The Maximum Pressure Campaign Presses Toward War

Mike Pompeo (CNN)

by Paul R. Pillar

The statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the latest incident involving tankers in the Gulf of Oman is questionable on multiple counts, beginning with his immediate, semi-automatic attribution of responsibility to Iran. The origin of the fires and explosions on the tankers is still undetermined, grainy videos notwithstanding. The Japanese company that owns one of the tankers reports that the crew’s description of what hit the ship doesn’t square with the U.S. administration’s version. And no one has yet explained why the Iranian regime would go out of its way to embarrass Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan—which has been one of the leading buyers of Iranian oil—by sabotaging a Japanese tanker on the very day Abe was meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Pompeo’s listing of the reasons behind what he labeled as the “assessment of the United States Government” regarding Iranian responsibility is curious in other respects. One of Pompeo’s reasons is “recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping”—an apparent reference to an incident in May in which four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates sustained mysterious minor damage. The reasoning is circular. That incident is still shrouded in uncertainty as well, despite immediate blaming of Iran by the U.S. administration.

Pompeo gave as another reason “the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.” Why just “proxy groups”? Why not states, especially given that there are other states in the region that would be only too happy to stoke tensions between the United States and Iran?

Despite the continued uncertainty, Iran may well have been the perpetrator. Assume for the moment what the administration wants everyone to assume, which is that the Iranian regime attacked the ships. It is in asking why Iran might have done so that Pompeo’s statement is most questionable. Twice Pompeo applied the term unprovoked to Iranian actions (“40 years of unprovoked aggression against freedom-loving nations” and “these unprovoked attacks present a clear threat to international peace and security”).

“Unprovoked”? The Trump administration reneged completely over a year ago on U.S. commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multilateral agreement that has restricted Iran’s nuclear program and closed all possible paths to a nuclear weapon. Since then the administration has waged economic warfare on Iran, despite Iran continuing for a whole year to observe its obligations under the JCPOA. The administration has piled sanction upon sanction in a relentless effort to cripple Iran’s economy, make life miserable for Iranians, and weaken Iran in every way possible. It has pressured countries around the world not to do any business with Iran. The administration has accompanied this campaign with unlimited hostility, threats of military attack, and saber-rattling that has included escalating military deployments in Iran’s backyard. If this isn’t provoking Iran, then the term provocation has lost all meaning.

The current spike in tensions, including incidents involving oil tankers, is a direct and unsurprising result of the Trump administration’s failed “maximum pressure” campaign. There is no reason to believe, and nothing in the record of the last couple of decades to suggest, that Iran would be doing anything like sabotaging someone else’s oil tankers if the United States had abided by its commitments and used diplomacy over the last couple of years to address any issues it has with Iran. No one in the United States likes to agree with observations by Iranian leaders, but when those leaders point out that Iran has not used its armed forces to commit acts of aggression against its regional neighbors, it is hard to refute their observation. The same cannot be said of certain other regional states.

If Iran sabotaged those tankers in the Gulf of Oman in response to the economic assault, it would be just as reactive as other Iranian actions in the region. Iran fought back ferociously when Iraq invaded Iran. It aided the creation of Hezbollah when Israel invaded Lebanon. It gave some aid to the Houthis in Yemen when aerial assault by Saudi Arabia and the UAE turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster. It militarily aided the governments of Iraq and Syria when those governments were under assault by the Islamic State and other insurgents. And it can be expected to respond if it is the target of more assaults, economic or military, from the United States. No one should have expected the Iranians, despite the remarkable patience they have shown over the past year, just to lie down and take it.

Pompeo asserted in his statement, “On April 22nd, Iran promised the world that it would interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.” No, Iran didn’t promise that. What an Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander actually said was that Iran would block the Strait of Hormuz if Iran was not able to use the waterway to export its own oil. The commander was responding to the Trump administration’s latest escalation in its economic war against Iran, which was to eliminate waivers of U.S. sanctions against purchasers of Iranian oil, as part of an effort to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. Again, the Iranians were reactive, in this case to U.S. escalation of hostility and infliction of major material harm to Iran.

The pro-war forces within the Trump administration are getting some of their mojo back, despite recent indications that they are trying the patience of their president, who probably does not want a war with Iran. The biggest stretch in Pompeo’s list of incidents that he was blaming on Iran was a car bomb in Afghanistan on May 31 that injured several U.S. service members. The attack was generally attributed to the Taliban, although the Islamic State also claimed credit, and Iran probably had nothing to do with it. Pompeo’s inclusion of the incident was clearly part of his contrived effort to argue that Congress’s post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force would legitimize a war with Iran.

If President Trump really doesn’t want a war with Iran, he must recognize that diplomacy doesn’t just mean one side demanding and the other side complying. He also needs to recognize that the maximum pressure campaign has failed to bring about a “better deal,” to change Iranian behavior for the better, or to hurt the Iranian regime beyond the ordinary Iranians the administration claims to want to help. The campaign instead is destroying one of the more effective nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent years and is now provoking reactions that, in places like the Gulf of Oman, make a new war more likely than before.

