Washington Wednesday: Tension with Iran

MARY REICHARD,HOST: It’s Wednesday the 22nd of May, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today, Washington Wednesday.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have dominated global headlines in recent days. So here now to talk about it is Mike Singh. He’s managing director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mike, good morning to you.

SINGH: Good morning!

EICHER: Well, I think it makes sense to start at the beginning, if we can. I think a lot of us feel behind on this story, kind of caught off guard. We’ve got all sorts of headlines swirling in the news, and then, all of the sudden, we’re hearing about tensions with Iran, and the idea that war could be imminent. So how did we get to this place?

SINGH: Sure, well, let me start at the outset. I don’t think war is imminent. I think that both sides are trying to basically build leverage against the other and impose costs on the other.

But if we back up a bit, remember that in early 2018, President Trump decided to exit the Iran Nuclear Agreement, so-called JCPOA. And much to many people’s surprise, the Iranian side decided that they were going to essentially stay in the agreement rather than also withdraw.

So we had a somewhat unusual situation where the U.S. was ramping up sanctions, but Iran was still largely in line with the nuclear agreement, which I think struck a lot of people as the best of both worlds for the United States.

What the Trump administration said it wanted was a new deal, a better deal with the Iranians. Although, frankly, a lot of people suspected that the Trump administration would also be happy if the sanctions destabilized Iran.

The Iranians, though, for their part, seemed pretty content to try to weather the sanctions and wait out President Trump in hopes that he wouldn’t win reelection come November 2020, knowing that a Democratic successor would likely want to rejoin the nuclear agreement.

Why did they think that? Because basically every Democratic candidate—as well as the Democratic National Committee—has said that that, yes, is in fact what they would do. Cognizant of this, the Trump administration just recently—just in the past couple of weeks—decided to double down on the sanctions, essentially saying we don’t want Iran to be able to export any oil. We’re going to drive their oil exports down to zero.

And, for good measure, also designated Iran’s military, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, as a terrorist group and did a couple of other things that raised the Iranian hackles.

I think in response to this, the Iranians decided to shift their strategy. So we saw them do two things. One, they’re looking—apparently, reportedly—for ways to target American interests for allies in the region. And it may be that the attacks that we’ve seen on oil tanks in the Gulf, an oil pipeline in the Gulf, are essentially a way for Iran to retaliate against American sanctions, to impose costs to send a message to the U.S. and our allies that they, too, can affect our interests just as we can affect theirs.

Second, we’ve seen the Iranians finally say, look, because of these sanctions, we are now going to start scaling back our compliance with the nuclear agreement unless you, Europe, can do something to provide us with additional economic benefit. And they set a 60-day deadline for that.

So, essentially, we went from a situation where we had the best of both worlds—we were imposing sanctions, Iran was still largely in the nuclear deal—to a pretty fast-unfolding crisis where the clock has sped up in a significant way.

EICHER: Well, can we talk about some of the things we’re seeing? Like an aircraft carrier deploying to the Persian Gulf, personnel evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. You said you didn’t think war was really imminent, but what about all of these markers that we’re hearing about?

SINGH: Sure. You know, I don’t think either side does want war. President Trump has been pretty clear that he doesn’t want a war with Iran. He’s been pretty clear that he’d rather be out of the Middle East if it were up to him.

And the Iranians, I think, understand that they would not fare well in an open war with the United States. And they generally try to avoid that. They try to keep their actions below the threshold where they think we’ll respond directly against them.

And so if you look at these actions that have taken place, they seem to fit that profile.

The attacks on the tankers, it’s tough to attribute them directly to Iran, and they’re not the sort of attacks because they didn’t cause lots of loss of life and so forth that would be easy to justify a big military operation on the basis of.

Now, because the U.S. is obviously aware that this is how Iran operates, they’re looking for steps, we’re looking for steps, to take steps that might deter Iran from engaging in these types of activities. And so the traditional way we do that is by making shows of force—sending aircraft carriers, sending bomber squadrons, we’ve all but sent, apparently, squadrons, or we’ve been conducting flights of squadrons of F-15s and F-35 fighter jets.

