In any tense military confrontation, diplomats start looking for an “off ramp” that could de-escalate tensions. But in the current standoff between the United States and Iran, it’s hard to find any such exit route.
The U.S.-Iran faceoff is one of those odd situations where both players appear eager to set off sparks, although neither seems to want a raging fire. They seem comfortable in a halfway zone of conflict, where nations use force in deniable ways across different domains, hoping they don’t set off an explosion.
The problem is that nobody in Washington, Europe or the Middle East has a convincing answer to the obvious question: What’s next? Each side says it fears an attack by the other, but hard-liners in both capitals seem eerily ready for an exchange of blows.
Here’s how a senior Trump administration official put it in a talk with reporters Thursday: “Because we are applying levels of pressure that don’t have any historic precedent, I think we can expect Iran to increase its threats to increase its malign behavior.”
Washington and Tehran both view the confrontation through rosy lenses, tinged by ideology.
The Trump administration sees an Iran straining to cope with punitive sanctions; White House officials are telling colleagues that in six months, the Iranian regime will have to make a deal — or face chaos in the streets. Rather than reducing sanctions, Trump officials are talking about adding even more, affecting petrochemicals, for example. Intelligence analysts here and abroad are skeptical about the Trump policy assumption that Iran will cave.
The Iranians, for their part, appear to have concluded that confrontation is the only way to deal with what they see as an untrustworthy, bellicose United States. Tehran decided a few weeks ago that waiting out the Trump administration wasn’t working. Sanctions were squeezing too hard, and Trump looked as though he might be reelected.
Iranian leaders then began messaging the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies in Iraq and elsewhere to begin planning strikes against American targets, U.S. and European analysts believe. This messaging, accompanied by some new Revolutionary Guard Corps shipments of missiles that could attack U.S. forces, rang the Pentagon’s alarm bell.
President Trump sits astride the war machine with an optimistic but probably incorrect assumption that the Iranian regime will capitulate under pressure. He doesn’t want a war with Iran (indeed, he’s somewhat allergic to war in the Middle East), but he thinks that a weak Iran will bargain for a new mega-deal that limits its nuclear options and regional meddling. “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Reality check: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has insisted emphatically that he is not prepared to talk with the United States. He grudgingly agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal, warning colleagues that the United States was unreliable and would renege, and he isn’t going to be fooled again. Khamenei’s whole career is premised on the defiant logic of resistance.
Khamenei may die or be overthrown. But even if that happened, there’s little evidence he would be replaced with a more pliable regime — unless the United States was prepared to fight a protracted war for regime change. So what’s Trump’s plan? That’s the part that mystifies analysts in Washington and abroad.
As independent Sen. Angus King of Maine told me this week, “Some of the president’s people act like they want Iran to punch America in the nose, so we can hit them with a baseball bat.”
For now, Iran has kept its actions in the gray zone of a deniable “hybrid” war. Floating mines, perhaps placed by Iran, damaged ships anchored off the coast of the United Arab Emirates this week. A drone attack by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen damaged a Saudi oil pipeline. These were low-risk power plays. The United States is probably looking at its own range of deniable, gray-zone operations, too, including cyberwarfare.
Off ramps exist, if either side is ready to bargain. The UAE could refer the tanker attacks to the United Nations Security Council for discussion; the U.N. mediator for Yemen could build on his recent success in starting the movement of the Houthis out of the port of Hodeidah. Moscow and Washington could jointly sponsor a dialogue to contain Iranian regional meddling and stabilize the Middle East.
But those de-escalation measures assume that Washington and Tehran are ready to talk. And there’s no sign of that, yet. Instead, each wants to make the other feel more pain — softening them up for what hard-liners expect will be later concessions.
As Gen. David Petraeus famously said during the invasion of Iraq in 2003: “Tell me how this ends.”