The United States is adrift in the Middle East. Its actions do not reflect coherent goals or strategies to attain them. The centerpiece of the Trump administration’s approach to the region is its so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, a failed policy that has ceded ground to Russia and China and put the U.S. at risk.
At the same time, the response from hawkish Democrats is equally problematic. Instead of these two paths, the next U.S. administration should consider an approach that focuses on sustained engagement with all regional powers.
In a two-part series, Responsible Statecraft will critically examine U.S. policy towards Iran and the Middle East. This first installment will rebut an idea gaining prominence in some Washington, DC quarters that the U.S. should militarily escalate against Iran. The second yet to be published installment, will focus on how a second term Trump administration or a Joe Biden administration can reoptimize U.S. strategy towards the region to better secure U.S. interests and increase stability.
Military escalation is not the answer
The Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward Iran is not as big of an aberration as it might seem. The U.S. and Iran have had overtly hostile relations for over 40 years and save for the period of President Obama’s second term, have barely talked. Both sides long maintained a de facto “no contact” policy, preventing high-level diplomatic communication, which the Trump administration reinstated after reneging on the 2015 nuclear deal.
President Trump has simply taken official Washington’s preference for pummeling Iran with sanctions and other punitive instruments to a self-avowed “maximum” level. The results have been to conclusively showcase the failure of the pressure track towards Iran. The Iranian government has not collapsed nor budged on its regional and security policies. To the contrary, as the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman has explained, despite “maximum pressure,” Iran has been able to make strategic gains and reinforce its means of deterring a U.S., Israeli, or Saudi attack.
Nevertheless, some in Washington now seek to justify military escalation against Iran amid the failure of maximum pressure. This is reflected in a new report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which highlights Israel’s “campaign between the wars,” also known by its Hebrew acronym Mabam, targeted at degrading Iranian capabilities in Syria. The report underscores the sometimes bipartisan consensus on escalating against Iran, coming from a think tank described by the Los Angeles Times as “a haven for hawkish Democrats.”
While the CNAS report contains valuable insights into Israeli policy in Syria and how Iran operates in the region, its premise that a regional war involving Iran is inevitable, as Mabam inherently assumes, or that the U.S. needs to “militarily counter Iran” to meet its objectives vis-à-vis the country, is fundamentally faulty. The U.S. emulating this Israeli tactic may lead to short-term battlefield gains against Iran, but it would come at the cost of risking an all-out war and foreclosing the U.S.’s ability to make strategic diplomatic gains.
CNAS report gets it wrong
The CNAS report argues for using Mabam against Iran in the “gray zone,” which it broadly defines as areas where rivals are not at peace nor in direct war but seek to “compel their opponents without requiring extensive or sustained military activity.” It praises Mabam as “one of the most successful military efforts to push back against Iran in the ‘gray zone,’” and argues that had the Trump administration adopted a similar policy, the series of escalations that led to the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and a near U.S.-Iran war in January would not have occurred.
The authors contend that what “the Israelis have demonstrated is that the military tool does not need to be taken entirely off the table.” They bemoan the “cautious” approach of past U.S. administrations, claiming it gave Iran “the space to continue its operations.” They also assert that successive U.S. administrations have been overly reliant on economic sanctions, which they say is a “relatively ineffective tool to counter what is ultimately a financially cheap strategy on the part of Iran.”
However, the authors overstate the success of Mabam, and by suggesting that the U.S. adopt the policy, provide a recipe for a war they wish to avoid. The fact is that Mabam has failed in its primary objective of obstructing the transfer of precision guided missiles to Lebanon. It also has not prevented Iran from achieving its larger aims in Syria, such as consolidating the rule of the Assad regime.
The authors themselves concede that Mabam is a “limited tactical campaign that may or may not achieve long-term objectives.” They also acknowledge that Iran has “started developing an indigenous PGM [precision guided munitions] production capability inside Lebanon.”
At best, Mabam delayed the transfer of some Iranian technology and weaponry to Lebanon and temporarily frustrated Iranian entrenchment efforts in Syria. Yet, the authors draw on the military tactic to rebuke the Trump administration for not taking military action against Iran at certain junctures, such as after last September’s strikes on Saudi oil facilities. “[A]n appropriate response may have been to conduct a covert strike on an Iranian oil facility,” the report states, “and then find quiet ways to signal to the Iranians that the United States had taken action to reestablish a red line.”
The suggestion that a U.S. attack on Iran would de-escalate current U.S.-Iran tensions also ignores the crucial role of maximum pressure in increasing Iranian escalatory actions. It is an important reality that Tehran views the U.S. policy as an existential threat, a perception that has been reinforced by the regime change rhetoric of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It should thus not have come as a surprise that Iran would react to raise the costs of maximum pressure for the United States. Before this policy, no oil tankers were exploding in the Persian Gulf, Saudi oil facilities were not being attacked by drones and cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles were not being launched at bases hosting U.S. troops. To escalate militarily against Iran now, as the CNAS reports suggests, would not reestablish deterrence with a regime that increasingly has nothing to lose, but would almost assuredly trigger a destructive direct U.S.-Iran conflict.
Time to end the Iran obsession
The CNAS report highlights a fixation with Iran that has preoccupied U.S. strategic thinking for decades. This attention on Iran is not merited by the country’s military capabilities or the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Yet, hostile U.S.-Iran relations have persisted even as the U.S. has repaired its relationship with other governments it was once at war with and who took the lives of thousands of Americans, such as Vietnam.
In the next part of this series, Responsible Statecraft will explore how the next U.S. administration can get off the escalation ladder with Iran and reconfigure America’s Middle East policy.