The Dangers of Unilateralism and the US-Iranian Conflict

In comparing the bottom lines and goals of the United States and Iran, both sides are in agreement about avoiding large-scale war, but as for calling off sanctions and “maximum pressure,” there is fierce conflict between the two. This contest will play out on three fronts.

The U.S. has defined and fought terrorism to suit its own interests, which has not only damaged the U.S.-Iranian relationship, but also has been detrimental to forming international cooperation against terrorism.

On Jan. 3, the U.S. killed the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani. On Jan. 8, Iran fired more than 10 ballistic missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq, pushing the U.S.-Iranian confrontation, which began last May, to a climax. Although neither the U.S. nor Iran took action following this bout of fighting, the mentality and trajectory of the confrontation’s escalation has not changed.

American and Iranian Goals and Bottom Lines

The progression of the U.S.-Iranian conflict is determined by each side’s strategic goals. The bottom line for the U.S. in the Middle East is to avoid sinking into the chaos present there, and if possible, reduce security costs in the region. For example, in October 2019, when Turkey initiated Operation Peace Spring, a military offensive in northern Syria, the U.S. military partially withdrew from the region, further disengaging from the situation in Syria. This is partially attributable to Donald Trump’s hopes for reelection; he once promised to pull U.S. troops out of the Middle East. It’s also out of consideration for a long-term strategy. After the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American people are fed up. What’s more, the U.S. military admitted that there was no hope of victory in a fight against armed rebellions without local popular support. Clearly, the U.S. does not intend to engage in on-the-ground combat with Iran.

The U.S., of course, also hopes to solve its Iran problem, which has long influenced its strategy in the Middle East. During the Barack Obama era, the U.S. reached a nuclear deal with Iran, hoping to alter Iran’s behavior peacefully. Trump wants to solve the Iranian nuclear problem, too. The U.S. 2017 National Security Strategy makes Iran a priority. His approach was to overturn Obama’s nuclear deal and discuss a new deal that would have Iran make further concessions. To achieve this, Trump is using “extreme pressure” in an attempt to force Iran back to the negotiating table with the most severe sanctions in history.

Iran’s bottom line is to avoid open conflict and all-out war with the U.S. In military, economic and comprehensive national strength, Iran is no match for the United States. It would certainly suffer losses in a war with the U.S., and Iranian authorities recognize this reality. Faced with “extreme pressure” from the U.S., Iran’s main objective is to maintain its political power and security. Supposing that Iran doesn’t wage war against the United States, the greatest threat to the Iranian regime’s safety is American economic sanctions. In 2019, Iranian oil exports sharply declined, and it faced a predicted 9.5% decline in its economy. Under dire financial pressure, authorities were forced to raise the price of oil, inciting mass protests. This shows the huge economic and financial risks that Iran faced. Therefore, Iranian officials have continually emphasized that if sanctions were removed, Iran could return to the negotiating table.

Leeway and Limits for Escalation

In comparing the bottom lines and goals of the United States and Iran, both sides are in agreement on avoiding large-scale war, but as for calling off sanctions and “maximum pressure,” there is fierce conflict between the two. This contest will play out on three fronts.

The two countries’ bottom lines will determine how far this conflict can go. From May 2019 until now, the U.S. and Iran have not begun a hot war or open fighting, strictly speaking. When Iran shot down American drones, the U.S. didn’t retaliate with military force; when the U.S. assassinated Soleimani, Iran didn’t fire missiles at U.S. military bases until five days later. Various signs indicate that Iran passed news of retaliation on to the U.S. through a third party in advance. In his Jan. 8 speech, Trump further downplayed the surprise attack and instead stated that the U.S. is willing to “embrace peace” with Iran. It’s clear that both the U.S. and Iran’s brakes are still functional; they both have retained basic self-restraint.

The discrepancies between each side’s objectives means that these games will continue, and the situation will continue to escalate. Iran hasn’t yet returned to the negotiating table, so the United States’ goal has not been met; U.S. sanctions have not been relaxed and are instead becoming more intense, meaning Iran’s goals are likewise unrealized. Iran is the weaker of the two; shouldered with the severe economic and social consequences of sanctions, it’s bound to cause trouble for the U.S. to force it to ease sanctions, while trying to avoid a substantive military retaliation. The U.S. is stronger, and it wants to effectively curtail Iran’s counterattacks and make it difficult for Iran to cause trouble, while simultaneously avoiding the use of excessive force and starting a war.

