Iran’s Strategy of Reversible Escalation

General Mohammad Ali Jafari of the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

by Eldar Mamedov

In case anyone thought Iran was bluffing with its threats to respond robustly to U.S. “maximum pressure,” recent developments should have disabused them of that notion. Not only did Iran down a highly sophisticated American drone near its borders in the Persian Gulf, but it also announced plans to reduce its commitments under the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). The phase of strategic patience Iran exercised in the year after the United States violated the agreement has come to an end. It is now being replaced by an assertive action phase. That action will develop on two main fronts: the nuclear agreement and regional security.

Contrary to a popular view in the West, this shift is not the result of “hard-liners” displacing “moderates.” There is a job division within the Iranian system: diplomats deal with the nuclear dossier while the Revolutionary Guards lead on military deterrence. There is, however, an overarching unity of purpose: to strike back, with all means available, at what Iran sees as an economic war waged by the United States and its regional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.

Far from being an act of suicidal defiance by some irascible religious fanatic, Iran’s decision to respond to U.S. pressure follows from a set of careful strategic calculations and domestic political imperatives. After respecting fully their JCPOA commitments and being denied economic dividends, Iranians decided that they should not be the only ones paying the price of the American decision to violate that agreement.

On the nuclear file, the decision to surpass the stockpiles of 300 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU) permitted by the JCPOA by July 2019 is designed to pressure the Europeans to deliver on their commitments to provide economic benefits to Iran. Although the EU insists on full implementation of the JCPOA, reduced compliance is the best that Iran can offer at this stage. Such a decision is the result of a national compromise among different forces, including those calling for pulling out of the JCPOA and possibly even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well.

The purpose of this move, according to Iranian officials, is not to destroy the JCPOA but to save it. As soon as Iranians get the promised sanctions relief, the process can be quickly reversed to a stockpile below 300 kilograms of LEU.  To get back to that point, a practical solution has to be found on Iranian oil exports. If European companies refrain from buying Iranian oil out of a fear of heavy American sanctions, officials in Tehran insist that the EU issue credit lines: make money available to Iran to cover its needs in exchange for oil deliveries after the lifting of the sanctions in the future. Iranians reason that if the EU indeed sees the JCPOA as essential to its security, as its officials often claim, it should put its money where its mouth is.

On the military side, Iran is increasing pressure on the United States to abandon its “maximum pressure” policy by seeking to impose real costs. Tehran’s downing an American drone should be seen in this context, not as an unprovoked hostile act. Although American drones reportedly violated Iranian territorial integrity in the past, the current context obliges Iranians to respond, at some point, publicly and visibly, as both a deterrent and a demonstration of their ability to defend their people and territory.

Trump’s announcement that he stopped a retaliatory strike and now looks forward for “negotiations without preconditions” with Iran might appear as an opportunity to arrest the slide to war. Not so in the eyes of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This, again, is not a sign of some pathological stubbornness or ideological anti-Americanism. It is simply because negotiating now would validate the basic premise of the “maximum pressure” campaign: that suffocating Iran economically has forced it to the negotiating table to make further concessions—this time also on ballistic missiles and regional policies, deliberately excluded from the JCPOA. Trump´s imposition of sanctions on top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei and foreign minister Javad Zarif, only underscores the hollowness of his offer to talk.

So, as Washington doesn´t appear to be serious about lifting the economic siege of Iran, Tehran will seek to coerce it to do so. The downing of the drone is a message that Iran means business. Absent changes in American behavior, this may not be the last step in the series of Iranian escalations. Officials in Tehran have repeatedly warned that, if they are unable to export oil, no one else in the Persian Gulf will either.

Just like with the nuclear issue, however, this escalation is reversible if the United States takes steps to stop its economic war against Iran. That, and not more sanctions, could even open the door for the talks Trump claims to seek.  Ayatollah Khamenei made it clear that Iran would not negotiate “under pressure”—not that it would not do so under any circumstances. Potentially, that could even lead to broader talks on regional issues and ballistic missiles. But then all other issues will have to be brought to the table too, such as region-wide non-proliferation, covering Israel´s nuclear arsenal, Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the war in Yemen, and so on.

