Maximum pressure and asymmetrical tactics

Dangerous shifts in the U.S.-Iranian stand-off

As the United States and Iran face off in the Persian Gulf, their asymmetric conflict risks spiralling out of control. Unless the rest of the world gets involved, the dangerous game both countries are playing could end in direct confrontation. Analysis by Volker Perthes

The spiral was arguably set in motion in May 2018, when the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reinstated sanctions. Since then, the U.S. has escalated its sanctions multiple times, as part of a ʺmaximum pressureʺ strategy that has slashed Iranˈs commercial transactions with the rest of the world, gutted oil revenues, spurred currency devaluation, and sent the economy into recession.

Because Iran doesnˈt have the capacity to respond in kind to the U.S., it has had to get creative. For starters, it has put pressure on Americaˈs European allies – including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Union as a whole – arguing that they should step in to ensure the benefits that it was supposed to gain under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the 2015 agreement is formally known.

At the same time, Iran has reduced its compliance with several of its JCPOA commitments – for example, exceeding agreed limits for nuclear enrichment and resuming research on advanced centrifuges. While U.S. President Donald Trumpˈs administration seems unable to understand the danger this poses, the EU does.

Iranˈs asymmetrical warfare

Moreover, Iran is using asymmetrical warfare in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. In recent months, it has seized multiple foreign oil tankers. It has also downed a U.S. military surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz – a vital sea-lane for oil shipments – and seems to be responsible for a series of acts of sabotage on nearby ships. The attacks by Yemenˈs Iran-backed Houthi rebels on Saudi oil installations have also been attributed to Iran.

Whether these episodes can be attributed directly or indirectly to Iran is largely irrelevant. What matters is that they align with Iranian President Hassan Rouhaniˈs 2018 declaration that if Iran was prevented from selling its oil, ʺno [more] oil will be exported from the Persian Gulfʺ.

Satellite image of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/Nasa)
The Strait of Hormuz – bottleneck for international oil exports: Iranˈs President Rouhani already announced in 2018 that if Iran were prevented from selling oil, "no more oil would be exported via the Persian Gulf"

Iran has so far been able to turn the asymmetry of absolute power into a tactical advantage. Yes, the U.S. has the superior military. But Trump does not want to lead the U.S. into yet another war in the Middle East, especially not one that would require him to deploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

Sanctions potential depleted

Moreover, while the U.S. sanctions have inflicted serious harm on Iran, there is little scope for further measures. By playing such a strong card, the Trump administration may well have spent it for good, demolishing its own leverage and a critical incentive for Iran to meet its JCPOA commitments.

By neutralising the threat of a sanctions ʺsnapbackʺ included in the nuclear deal, the U.S. has raised the risk of violations by Iran that bring it closer to developing nuclear weapons.

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