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A nation must think before it acts.
On Thursday, June 13, 2019, two tankers, the Kokuka Courageous and the MT Front Altair, were damaged in explosions in the Gulf of Oman, after transiting through the Strait of Hormuz. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at press conference, attributed the attacks to the Islamic Republic of Iran. United States Central Command subsequently released a video, which purports to show an Iranian-operated patrol boat removing a magnetic mine from the side of the Kokuka Courageous after it appeared to fail to detonate. U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking to Fox and Friends, repeated both allegations. The alleged Iranian attack comes just weeks after four tankers were targeted with limpet mines in a similar attack near Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Houthis, Iran’s client in Yemen, have been linked to a recent cruise missile attack on a Saudi Arabian civilian airport in the city of Abha.
In two previous podcasts, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Director of the Middle East Program, Aaron Stein, spoke with Dr. Afshon Ostovar, an assistant professor at the Naval Post Graduate School and Senior Fellow at FPRI about the Fujairah attacks and Dr. Ariane Tabatabai, an associate political scientist at RAND, about Iran’s relationship with various non-state actors. To discuss the current crisis, and what it may mean for the United States, regional security, and what Iran’s motivations may be, the three experts held a virtual roundtable.
Ariane Tabatabai: First, I think we need some more context: President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on May 8, 2018 and began to reimpose sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign. In response, Iran decided to remain in the nuclear deal, while preparing the groundwork for the agreement’s potential collapse and to try to leverage the divide between the U.S. and its European allies. Since, Iran has remained in the deal, although as of May 9, 2019—which marked the first anniversary of President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal—the regime has taken incremental steps to push the envelope in part to force the Europeans and China to act and provide Iran with the economic benefits it’s seeking.
The administration kicked the maximum pressure campaign into high gear starting in November 2018. In Spring 2019, it designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Iran responded initially by reciprocating and labeling U.S. forces in the CENTCOM region as terrorists as well, and since, it has taken a number of (mostly indirect) actions, which would allow the country to preserve plausible deniability while sending a signal to the U.S. and its partners in the region that it can and will act.
The escalation in the region appears linked to the IRGC, giving way to claims that the group could be operating independently from the central government.
Afshon Ostovar: Simply put: the IRGC does not go rogue in the strategic arena. It is a firm part of the decision-making establishment. The Islamic Republic isn’t a street gang or a militant group. It’s an authoritarian state with an ordered and fixed strategic process. The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is the chief decision-maker. Similar to other systems, he guides policy through broad pronouncements, such as the articulation of goals, principles, etc. He sets parameters, asks for options, and says yes or no accordingly. Above all, he sets parameters for acceptable behavior, and empowers certain institutions (such as the IRGC or the government) to think and act creatively within those limits.
Tabatabai: That’s right. There’s often an assumption that the IRGC acts on its own and takes action to embarrass the rest of the regime, particularly the “moderates.” The underlying assumption being that the right hand doesn’t talk to the left hand. It’s true that the IRGC flexes muscles in domestic political bargaining games by taking certain actions at crucial junctures. But the IRGC is part of the decision-making process in the national security arena and consults and works with other power centers. While the IRGC can test a missile, for example, to show its muscles at home, it would be very unlikely to blow up foreign targets to show who’s boss at home.
Ostovar: Exactly. For example, the entirety of Iran’s Syria campaign, as well as the scope of other foreign operations, occurs directly under the supreme leader’s purview and with his approval. The government is involved. It is sometimes in agreement and sometimes in disagreement with specific policies enacted by the IRGC. The government can even challenge and limit what the IRGC does in certain respects, but only with the approval of the leader. But neither the government nor the IRGC as an organization acts outside of the supreme leader’s authority.
Aaron Stein: In a press conference, Secretary Pompeo reiterated a willingness to hold talks with Iran. However, the United States has made clear through action and words that it will not lift any sanctions to try and tempt Iran back to the negotiating table. Iran has balked at this, with the Supreme Leader telling Japanese Prime Minister Abe that President Trump is not to be trusted and that the American abrogation of the JCPOA has eroded trust to the point that Iran sees no benefits to talks. So, now what? Without a directive from the Supreme Leader, or a willingness to talk to Trump directly, what is Iran trying to achieve?
