its nuclear activities.
It might seek to close the Straits of Hormuz on the theory that if it cannot export oil, others should not either. Or it might use one of its proxies to target United States military forces in response to American economic warfare. Administration officials might see benefits in such developments, as they would make any new international sanctions more likely or even provide a basis for American or Israeli military strikes, which Bolton has said is the only reliable way to stop an Iranian bomb. Most Americans, and most of the world, would rightly see any such outcomes as a disaster.
At this point, it is hard to see what can stop this seemingly inexorable march toward escalation. One possibility is that Iranian partners find a way to continue buying its oil despite the threat of American sanctions. But as European efforts to set up a mechanism to insulate trade with Iran, this is a laborious process whose impact will be limited for some time.
The other possibility is that despite its threat to leave the deal in 60 days if it gets no economic relief, Iran hunkers down in hopes that Trump is voted out of office in 2020. Every Democratic candidate who has spoken on the matter has said that, if elected as president, he or she would reenter the nuclear deal assuming Iran remained in compliance. But two years is a long time, and a Democratic win in the election cannot be guaranteed.
If Iran delivers on its threat to leave the deal entirely, expand its nuclear program, or provoke a military clash, it would undoubtedly face global opprobrium and international isolation. But were that to happen, we must not forget that this ruinous chain of events will have been deliberately set into motion by an administration intent on destabilizing Iran, no matter the consequences, no matter the dangers, and no matter the costs.
Philip Gordon is the Mary and David Boies senior fellow in United States foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Robert Malley is the president and chief executive officer for the International Crisis Group. They both formerly served as Middle East advisers to President Obama.