A Time to Deescalate with Iran


by Michael Smith

The Trump administration’s continued inability to formulate a coherent national strategy on Iran undermines U.S. strategic interests and is rapidly growing from a national embarrassment to a dereliction of duty.

Many former senior diplomatic and military leaders called for this change months ago.  Blindly forging ahead with a “maximum pressure” strategy that lacks realistic goals is bringing the region to the brink of another needless Middle Eastern conflict. Increased pressure, bellicose statements, and diplomatic isolation have not changed Iranian behavior. Indeed, if the recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman are attributable to Tehran, then the current U.S. strategy has emboldened the very elements inside Iran that it intended to diminish.

A new U.S. strategy on Iran that includes broad diplomatic approaches must be developed immediately in order to drive Iran to negotiations that yield real change to their abhorrent behavior. Anything less drives us to war.

Damage to the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous tankers this month only heightened the tension between the United States and Iran. The episode comes about a month after four other oil tankers were struck by mines off the Emirati coast in what Washington described as an assault by Iran or Iranian proxies. And in a sign that more incidents in the Gulf could very well occur without notice, U.S. Central Command reported this week that Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone as it was flying in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz (Tehran claimed the drone breached Iranian airspace).

Although Tehran plausibly could have been involved in these incidents, the confusion in   the waters of the Gulf is an apt metaphor for the administration’s broader Iran policy. Simply put: the White House is lost—unable to articulate precisely what its maximum pressure policy against the Islamic Republic is supposed to achieve.

Before moving forward on a course of action, President Trump must forge bipartisan and international support for the assessments of the U.S. intelligence community. The United States can’t afford to repeat the malpractice leading up to the Iraq War or assume that their claims are going to be accepted as fact. Congress will insist on seeing as much of the classified intelligence as possible. And the administration has a duty to comply with those congressional demands.

An attack on civilian ships in international waters along a key trading route is an unacceptable act that requires a thorough and impartial intelligence assessment free of bias and assumption. Unfortunately, the administration enters the discussion with even some of America’s closest allies questioning Washington’s baseline conclusions.

Assuming that support for its position can be obtained, the administration must then present its assessments to key American allies that regularly receive the most sensitive intelligence information. The United States cannot afford to go it alone and pull another Colin Powell moment at the Security Council. Security in the Persian Gulf is ultimately an international responsibility that requires an international response. For Washington simply to take on the job itself will be far less effective than forging an international consensus.

Unlike so much of the advice percolating in the Beltway, the way forward on Iran should not be in the form of additional U.S. and foreign military deployments to the Persian Gulf. It should instead be centered on a highly coordinated and synchronized campaign to drive Iran to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, negotiations appear to be missing from the administration’s Iran strategy. Although President Trump’s public calls for talking with Tehran are notable, his day-to-day Iran policy depends exclusively on the stick at the expense of the carrot. An unending pile of economic sanctions and military pressure, minus any diplomatic off-ramp whatsoever, is a recipe for misunderstanding and mutual antagonism. The results of that recipe can be read in the latest headlines.

The White House believed that a relentless financial clampdown on the Iranian economy, including significantly downsizing its crude oil exports, would force the regime in Tehran to capitulate to American demands. That belief has been sorely mistaken. In fact, Tehran has reacted to Washington’s all-sticks, no-carrots strategy not by accommodating or surrendering, but by escalating. The United States must accept that its approach has failed and recognize that pushing Iran into a corner has led to more provocative Iranian behavior that could cause disruptions in world oil flows or, in a worst-case scenario, another major U.S. war in the Middle East .

A new approach toward Iran requires that U.S. and Iranian officials begin chipping away at the mutual distrust and animosity. A direct dialogue with Tehran may be politically unpopular and staunchly opposed by some on President Trump’s own national security team, but a dialogue is exactly what’s needed right now. The two countries can’t even begin to deescalate if communication is nonexistent.

Just as important as dialogue, however, is openness from the administration to dropping its maximalist demands and engaging in the hard-nosed, pragmatic compromise essential to defusing the current situation. Internationally supported negotiations toward a permanent change in Iranian behavior, not regime change or Iranian surrender, should be the end-states that guide U.S. policy from now on.