Tabatabai: Curious about Afshon’s take. Mine is this: There’s some agreement within the system that it should try to buy time and see what happens here. But there’s no consensus on what should happen meanwhile. There’s been a debate in Iran over the past few months (but especially weeks) about the best approach to President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, his overtures and offers to negotiate, and U.S. intentions vis-à-vis Iran. It seems to me that the view is that the status quo isn’t sustainable but that there’s no consensus on a clear path forward as of yet.
Ostovar: The short of it is this: I don’t know. I saw the attacks in Fujairah as a rather creative message, one difficult for Iran’s adversaries to respond to militarily. If this is what it looks like, it’s not creative. It’s a direct challenge. I assume they’re prepared for whatever follows, including escalation. They might be banking on U.S. reluctance to engage militarily, but I’d be very surprised if they haven’t planned for that possibility.
Stein: Or they overplayed their hand (if it gets to that point). I personally think that they think they have a lot of rope to play with. Concern of course is they are wrong.
Ostovar: They may. And frankly, they have a lot of evidence for flexible redlines. But a torpedo is a torpedo. A limpet is a limpet. We don’t know what the damage was caused by, but the method of delivery matters as much as the targets. Every leader in Iran is old enough to remember the Tanker War and what preceded it.
Stein: I also think they remember the American experience in Iraq and just how far they could push Washington without incurring any serious, regime threatening retaliation. Take the case of the explosively formed penetrator (EFP), the IED Iran helped to manufacture, and whose components the IRGC is reported to have smuggled to its clients in Iraq. The Military Times has reported that these devices killed some 500 American military members in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sean Naylor, in Relentless Strike, describes how elements of the U.S. military sought to fight back, but also how Iraq’s complicated politics and self-restraint limited the American response. So if you set this as one end of the escalation spectrum, could one not argue that Iran has gotten away with killing American soldiers, so some ships in the Gulf and allied third party missile strikes are somewhere below that level on the escalation spectrum?
Ostovar: Great point. There are lots of reasons for the IRGC to think that any stated or perceived redline is negotiable. But these guys aren’t naive. Even in Iraq they understood the risks. Calculate, act, adjust, act, readjust, act, etc. It’s a process.
Stein: 100% Which is why this is scary. If everything had a definition we’d know where this is going.
Ostovar: With every new attack, third party or direct, I become more of the mind that Iran’s leadership, and the IRGC in particular, are prepared for a limited conflict and might see a small conflict as in their interest. They’re going to have to change to U.S.’ mind somehow. If diplomacy isn’t an option, that leaves Iran with only two options: push back or muddle through. They’ve tried muddling through. Perhaps now they’re beginning to feel out how to push back.
Tabatabai: I have a slightly different view. I think they’re still in the “muddle through” mode, but I do think that if their gamble on 2020 doesn’t work out, they’ll be ready for a limited conflict because 1. Domestic politics; 2. International signaling; 3. Nothing to lose.
There’s also an assumption (perhaps on both sides) that the other side won’t react. The administration in some ways gambled that Iran wouldn’t push back on the IRGC FTO designation. It did. Now, Iran is possibly overplaying its hand because it views the U.S. and the EU as too divided to form a coherent and unified position on the topic, and it thinks the administration is too alienated to be able to rally partners around it to act. Iran is also going based on the notion that the U.S. won’t react to its actions–partially due exactly what you laid out.
Stein: Iran has a track record of targeting U.S. troops and undermining U.S. interests without much pushback (at least militarily).
Ostovar: That’s certainly part of it. But how do we square such an attack, were it to be Iran, with muddling through? That’d be very aggressive muddling, no? Muddling to my mind implies passivity.
Tabatabai: I think a part of muddling through right now is to avoid being perceived as being passive at home and internationally. I don’t see how Iran muddles through for 1.5 years without any action.
