The Iranian Strategy – Policy Mismatch

One has to wonder where the Trump Administration is headed with their policy towards Iran.  There are, to say the least, a number of contradictions.  However, before I get too far into this, I would like to make three comments.

  • For almost forty years the Iranians have been nothing but trouble-makers.  The government is the number one source of state sponsored terrorism in the world.  The leadership continues to try and export the revolution and to thwart U.S. interests in the Middle East.
  • I am glad that Mr. Trump called off last week’s planned strikes into Iran.  Unfortunately, like so many of his decisions, he did so for the wrong reasons.
  • While on active naval service, I made two port calls in the 1970’s to Iran.  One to Bandar Abbas and one to Khorramshahr.  Interesting places, but maybe not too relevant to this piece.  Since then I made several trips through the Strait of Hormuz on U.S. Navy ships in and out of the Persian Gulf, and every time we were tested by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) armed boats.  No shots fired.

As you know, Iran is responsible for a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, in recent weeks.  Five total as of this writing.  Additionally, they launched surface-to-air missiles against U.S. military drones, missing once and hitting two including the most controversial last week.  Why?

The most obvious reason is that their economy is being crushed by sanctions imposed by the U.S.  It is having a direct and profound impact on daily life inside Iran.  The sanctions are succeeding in that respect.  While the United States is demonstrating its ability to succeed in this effort, it forces the Iranians to respond in order to demonstrate their own resolve, show their citizens that they will not bow to the U.S., and to attempt to get relief from the sanctions.  In other words, they are demonstrating that they can have an impact on the world’s economy by stopping all Persian Gulf oil, not just Iranian oil, from reaching the market, thus having a direct impact on countries such as Japan and others that rely on that oil for their own economic well-being.  If they cannot totally stop the flow of oil, then they can make it so costly — insurance rates, the price of oil, military requirements to protect tankers, etc. — that it will still have an impact unacceptable to many countries.  (As a side note, when I worked Middle East issues in the Pentagon, insurance rates for shipping in the Gulf was one of our measures of effectiveness (MOE).  If they went up, we needed more resources.  When they went down, we as a military were being effective in keeping the sea lanes open and secure.)  The point is, the Iranians are not going to stop meddling with the shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf until they feel some sanctions relief.

Here is the mismatch.  The Trump Administration claims that the sanctions will be eased when the Iranians come to the table to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.  Mr. Trump pulled us out of it in May of 2018.  One may claim that the JCPOA was a good deal or a bad deal, but in the short term at least it did stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  It opened Iran up to verification of its compliance and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducts regular inspections to ensure continued compliance.  The other members of the agreement besides the U.S. (the U.K, Russia, China, France, Germany, and European Union) agree that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and all remain in the agreement while working with Iran to keep them from violating its terms.  Even the U.S. intelligence agencies as late as this spring testified in open hearings to Congress that the Iranians continue to abide by it.

So why would Iran return to negotiate a deal that they had already agreed to but from which the United States withdrew and is now punishing Iran for complying with that treaty?  To be fair, one of the main criticisms of the JCPOA is that it addresses only nuclear weapons and not the development of ballistic missiles or Iran’s continued support of terrorism throughout the region.  Fair enough.  The original idea behind the negotiations was to take it one step at a time.  Solve nuclear weapons and then address missiles in another treaty.  Solve missiles and then address stopping terrorist activities.  A building block approach that would instill trust as each step takes effect and allows for continued negotiations.  It may or may not have worked, but now we will likely never know.  More to the current point, why would the Iranians trust the U.S?  And if this president can tear up a treaty with malice of forethought then what would keep the next president — elections are in 18 months and we may have a new one — from tearing up the Trump Treaty?  There is no trust.

Making matters worse for our current strategy is that our trusted allies and friends no longer trust us either.  Some, especially Japan and Germany and France, are not even sure that they can trust us when we say that  the Iranians are definitely behind the recent attacks.  And if they don’t support us now, they will certainly not support us in an armed conflict in the region.  The U.S. does not want to go it alone in this arena.

Making it worse, even it if it sounds logical on one level, is Mr. Trump’s tweet that maybe the U.S. would not protect shipping without being compensated.

“China gets 91% of its Oil from the [Strait of Hormuz], Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey.  We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”

While on one level it is imperative for a coalition effort to thwart Iranian attempts to disrupt the shipping lanes, on another it ignores the number one maritime objective of the United States — to protect shipping lanes around the world to ensure the free flow of commerce at sea.  Did that just change because “we don’t even need to be there”?

