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.Still, Iranˈs position is not particularly strong. Just as the U.S. has depleted the potential of sanctions, Iran may have depleted Americaˈs patience for its asymmetric tactics. Immediately following the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, Trump hinted at military action.

Another unattributed attack of this sort – let alone anything bigger or resulting in American casualties – might be a bridge too far. When the U.S. and Iran have played all their cards in the current game, a more dangerous one is likely to begin.

That doesnˈt necessarily have to mean open kinetic warfare. But third parties like Saudi Arabia and Israel could launch their own asymmetric attacks, and the U.S. itself could turn to asymmetric warfare. All of these actors have played this game before, though not on a grand scale.

Photomontage of Emmanuel Macron and Hassan Rouhani (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Positive feedback from Tehran: according to a mediation proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron, Iran should promise never to work on a nuclear weapons programme and to engage in negotiations for peace in the region and safe shipping in the Persian Gulf. In return, the Americans should lift the sanctions reintroduced in 2017, especially against the Iranian oil and finance industry

Europeˈs role

Recognising the danger of continued asymmetric escalation, the JCPOAˈs European signatories and regional actors such as the United Arab Emirates have proposed steps to defuse the conflict. These include, first and foremost, direct talks between Iran and the U.S., which the Europeans seem to be working to facilitate.

In this process, Europe would do well to disregard the hype about a meeting between the two countriesˈ presidents. Other high-level officials would do, and they could meet within various bilateral or multilateral frameworks.

The remaining JCPOA signatories – China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the EU – want to salvage what they can of the 2015 agreement, as a meeting in Vienna in July on the topic showed. But a diplomatic solution to the tensions between Iran and the U.S. will also require the involvement of Iranˈs neighbours.

Other ideas for easing tensions are also on the table. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed extending a $15 billion credit line to Iran that would help to offset the sanctions-induced loss of oil revenues. Various plans for talks on regional security have also been put forward.

Such efforts offer some reason for hope. But the situation is increasingly tenuous, and it could get much worse – potentially leading to a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Iran – before diplomacy can make it better.

Volker Perthes

© Project Syndicate 2019

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