by Mahmood Monshipouri and Jonathon Whooley
The United States and Iran are unrelentingly caught in a strategic conundrum that is escalating toward conflict with no diplomatic solution in sight. Neither the “maximum pressure” strategy of the Trump administration nor the “no war, no negotiation” strategy of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is likely to lead to a diplomatic solution. If nothing else, these strategies pave the way toward a military confrontation—an eventuality that both countries wish to avoid. The events surrounding Iran’s June 20, 2019, shooting down of a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk drone that it claimed crossed into Iranian airspace sent a strong signal to Iran’s neighbors that the United States was reluctant to entangle itself in yet another complicated regional war and that Iran, when left with nothing to lose under the pressure of crippling and warlike sanctions, will become a destabilizing actor in the region.
Now, however, with the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, the risk for a war in the region is quickly becoming a reality. Although Iranian military forces cannot match Saudi, let alone U.S., firepower, their asymmetric tactics as well as their network of regional allies and/or proxies could make the war with Iran very complicated and difficult to contain. U.S. forces could in less than two months disrupt Iran’s air force and naval forces and inflict punishment of a massive magnitude on Iran’s military power. But in the meantime, Iran’s military and its regional network of armed allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan could inflict enormous damage on the nearly 70,000 troops that the United States has deployed throughout the Middle East. This state of affairs could potentially give Tehran a small window to bargain with the United States.
While the downing of the drone created a unique opportunity for Iran to enter a diplomatic phase to resolve the incident, in large part because both Washington and Tehran figured out how costly the military confrontation would prove to be, the attacks against Saudi Arabia could generate countervailing forces that render diplomatic business as usual immensely chaotic and dangerous. Ironically, these attacks, and the regional political uncertainty they’ve unleashed, may force a political settlement that could lead to broader negotiations between the United States and Iran.
For now, however, Tehran’s “no war, no negotiation” strategy could gradually lead to a deadlock over delicate and conflicting strategies bound to result in a military showdown of sorts down the road. Insofar as “no war, no negotiation” strategy is concerned, the danger lies in the possibility of stumbling into a broader conflict, either as a result of an accidental war—rooted in the pronounced miscalculation and misperceived intentions and capabilities of either party’s governing elites—or the spiraling mutual enmity built up over this period. Without a face-saving avenue that can provide Iran a way out, the U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy will ultimately lead to a military confrontation—either a short-term war or a massively destructive long campaign. Either way, this will prove to be a dicey and complex situation that begs for a diplomatic solution, the failure to resolve the situation could generate many proxy wars beyond the control of any single country in the region.
A U.S.-Iran confrontation will be anything but a limited war and will bring dire consequences. Most significantly, it will be a conflict without any definitive winners. For the Trump administration, the danger lies in the presumption that its strategy of “maximum pressure” will force Iran to make concessions. Thus far, this policy has failed even to bring Iran to the negotiating table, much less to force Tehran to change its foreign policy behavior. But likewise, Khamenei’s “no war, no negotiation” strategy has trapped both parties in a strategic dilemma. It has become increasingly clear that a diplomatic solution offers the only way out.
The likely result of a U.S.-Iranian conflict not only involves Iranian proxies (such as the Hezbollah militia or Hamas) but two other state parties, as well: Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been overtly posturing for escalation with Iran. While Israel continues to express an interest in possible military strikes, the Saudis seem more interested in a peaceful resolution of the situation, or at least of gaining international approval for any coming conflict. It needs to be stated, though, that current tensions did not emerge from nowhere. The continued conflict between Saudi forces and their proxies and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the Yemeni civil war is part of the context for this latest Iranian uptick in violence. Another factor has been the Trump administration’s repeated dismissiveness toward Iran, demonstrated by its decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and its repeated imposition of punishing economic sanctions against Tehran.
Internationally, the stakes are too high for the EU, China, and Russia to allow this crisis to escalate into war in the coming months. Absent an exit strategy to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the United States, regional conflicts like this one can evolve into a much wider conflagrations unpredictably. Ultimately there is no substitute for diplomacy if war is to be avoided. Some experts have raised the possibility of placing a permanent ban on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the permanent lifting of sanctions. Others have suggested partial lifting of sanctions, including giving Iran a $15 billion line of credit as a way of keeping it in the nuclear deal. Still others have underscored the importance of the mediation by regional actors. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has apparently been mandated by President Trump to mediate between the United States and Iran—a welcoming sign amid these difficult moments. These possibilities merit special consideration. Returning to the Iran nuclear deal and a ‘good faith’ reduction in unilateral U.S. sanctions are the right places to start.
Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, teaches Middle Eastern Politics at San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, most recently, of Middle East Politics: Changing Dynamics (NY: Routledge, 2019).
Jonathon Whooley, PhD, is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations at San Francisco State University. He is the author, most recently, of Imagining Iran: Orientalism and the Construction of Security Development in American Foreign Policy (NY: Peter Lang, 2018).