While Mr. Trump once again made himself the hero of a soon to be catastrophe by fixing the crisis he created, still, calling off the strikes last week was the right call.  He made himself into some kind of humanitarian savior by implying that no one told him about possible loss of human life.  I find that insulting to the U.S. military.  He implies that they aren’t doing the job because he didn’t find out about the number of casualties until 10 minutes before the strikes.  Hogwash!  The president, any president, is offered a series of options for him to choose.  Included in the “pros and cons” of any option is the potential loss of life to Americans and to those under attack when the situation is not all out combat but rather a “message” as these were intended to be.  He is either lying or cannot comprehend basic information.  (By the way, in that series of tweets Mr. Trump tries to sound tough by saying that “we were cocked and loaded” to attack.  Anyone that has served in the military would know that no one talks that way in senior, serious discussions and that besides, the expression is “locked and loaded.”)

But I digress.

The best reason for calling off the strikes is that, according to reports from senior, unnamed officials in the Pentagon but thought to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that there was no second step.  There was no consideration for what is called branches and sequels — what happens and what steps do we take when the Iranians inevitably respond.  There was no clear understanding of what those strikes would do to enhance our strategy of getting the Iranians to the table.  It would in fact, have made that much harder as the Iranians would likely have escalated their attacks and there were no follow-on U.S. plans.  Fundamentally, Mr. Trump and his advisers lost sight of the fact that the enemy gets a vote on how things unfold.  Without thinking through the next steps, having those strikes go forward would have opened up a potential Pandora’s Box of serious trouble in the Gulf.

Remember this.  There is a reason we have fought in Iraq and Syria.  They are not Iran.  Iran has been a bigger trouble-maker in the region and a bigger counter to our policy goals than the other two ever were or could be.  Why haven’t we gone after the Iranians in the same way?  Because it will be hard.

In the 1987-88 Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. and other nations escorted tankers to protect them from the Iranians. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians tried to cut off Iraqi oil shipments through the Gulf.  Besides escorting tankers, the U.S. and coalition forces fought the “tanker wars” to punish the Iranians for placing mines in shipping lanes and other hostile acts.  U.S. Navy ships were hit by mines (none sank) and other Iranian actions resulted in SEAL raids, and attacks on Iranian warships.  Operation Praying Mantis resulted in a number of Iranian ships going to the bottom or being put out of action.  The point is, the Iranian harassment of shipping quickly came to a stop.  The Iranians also learned some valuable lessons in how to combat U.S. forces through asymmetric means.

The Iranian Navy is basically a professional navy built along the lines of most in the world with a recognizable command and control structure.  The real bad guys are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that have their own forces, ashore and afloat, and do not answer to anyone in the Iranian government other than the Supreme Leader.  Those are the ones to keep an eye on.

So now what?  The Iranians probably think that Mr. Trump is all bluster and no action.  Will that encourage more dangerous provocations on their side?  How will the U.S. respond?  If our policy is to corral Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions than how do we do that?  No easy answers.

Whether we are officially in or out of the JCPOA, along with the other members of the agreement, it would seem to provide the best frame work for re-engaging with the Iranians.  As far as practical, without losing our advantage in the region, talking is better than fighting.  Should it come to war, we will prevail.  But keep in mind that we are not talking about a few cruise missile strikes into empty air fields in Syria.  It will be messy and we will take casualties.  They will not be pushovers and they will test our capabilities.  Right now, the rest of the world may not be with us.  Most importantly, what is the end game?  What do we want from the fighting?  In 1988 it was for them to quit interfering with shipping lanes.  It worked.  Today we say it is guarantees about no nuclear weapons.  How do we achieve that when everything the Iranians see around them (hello, North Korea) indicates that Mr. Trump responds with love letters to those with the weapons who test them, fire ballistic missiles and threaten the U.S. main land?

The Iranians tried negotiations through the JCPOA and feel like they were tricked.  It will not be easy to get them back to the table, no matter how grim their economy.  The Trump Administration needs to re-engage with the Iranians, without preconditions, but without easing sanctions until talks resume.  Then a measured give and take — known in diplomatic circles as “compromise” — can result in the easing of some sanctions in return for specific Iranian actions. This may be the best way to ease us out of this growing crisis.  Without it, expect the Iranians to continue to act out until they find the limit of U.S. patience.

 



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