As the U.S. edges closer and closer to war with Iran, to the point that it looks almost inevitable, we’re starting to see some incendiary reactions from Iran. There was the alleged attacks on Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman (Iran denies it, and as Bernie Sanders pointed out, we should be very hesitant to believe anything the White House says in the lead-up to war), the announcement that they would be enriching uranium at levels that “violate” the nuclear deal (the same one the U.S. pulled out of last year, rendering it basically meaningless), and news Thursday that Iran shot down an American drone.
On the surface, these actions look puzzling: Why would Iran antagonize the U.S., especially while the country is led by avowed war hawks who want nothing more than a fight?
The answer is simple, and ultimately logical: The Iranians have no other choice. A failure to act now will not change a single thing about U.S. policy, which is driving heedlessly toward regime change at any cost, up to and including war. There is no room for negotiation, sanctions are crushing their economy, and unless they make a bold move now, they’ll be suffocated to death.
Let’s start with the JCPOA—the Iran nuclear deal. When Trump pulled the U.S. out in May 2018, the deal continued in name between Iran and the other participating countries, but fundamentally it was over. The entire point of the deal was to keep Iran from pursuing a nuclear bomb in exchange for easing economic sanctions and removing the constant threat of war with America. It was a strong deal, in that sense—it moved everyone away from the precipice. But Trump’s move brought everything back to the brink, and his subsequent moves—including the re-imposition of harsh sanctions that have gutted the Iranian economy and depleted their supplies of medicine, deployment of troops to the region, and pressuring other countries and businesses to abandon their relationship with Iran—all clearly show that this was intentional. Guided by John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump aimed to back Iran into a corner and force them to strike back in fear.
This detail alone, outlined by Max Fisher in the New York Times, says it all:
The administration has also curtailed Iran’s options for disposing of its excess energy-grade uranium. In May, it revoked authorization for Iran to sell the uranium abroad, as it had done under the nuclear agreement. Though Iran has largely disposed of the uranium by reprocessing it, the revocation underscored perceptions that Iran was being goaded into violating the agreement.
That’s the perfect word: “Goading.” The American foreign policy toward Iran is simple, and amounts to a bad-faith attempt to force them into desperate circumstances, at which point any desperate reactions on their part will serve as a pretext for war. The tactic of forcing Iran to get rid of its uranium while denying them one of the prime avenues is a perfect microcosm for the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” ultimatums they’re thrusting on the country. What the neocons want, really, is for Iran to make a mistake, and these predicaments are custom designed to invite that outcome.
So how is Iran supposed to react? Should they simply “bear all of its [the nuclear deal’s] obligations with ever-fewer of its upsides — along with overwhelming economic and military pressure from the United States”? Even if they wanted to take that option, U.S. aggression made it nonviable from the start, which is entirely on purpose. Knowing that, analysts have begun to recognize the Iranian gambit for what it really is: A last-ditch effort to get the world on its side in advance of U.S. aggression. Per Fisher:
[Analysts] say Iran appears to be pursuing a provocative but calibrated strategy to counter what its leaders see as a potentially existential American threat — as severe economic sanctions strangle the economy and cut off vital oil revenues — as well as to preserve the nuclear agreement.
In doing so, Iran is falling back on tactics associated with its reputation as a rogue state, including asymmetric military escalation, like threatening oil shipments, though Iran denies American accusations that it attacked tankers last week, or the downing of an American drone on Thursday (in disputed circumstances), and nuclear blackmail. It is doing so, analysts say, because such tactics are part of the basis of Iranian power and because the United States has closed off other avenues for responding.
In other words: They don’t have a choice!
The best chance Iran has is to get Europe, China, and Russia on its side, so the government has opted to walk a tight-rope designed to make its point without, hopefully, giving Trump and Bolton and Pompeo the excuse they need to start a war.
With the uranium enrichment increase, Iran is attempting to “create a crisis just large enough to pressure European and Asian powers to step in and rein in the United States, but small enough to be easily defused,” to quote Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in remarks she made to the Times.
Or take it from Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the U.S.:
So now we wait and see how the U.S. reacts to this halfway approach—whether it functions effectively to stymie the obvious impulse to war, and turns allies and half-allies even more against Trump, or whether the White House bulldozes its way through the subtlety and find an excuse for war regardless. Maybe the downed drone is all the reason Trump needs—it’s no Gulf of Tonkin, but then again, he and his top advisors have never needed a great excuse to bend the truth to their whims.