Stein: I struggle with the muddle verbiage as well. I think it is important to step back and remember just how much things have changed—so perhaps my EFP goal post is out of date. Iran is supplying a client with ballistic and cruise missiles, who is then (probably with IRGC oversight) firing them at cities and airports in Saudi Arabia. We also think it is now mining oil tankers. This is clearly a new level of provocation. And, still, the response has been muted, but I think we are flying at the edge of the asymmetric envelope here.
Tabatabai: It’s clear that a number of U.S. allies and partners are incredibly nervous about U.S.-Iran tensions and where we’re headed. A number of them have traveled to Iran and/or talked to their Iranian counterparts to try to mediate and deescalate. I think that’s the right approach. The U.S. and Iran don’t have an off-ramp anymore and we’re rapidly entering a new phase of this dynamic. So, countries with a channel to and a positive image in both countries should continue to go back and forth and try to forge a way forward. Europe, in particular, has been fairly passive (partly caught up in its own challenges with Brexit and other problems and partially paralyzed) and needs to step up: Ask the administration to produce evidence of Iran being behind the attacks and condemn Iran and respond accordingly. For its part, the administration has been pointing the finger at Iran on a number of matters, without producing evidence (which has led to it losing credibility and being viewed as crying wolf every time it comes up with allegations against Iran). It would be in a much stronger position if it starts to produce evidence and manage to galvanize the international community to support its condemnation of and response to Iran.
Ostovar: I think most states that have an interest in the Middle East are doing something to help avoid war. But the U.S. and Iran have boxed themselves into a corner. The U.S. has made it clear that sanctions are aimed at compelling Iran to a new round of talks that would be comprehensive in scope and potential benefit. The supreme leader has made it clear that such talks aren’t going to happen. So, the Trump administration has little incentive to walk back sanctions, but also doesn’t seem to want to push forward with any other, more direct methods of coercion. Iran seems to be retaliating by targeting civilian shipping and raising the stakes for its neighbors, but doesn’t seem to have a plan for what to do beyond that. The Trump administration’s methods are solely focused on sanctions, but sanctions aren’t an end. Iran’s policies are focused on resistance, but resistance isn’t an end. The only thing that would change this dynamic, aside for a complete reversal of U.S. and Iranian strategic policy, would be to engage in diplomacy. The supreme leader’s decision not to do so might fill some in the Islamic Republic with pride, but I think it’s shortsighted.
Tabatabai: The administration’s been tightening the screws on Iran, and Iran increasingly sees itself as having nothing to lose and so it’s trying to pressure the international community (the Europeans and China, in particular) to act. Iran is not getting the economic benefits of the JCPOA and the division between the U.S. and the EU doesn’t give Iran any tangible dividends. So, this may be a gamble to pressure an already nervous set of players on the international stage to take action or to force the President into making some concessions since he’s clearly campaigned on avoiding entering another war.
Ostovar: I agree. I think Iran is running out of patience. It realizes that it can’t just sit there and expect things to change. It doesn’t want to compromise, so in lieu of that, it’s starting to strike back. If nothing else, this makes Iran an active rather than passive participant in U.S.-Iran relations again. It’s no longer just a victim. Iran’s leaders might see such acts as necessary for Iran to gain back some leverage in that relationship.
Ostovar: We’re either headed toward some sort of military conflict or not. I don’t think a full-scale war is part of the picture. Neither side, it seems, wants that. But the potential for escalation is there, and I think it’s only a matter of time before an incident like the attack in the Gulf of Oman leads to a direct military response. Of course, I’ve been warning about the potential for miscalculation to lead to escalation for almost a decade, and yet here we are, still at the brink of something or nothing. Diplomacy and compromise, at least, do not seem to be in the immediate future.
Tabatabai: I agree with Afshon. Both sides understand the cost of a full-scale war, and both still seem to want to avoid it. But there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for the two sides to meet at right now. Iran doesn’t seem inclined to negotiate for now, and the U.S. doesn’t seem inclined to dial down the pressure to see if it can give Iran a face-saving way to come back to the table. So, at best, we go back to more sanctions and tough rhetoric; at worst, we may end up stumbling into a conflict no one truly wants.