Iran is a destabilizing actor in the region. But fighting fire with fire in the Middle East just tends to make the flames more intense. The administration must stop expecting Iran’s capitulation, which is not going to happen regardless of how many bank accounts are frozen or how many aircraft carriers are sent to the Persian Gulf. The president must replace dogmatism with pragmatism and create the conditions that leave Iranian officials no choice but to come to the table and have a serious discussion.

The administration must clearly articulate a realistic strategy that accepts the challenges posed by Iran’s behavior but acknowledges diplomacy as the only option. Tehran will not change without extraordinary pressure from the entire international community and a diplomatic off-ramp that has a reasonable chance of success. The situation in the Persian Gulf is tense. If Washington doesn’t get smart, and fast, it will be downright dangerous.

Rear Admiral (ret) Michael Smith commanded an aircraft carrier strike group and previously served as the deputy task force commander for coalition maritime operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf. He is president at the American College of National Security Leaders.

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  1. All true, but you leave us hanging on the key question: what is the diplomatic off-ramp for Iran?

  2. I do not want trump to win in 2020. I do not want another Middle East (ME) war. There is the extrapolation that WW3 might result from a spark in the ME.

    Trump could take everyone by surprise with a “radical idea.” He could call for a meeting of the Security Council (that would drive Bolton crazy) to present evidence of the shoot down of the drone in international air space by Iran. He could call for an investigation and condemnation of Iran by the UN. He could seek payment for the cost of the drone and have Iran pay for a new drone.

    The door could be opened for renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal.
    The League of Nations was a failure. It did not prevent WW2. The UN hopefully will prevent WW3. The purpose of the United Nations is in the Charter:

    Charter of the United Nations shows what the UN is for:
    To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

    To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

    To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and

    To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

  3. Sir, I write to address you from Tehran:

    You recommend “assessment free of bias and assumption”, but your own analysis is saturated with assumptions: you write as though you are articulating the US government’s propaganda without having examined them; you even draw a conclusion based on your own presumptions – your unsubstantiated assertions such as Iran’s “abhorrent behaviour”,….discredit your impartiality – of course given your position I cannot expect an objective analysis.

    And why is it that this “international responsibility” towards the Persian Gulf and the “international response” that you so strongly rely on were absolutely absent in 2001 and 2003 in the face of the unlawful US-UK savagery and mass murder of 1000s upon 1000s of innocent civilians in the Middle East?! – ‘responsibility’? to protect whose illegitimate interests?

    The problem is not just the present US administration but the conditioning alienating intellectual bankruptcy in which the minds of educated American public have for too long been imprisoned that allows and empowers such administrations to decide on behalf of over 300 million Americans, as we saw with the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 invasion of Iraq – save the Vietnam War.

    Also, the US administrations having been detached from the ideals of the ordinary Americans and their cultural and economic needs, and having been emboldened by neo-con rhetoric and massive right-wing and Zionist media outputs, have become so dependent on lies, denial and Force and arbitrarily disregarding the common people’ views that have lost their marbles and all they now believe is Force. But Force is different from Power. In the 21st century Force is doomed. The US cannot name the world for us.

    And why should Iran be driven to the negotiating table? Why not the US?!

    And what do you mean by “dialogue”? And what do you really mean by “destabilizing”, in what context? Colonial? neo-colonial? We shall never ‘capitulate’, certainly not in our post-revolution culture! Rationality and mutual respect yes, but Force and irrational colonial and neo-colonial bully we reject outright.

    And why is it Sir that none of the overwhelming advices and recommendations offered to us in Iran are never offered to the ruthless criminal regimes whose slaughter of innocent people in Palestine and Yemen have for too long been daily international news!? Armed to their teeth even with nuclear weapons with legacies of war crime!

    Have you ever felt responsible to advice your Arab Israeili allies renowned for their land grabbing legacies and unabashed mass murder of women and children?!

    Thank you. With best wishes from Tehran.

  4. it is a preposterous idea to be able to negotiate anything with a bunch of terrorists who are ruling over innocent population for 40 years.

  5. Iran is a force of stability and fought ISIS along US forces in Iraq.

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