Although Iran’s strategy of reversible escalation enjoys a consensus among the elite, it is a risky one. Reducing commitments under the JCPOA may push Europeans closer to Trump, instead of stimulating them to deliver on their commitments to Iran, and increase Iran´s diplomatic isolation.

When it comes to United States, Iranians, particularly in the conservative camp, seem to be too sanguine about Trump not willing to start a war in order not to harm his re-election prospects in 2020. Despite the restraining influence of such figures on the American right as Senator Rand Paul and Fox TV anchor Tucker Carlson, Trump may still be painted into a corner by his hawkish advisers and lash out militarily at Iran.

When confronted with these doubts, Iranian officials seem to concede that their strategy is a gamble. However, a strong sense of being a wronged party, Iranian nationalism, and the regime´s revolutionary resistance ideology are preventing them from blinking first in their confrontation with the Americans. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of such a posture given the existing balance of power, if the standoff ends up in a war, it will be America’s fault, not Iran’s.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Unfortunately the World is not a fair place and the Iranians need to realize this. They have been seriously wronged by the Trump administration ( which has in part been coaxed by Israel and the Saudis.) They are no match for the US military might and the Saudis and Israelis would not any thing more than getting them into a fight with the Us when they can sit back and see the US do their dirty work. Even if they retaliate it can only be against the US proxies ( the Saudis and the Emiratis) and perhaps some minor military US targets which the US is more than willing to replace with bigger and better ones – thanks to the huge military industrial complex in the Us which is also keen to see how their weapons fair in an actual war. As far as the Europeans are concerned, the Iranians should be under no illusion that when push comes to shove hey will side with the Iranians instead of the US. The Brits are just a puppy dog of the US and have already started mouthing the same phrasing as the US. The Germans and the French want to separate themselves from the Brits a little but in the end they will join hands with them as they have in the past on many issues.

    Also note how the N. Korean rocket man is handling the US – he sends Trump love letters while at the same time continuing to flirt with his Nuclear mistress.
    The Mullahs in Iran should realize that the road to eventual salvation is strewn with dead bodies and massacres. (remember Karbala)
    Are the Iranians willing to under go the suffering and the pain? Knowing many Iranians I know for a fact that they are not. Iran’s greatest problem in the current conflict with the US is not the US but the Iranian public itself which would rather make nice with the US instead of fighting it. I do not see the same mettle here that was present in Vietnam or is even today displayed in Afghanistan.

    As far as national pride and all that BS is concerned we know for a fact that the poor cannot afford any pride!
    So as they say when it is inevitable – relax and enjoy it!

  2. Thanks to Eldar Mamedov for another thoughtful piece on the ‘standoff’ between Iran and the U.S., especially for the clear explanation of “reversible escalation.” Regrettably, it isn’t going to work.
    The way for the ‘standoff to end up in war’ was told to the press by Senator Lindsay Graham the other day, He explained, Israel starts it and the U.S. has to join in. And Congress will have no say. Why is there this irresistible push for regime change now? Because they have the power now and their time may run out. It is possible, though by no means certain, that Americans will be tired of Donald Trump in 2020. So, better get going soon on regime change.
    I would like to see Eldar Mamedov address how the European powers and the EU will react once it starts. We can be sure the UK will join the U.S., but what about the rest?
    And watch out for end runs by the Trump administration, such as enlisting 20 or more countries in a global coalition against Iran under the banner Sentinel marine security. Can’t you hear, “Are you with us or with Iran?” Black and white, us vs. them. Let’s see the responses.

  3. We need these horrible monsters to go mad and meet their endgame. As Thanos said, it is inevitable.

  4. Theoretically it’d be impossible for theocratic regimes such as those ‘islamic’ republics (Iran) or kingdoms (Saudi Arabia) to truly successfully maneuver in a modern world. So, forget about the Ayatollahs and remember the foolishness of that prince MbS; perhaps the IRGC with Qasem Soleimani could behave differently and he is in fact the voice most attention get from world leaders… And, he doesn’t look stupid at all…

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