Iran Decides Its Best Defense Is Bravado

Reva Goujon
VP of Global Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READJun 14, 2019 | 16:59 GMT
A picture from June 13 shows fire and smoke billowing from the Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker, said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture from June 13 shows fire and smoke billowing from the Norwegian-owned Front Altair tanker, said to have been attacked in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. The incident, the second involving shipping in the strategic sea lane in only a few weeks, came amid spiraling tensions between Tehran and Washington, which pointed the finger at Iran over an earlier tanker attack in May.

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

  • Two brazen attacks near the Strait of Hormuz within a single month suggest that Iran will accept the cost of a military conflict with the United States. 
  • Given the lack of open dissent within the Iranian establishment at pursuing confrontation, Tehran may be trying to incite Washington to conduct a limited military strike to rally domestic support for the Islamic republic while it's still in a position of relative strength.
  • As the White House weighs its response, the United States could first try to assemble a coalition of naval escorts in the name of defending freedom of navigation. 
  • Amid Iran's bravado, there is no guarantee that provocations aimed at initiating a limited war — along with many other triggers for military action — will not spiral into a much more devastating armed engagement.

Two attacks, one month apart, have hit commercial oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region. The first attack signaled that Iran can, and will, disrupt shipping around one of the world's most critical waterways, the Strait of Hormuz. The second, however, shows that the threat is morphing into a not-so-subtle invitation to an arguably avoidable war.  

The Big Picture

Last year, the United States walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and reimposed punishing sanctions on Iran in the hopes of getting a better nuclear deal out of Tehran and curbing the Islamic republic's regional ambitions. Far from a return to the table, however, Iran has gone on the offensive, laying the ground for a possible war neither side really wants.

It's time to recheck some assumptions.

The White House calculated that taking the fast-and-furious approach to sanctions against Iran would be more likely to force a weakened — and chastened — Tehran to come running back to the negotiating table. But U.S. President Donald Trump has fundamentally misread the leadership in Tehran.

Iran, while not yet at the point of suffering triple-digit inflation or widespread unrest from crippling sanctions, has apparently decided to preemptively push back against the White House, knowing that its retaliatory moves will run the very real risk of inviting a limited military strike. If such a strike was always in the cards anyway, Tehran may be thinking it's better to weather a few American salvos now and rally nationalistic support around the regime while it can still claim a relative position of strength. Moreover, given that Iran is exporting oil at reduced amounts and at steep discounts, the specter of another tanker war helps to buttress oil prices against the bearish force of slowing global consumer demand.

Persian Logic at Work

This may be the logic underpinning two bold attacks, set almost exactly one month apart, targeting oil tankers near the planet's most critical oil chokepoint. Both attacks point to the military capabilities of a state actor, yet are peppered with tiny bits of plausible deniability. For example, Iran made sure to condemn both attacks and, in the case of the June 13 incident, sent a rescue crew to the aid of the sailors on one of the stricken vessels. But in a particularly incriminating piece of evidence supporting Washington's allegations that the attack was Tehran's doing, the U.S. military also released video exposing an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps patrol boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers. (Conveniently, Iranian state channel Press TV clipped the part of the video showing the Iranian crew actually removing the mine to cast doubt on the White House's allegations — a propaganda move designed primarily for a domestic audience to create the perception that the United States is creating a casus belli.)

Iran's political response, rather than revealing a raging internal debate over how to respond to the United States, so far matches the defiance of its actions. Even as mild-mannered Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the unusual step this week of trying to play mediator between Iran and the White House during a visit to Tehran, one of the targeted vessels turned out to be a Japanese-owned tanker. Adding to Abe's embarrassment, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei flatly rejected Abe's offer of dialogue with the United States; Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif then piled on, calling Abe's trip "sabotage diplomacy." Rather than keeping strong political channels open for dialogue, Iran is even burning bridges with its most pragmatic economic and diplomatic partners.

U.S. President Donald Trump has fundamentally misread the leadership in Tehran, which has apparently decided to preemptively push back against the White House.

In contemplating a way to be both decisive against Iran and avoid an immediate military escalation, the White House is likely considering an option to assemble a fleet of naval escorts for commercial tankers in the area. If this is the path the White House chooses this time, we are likely to see intense diplomatic activity, as Washington tries to assemble a coalition of warships in the name of defending freedom of navigation.

There is still ample room for further escalation, however. Within the next month, Iran will also likely make some serious moves on the nuclear front that will make it harder for the European Union and the Islamic republic's Asian allies to come to Tehran's defense. If, by July 7, the European Union fails to implement a plan to circumvent U.S. sanctions (Iran has long since assumed this isn't happening), then Tehran will restart parts of its nuclear program. This will create additional triggers for covert and possibly military action.

Misplaced Confidence?

By any measure, this is highly brazen policy. Tehran may be right in assuming that the Trump White House is not interested in getting bogged down in yet another politically unpopular war in the Middle East, especially as its great power competition with China and Russia deepens. But how can Iran be confident that even ostensibly punitive U.S. strikes will remain confined to a limited military engagement and not spiral into full war?

Even "limited" U.S. strikes could target Iran's arsenal of ballistic missiles and naval assets with the goal of handicapping Iran's ability to disrupt traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. But that also means the IRGC units manning these assets could be operating under a use-it-or-lose-it principle, creating a bigger disruption and driving a bigger response. Judging by the boldness in which Iran has retaliated thus far, a tit-for-tat cycle of attacks leading to further escalation and even all-out war is entirely plausible, even if both sides have no desire to see their brawl go that far.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — two of the most likely and immediate targets for Iranian retaliation — are caught between wanting to box in Iran and pushing the envelope too far, thereby resulting in a devastating conflict in their neighborhood. Either way, they have limited means to restrain either the United States or Iran. Israel, too, will be vulnerable to Iranian proxy retaliation but may be more willing to absorb the risk and embrace the opportunity at hand. An embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a case to the White House that if the United States is going to risk conducting a military strike anyway, it might as well deliver a crippling blow to Iran's nuclear and military facilities while it's at it.

The overwhelming confidence that Iran is displaying, both in rhetoric and action, is astounding. But given the gamble that any Iranian leader has had to calculate in making such moves, that confidence likely belies just how dire of a situation the Trump White House has created for the Iranian government. In 2012, diplomacy trumped war in the U.S.-Iran relationship. This time, it's more likely to be the reverse.

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