Again, all to send a message to Iran that we’re perfectly capable of responding if you take this too far. All of this, ultimately, though, amounts to signaling. It amounts to Iran and the United States signaling to one another, rather than necessarily preparing for open war. The real risk is an accident happens and you have an inadvertent conflict.

EICHER: Maybe I’m getting this out of order, but I do want to talk about a different kind of signaling. Of course, we’re in this different age, where the president issues warnings by way of social media. And I wonder if this isn’t a sort of art-of-the-deal gambit, where President Trump stakes out an extreme position, as he said, Iran would meet its quote-unquote “official end” if it threatened the United States again. And then he dials it back as he goes.

In all seriousness, the Tweets are backed by the shows of force, but how do you read this? Bluster? Posturing? Where are we on a one-to-ten scale of danger right now?

SINGH: Well, it’s hard to quantify, obviously. I would say that, look, at the end of the day, we have been involved in a low-level conflict with Iran virtually since 1979. And I trust very much in the professionalism of the U.S. military, the professionalism of, say, the U.S. Navy and other forces which are there on the ground to strictly adhere to whatever orders they have, whatever rules of engagement they have.

I am less stressing, frankly, of the Iranians and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which have shown a propensity in the past to sometimes act in ways which are risky and which are escalatory. And so I don’t think we can dismiss the danger. I’m not sure we can quantify it, but certainly we are facing more risk, more danger now than we were several weeks ago because I think Iran’s threshold for risk taking has gone down.

I will say, I think the U.S. message has been pretty confused and pretty incoherent. President Trump has ultimately said that he might be willing to go to war with Iran but he doesn’t want a war with Iran.

Yesterday sent a message, in fact, nothing had happened in the region which stands in pretty stark contrast with our efforts to attribute the recent attacks in the region to the Iranians. And I do think the one thing the United States will need here is more message discipline. There can be some value in being unpredictable, some deterrent value. But at the end of the day you do want your adversary to get a pretty clear message and I don’t think that’s happened yet.

EICHER: Let’s talk about the role of Congress. Doesn’t a large-scale engagement with Iran require a war resolution?

SINGH: So, yes. I think if we were to go to war with Iran in a regional sense, a large-scale military conflict, that would require congressional authorization. I don’t think there’s much dispute about that.

I think the grey area would be if, say, U.S. forces find themselves under attack by Iran or if U.S. interests are attacked by Iran. Well, then, the president is arguably within his constitutional rights to take steps to defend U.S. forces and U.S. interests for at least a limited amount of time before he would necessarily need to go to Congress.

So, if you look at, for example, past conflicts with Iran—April 1988 we had a surface naval engagement with the Iranians called Operation Praying Mantis. That all took place over the span of just a few days. So it’s not clear that for an operation like that, congressional authorization would actually be needed if it were precipitated by an act by Iran.

And I think many in Congress, especially Democrats, are fearful that if the Trump administration is too aggressive toward Iran, they could provoke the Iranians into some kind of attack on U.S. interests and then that would be used basically as an excuse by those who might want a conflict with the Iranians. So what you actually see now in Congress is basically sort of an effort to forbid war with Iran.

And so other than authorize war with Iran, which might be necessary if there were an open conflict, now there are multiple efforts by Democrats in Congress to actually forbid war with Iran.

And I think they’re also looking at the intelligence the administration is providing pretty skeptically because they’re worried about echoes of the 2003 Iraq War.

So one burden that administration now is to make pretty clear to Congress that what we’re looking to do is deter the Iranians, not to actually provoke a conflict with the Iranians, and then ultimately have sanctions and other non-military means of pressure that are going to deliver on U.S. policy objectives.

EICHER: Mike Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Mike, I appreciate your time today.

SINGH: It’s my pleasure. You’re welcome.

(Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP) In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. 

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