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.