Bottom Line Up Front
- The U.S. and Iran are close to a conflict that would have no clear end and could quickly spread throughout the Middle East and beyond.
- Iran has acquired leverage by building proxies and allies into politico-military forces, arming them with short-range missiles, rockets, and other weaponry.
- Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamene’i calculates that Iranian actions can compel President Trump to relent on the administration’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran.
- The latest crisis in U.S.-Iran relations is unique in that traditional American allies in Europe have blamed the administration, not Iran, for the crisis.
On June 20, 2019, President Trump authorized and later reversed his approval for a U.S. air and missile strike on Iranian missile and radar batteries. The strikes were designed in retaliation for the Iranian downing, one day earlier, of a U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft over the Persian Gulf. While justifying his hesitancy because Iranian casualties would likely have been high and ‘disproportionate,’ in response to the downing of an unmanned drone, the decision to abort was undoubtedly related to the President’s perception that any conflict with Iran will not remain limited to the Persian Gulf theater. Even though the strike was abruptly called off, U.S. Cyber Command did launch a cyber attack against Iranian radar and missile batteries and an Iranian spy group with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and connected to the tanker attacks that occurred last week.
Over the past decade, Iran has acquired substantial leverage over regional events, and over the United States, by pursuing a ‘playbook’ in which Iran arms, trains, and funds Shia militias and builds them into significant political and military forces across the Middle East and beyond. This strategy has afforded Iran the capability to strike U.S. personnel and allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and Afghanistan. Iran also maintains a robust network of agents in Central Asia, Latin America, Europe, and parts of Africa and Asia, which could launch terrorist attacks or other armed operations outside the Middle East. Iran has provided some of its regional allies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Shia militia forces in Iraq, with weaponry as sophisticated as short-range ballistic and cruise missiles—directly threatening two key U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as critical oil chokepoints.
Iran’s success in taking advantage of regional conflicts has given Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, confidence that Iran can exert leverage over President Trump. The Iranian leadership closely monitors both U.S. policy and politics, and Khamene’i has calculated that war between Tehran and Washington would cause far more problems for U.S. policy, and for President Trump politically, than such action would gain. Khamene’i and his allies in the IRGC and IRGC-Qods Force know that President Trump promised to extricate the United States from the region—not to initiate another major regional war that could embroil U.S. forces for decades. This confidence explains why Iran has been willing to risk potential U.S. retaliation by attacking commercial tankers in the Gulf and shooting down the Global Hawk on June 19.
The calculus behind Khamene’i’s willingness to take risks is clear. Iran’s Supreme Leader is attempting to apply countervailing pressure on President Trump to roll back the sanctions that are strangling Iran’s economy. Khamene’i’s core goal, in all likelihood, is to compel the administration to restore sanctions exemptions for the purchase of Iranian oil. An end to these exemptions more recently—coupled with related steps taken in concert with the administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran—caused Iranian oil exports to plummet and have severely hobbled Iran’s economy. U.S. policy has arguably forced Iran into a corner and, as was widely predicted, Iran has responded by lashing out. Further emboldening Khamene’i is the realization that Iran has support from the European Union, as well as major outside powers such as Russia and China. The EU countries were uniformly critical of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, arguing that Iran was complying with the accord. The EU countries, as well as Russia and China, blame the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign for causing the latest crisis, and several EU states have offered to mediate to de-escalate tensions. In the current situation, in contrast to past periods, the United States is virtually alone in confronting Iran, and cannot count on its traditional partners to put pressure on the Iranian leadership to negotiate a peaceful resolution to a growing crisis.