“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. Sun Tzu’s proverbial phrase expresses exactly the current US strategy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. The “maximum pressure” tactic pursued by US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, demonstrates the attempt to weaken Iran with no collateral effects for the United States. The main goal of President Donald Trump is to bring Iran back to the negotiation table by reintroducing secondary sanctions and therefore sign a deal that is more acceptable to the current US administration.
As a result, without a military confrontation, the United States aims not only to downsize the Iranian political-military force, but also the sharp discontinuity with the Obama diplomacy policy. Since his appointment in 2016, Trump has pursued a policy that has clashed significantly with that of his predecessor, as he has often emphasized via twitter, suggesting that his strategy in the Middle East and with Iran in particular was largely dictated by the desire to impose a clear break with the past.
In the face of current uncertainties, the history of the Islamic Republic gives insight into the likely positioning of Iranians when confronted with external threats. After the May 2018 US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the Iran nuclear deal – tensions rose between the two countries, and intensified in recent months due to noteworthy circumstances. At first, Iran maintained a low profile, criticizing US aggressive behavior while trying to keep the deal alive by leveraging on European countries. To date the situation appears to be more complicated and potentially risky as the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has surprisingly emerged in recent months as a pragmatic figure in the internal political dispute, recently restoring the long-lasting narration of demonizing the United States.
The changing approach of Ayatollah Khamenei is a direct result of increasing pressures coming from the US. This reached the point that the Supreme Leader could no longer call for national unity in order to overcome the diplomatic impasse, but instead reverted to the rhetoric of condemning Iran’s “great enemy”. Khamenei declared that the negotiation with the US had ended on the occasion of the anniversary of the US withdrawal from the deal, remarking that Iran will never negotiate under pressure. Therefore the “maximum pressure” strategy failed in bringing Iran back to the negotiations and yet it paved the way for further animosity.
While Washington was seeking to reopen the discussion with Iran after it had affected its national economy, the Islamic Republic looked at the EU countries in order to save its commercial trades and export of oil. On 28 June, Vienna hosted a meeting between Iran and EU signatory states looking to finalize a credit line that would allow commerce with Tehran. However, so far, the EU3 have not been able to implement a credible strategy to overcome the US secondary sanctions.
In recent weeks, the intensification of aggressive tones was accompanied by a series of events that could result in a military confrontation. The mysterious explosion on the Japanese oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman provided the pretext to the United States to blame Iran. A few days after, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force shot down a US drone paving the way for a controversial debate in Washington on whether to carry out a military attack on Iran or not. Eventually, Trump called off the military strike perhaps due to divisions among the administration and the Pentagon and not, as claimed, to save people’s lives.
Paraphrasing Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, the attack on the US drone was just a preventive strike to avoid further military clashes. As recognized by many international policy makers, as well as the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a war with Iran would lead to a regional catastrophe. While the military confrontation was avoided, despite always being on the table in the US circle of power, other kinds of confrontations are increasing tensions. The verbal conflict between Washington and Tehran has poured into a broader game of accusations and rhetorical threats. Recently, Trump imposed sanctions on the Supreme Leader and senior military advisors, limiting their access to financial resources. Moreover, he threatened Iran of its “obliteration” via twitter. On the other side, Khamenei remarked the lack of credibility of the United States, the weakness of its “soft power” in the region and its inability to affect the existence of the Islamic Republic. The United States is still defined as a “terroristic regime” that plays “psychological warfare” against Tehran.
What emerges from this rhetorical warfare is a mutual waiting strategy due to internal circumstances and fear of domestic political upheavals. Today, Iran and the United States appear much more similar and therefore mirrored moves can be expected. Both countries are heading towards elections. Iran is heading towards parliamentary elections in February 2020 and there are already rumors in the country that a part of the reformist front will not participate. Beyond the nuclear deal, Rouhani’s promises of a more liberal society have not been accomplished. Moreover, the pragmatist faction is seriously challenged by the hardliners who use the impasse of the nuclear deal as a pretext to discredit Rouhani’s performance. In order to register a high turnout, on which the Islamic Republic perceives its own popular legitimacy, political forces are pushing to emphasize the threats coming from the United States by picturing it as mainly responsible for the economic downfall. Therefore, crucial institutions of the Islamic Republic need to offset verbal tensions with the United States.
Presidential elections in the United States are also pushing Donald Trump to maintain his hard line with Tehran. Trump’s policy towards Tehran attempted to weaken the Islamic Republic in order to provide a favorable environment to US regional allies. Considering Washington’s effort to disengage from the Middle East, a war against Iran remains an unlikely scenario, despite threats and the escalation of accusations. A “tactical war” to impose losses on the Iranian military apparatus would be a big strategic mistake for US foreign policy. As a result, beyond provocative statements and inflammatory tweets, the United States employed economic (and rhetorical) tools such as sanctions in order to downsize Iranian power and its strategic depths in the region. The US is therefore waiting for Iran to make the first move, without compromising on its posture. However, not only is this “waiting strategy” based on a fallacious assumption of Iranian foreign policy, that is to say Tehran’s willingness to negotiate under pressure, but it also does not show a clear long-term plan, as a war may require.
So far, the United States is seeking to subdue the Islamic Republic without a military confrontation. Yet, the inflaming rhetoric and mutual miscalculations may embroil the two countries in a fruitless war in a region that is already crossed by sectarian violence and geopolitical instability.