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Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. I admire the logical and methodical approach that Mr. Pillar to any subject that he analyzes. Two things I want to mention are: 1 – Please stop using the derogatory phrase ” the Iranian regime”. It is the government of Iran If the word regime is reserved for governments that are rogue and are not backed by majority of the populace or do not represent te poular will, US administration would be near the top of the list. 2 – We must recognize that by entering the JCPOA, Iran gained in little in terms of relaxation of sanctions (even during the Obama admin) and lost a lot by dismantling its nuclear infrastructure. People of Iran have every right to be pissed off.

  2. Thank you very much Dr Pillar for this factual and balanced article. Anytime that I begin to lose hope in contemporary America, my hope is restored by some decent and brave Americans who do not let their love for their country prevent them from speaking the truth. In fact, it is due to their love of their country that they try to warn their compatriots of another major folly. In these critical times when some hawks (let’s put it politely) in the administration for reasons of their own are provoking a war with Iran, which in the words of Senator Sanders would be an “unmitigated disaster”, it is absolutely incumbent upon all true patriotic Americans to warn us against this insanity.
    Even if what Pompeo claims is correct and Iran is responsible for the attacks, which looks more and more suspicious as new facts emerge, it is the task of diplomats to try to ease the tensions in the Persian Gulf and prevent a military escalation. Ever since coming to power, the Trump administration has been trying to pick a fight with Iran for no good reason, except to do the bidding of its Saudi and Israeli friends. Iran has shown that it is open to negotiation and when it reaches an agreement it adheres to it.
    Even at this late hour, the sensible course of action is to repeat what President Trump said in Japan, namely call for talks and negotiations in good faith, but a requirement of talks is that the United States should lift its illegal sanctions and declare that it will abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement. If it does so, Iranian officials should also indicate that they are prepared to talk about other contentious issues, provided that Iran’s national interests in the region are respected. Another war in the Middle East would be devastating for Iran, for the region, for Israel and also for the United States. President Trump promised that he would end those wars and would not start a new one. He should tell his aides to cool it.

  3. Paul Pillar, this sad state of affairs calls for some ironic humor. So, we will have a war with Iran. And the 80-some percent of Americans who are anti-Iran will not really have a problem with that. Remember our hostages from 40 years ago! We changed the regime once in Iran in 1953; why not a second time? What’s more, a truly 21st Century war will be offered, using the latest in military wonders and with minimal American casualties. The air bombardment will be worthy of the name “fire and fury”, that our President likes to threaten. There will be thousands of precision-guided missiles and bombs, day after day. And to destroy the centrifuges underground at Natanz, MOAB can finally find the use it was developed for (so far, that expensive jewel has only been used once in the desert in Afghanistan). [MOAB means Mother of All Bombs, the largest conventional weapon in the world.] And then there will be cyberwarfare and sabotage. Following up the Stuxnet success in destroying some thousand Iranian centrifuges in 2010, cyber warfare is no doubt ready to shut off the electricity and water and who knows what else in much of Iran. On the ground, expect to see videos of American and Israeli Special Ops landing at key locations. (Hopefully the helicopters have been hardened against the sandstorms that stopped Carter’s Operation Eagle Claw hostage recovery in 1980.) All in all, it will be a real three-ring circus, entertainingly presented for the American public to watch on social media and the networks. And don’t worry about what comes after; it will be another great job like we did in Iraq.

  4. RIGHTOFRETURN (defender of “the regime’s” internal despotism of the new “Shah” — the one with a turban) is the other side of the anti-democracy coin of ALI MOSTOFI (defender of “external colonialism” of the old Shah’s absolute-monarchy dictatorship regime); both sides attacked the nuclear deal — and want war — because they fear and hate the “right to vote” of the Iranian people.

  5. Moji Agha

    Mossadeq, Arbenz, Diem, Allende were all democratically elected and their governments were overthrown through US collusion or direct involvement.

    Those governments were replaced by military dictatorships.

    Is not the first step towards fostering what you wish in Iran is the restoration of Democracy in the United States?

    Is it not necessary for people such as yourself to wage a Holy War against the influence of Ahriman in the United States?

    What is the Greater Jihad and what is the Lesser Jihad, and what is the Supreme Jihad?

    For myself, it is clear that harrasing the longest existing Constitutional order that has ever been produced by a Muslim polity, while nary saying snything about this Evil siege war that is being waged by the united states against Iran is one of a man without moral guidence.

    Which country is more in need of reform, the destroyer of Democracy in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Chile? Or Iran?

    The countries that do not have mandatory hijab, they destroyed Iraq, and Libya, created ISIS, burnt Syria and are trying to shatter the social cohesion of Iran; hoping to turn Iranian women into whores- like they did in Iraq in 1990s. But they are all democracies, just like that democracy that muders medics.

    But I understand you, Iran should be reformed first, since a philosopher-King rules her. Unlike America where an oligarchy sold all their jobs to China and Mexico to pay for the ability to bomb the Browns and other colored people of this planet.

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