There is some room for both the U.S. and Iran to operate between large-scale war and small-scale skirmishing. There are three main fronts in this game between the U.S. and Iran. The first is Persian Gulf security. From May 2019 to June 2019, multiple international oil tankers were ambushed in the Strait of Hormuz, and shipping safety in the Persian Gulf fell to the lowest levels in 20 years. However, in the late 1980s, Iraq and Iran were each using missiles to attack the other’s tankers, and the U.S. Navy provided naval escorts. A U.S. warship struck a mine, setting off a brief naval battle between the U.S. and Iran. Compared to the tanker war and that naval battle, the current security situation in the Persian Gulf is still quite manageable.

The second front is regional influence. Iran used the Lebanese Civil War, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, the 2003 Iraq War and other opportunities to train a group of Shiite militias and military government entities in the Middle East and Southern Asia. Its regional influence expanded rapidly. These Shiite armed forces (or, as some would call them, agents) became the supporting force Iran used to harass the U.S. At the turn of the year, Iraq was the main battleground between the U.S. and Iran, and Iraqi Shiite militia attacks against American targets grew more frequent and severe. However, the conflict between the Iraqi Shiite militias and the U.S. was still far from reaching its worst. Around 2006, Iraq’s security deteriorated significantly, and multiple Shiite militias engaged in violent conflict with the U.S., forcing the United States to send in reinforcements to eliminate them. Although the current situation in Iraq is chaotic, the conflict between pro-Iran militias and the U.S. is not nearly as intense as it was 13 years ago.

The third front is the nuclear issue. Since May of 2019, Iran has broken multiple restrictions imposed by the nuclear deal, doing so in phases. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s November 2019 report, Iran has up to 4.5% enriched uranium and reserves exceeding 372 kilograms (approximately 818 pounds), has initiated uranium enrichment in Fordo, and has tested several new kinds of centrifuges. However, that is far below peak measures during the Obama era. At that time, Iran possessed nearly 20,000 centrifuges, 20% enriched uranium and 10,000 kilograms (approximately 11 tons) in reserves. In other words, on all three battlefronts, there is room for the U.S.-Iranian conflict to escalate, and Iran especially, while under enormous pressure to survive, will make ample use of these gray areas.

Sorrow and Hope

On the morning of Jan. 8, a few hours after Iran fired missiles at American military bases, a commercial passenger plane crashed not long after taking off from Tehran airport. All 176 passengers and members of the crew died. On Jan. 11, Iranian armed forces admitted that the Iranian military mistook the Ukrainian passenger flight for a cruise missile and mistakenly struck it down. With Iran anxiously guarding against U.S military retaliation following the missile attacks on U.S. bases, this kind of human error is not entirely inconceivable. The tragedy is that this passenger flight crash has become the greatest casualty in the U.S.-Iranian confrontation so far. It came as a much greater shock than the deaths of the American contractor and the Iranian general.

The underlying causes of the passenger flight crash must be tracked backward. If the U.S. hadn’t killed Soleimani, then Iran wouldn’t have executed missile strikes on U.S. bases. The reason the U.S. gave for the elimination of Soleimani is that he was a “terrorist,” and so it carried out an assassination, as it does with Afghan and Syrian terrorists. In April 2019, the U.S. even listed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in which Soleimani served, as a foreign terrorist organization, grouping it with internationally recognized terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State. The U.S. has openly blurred international counterterrorist norms, violating United Nations and international community conventions and consensus on terrorism and counterterrorism. It has defined and fought terrorism to suit its own interests, which has not only damaged the U.S.-Iranian relationship, but also has been detrimental to the formation of international cooperation against terrorism.

The U.S. as instigator of this bout of tense relations has continually emphasized that Iran is the source of unrest in the region. However, the United States total ban on Iranian oil exports was the catalyst of Iran’s actions. The ban cut off Iran’s source of wealth, and now, not only are the government’s finances limited, but the people of Iran are also struggling with extreme poverty. It is because Iran was forced against a cliff’s edge that it struck back in the first place. The United States ban on Iranian oil exports is a follow-up to the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. While Iran was fulfilling each obligation of the nuclear agreement, and while China, Russia and Europe went to great lengths to uphold it, the U.S. withdrew from the multilateral pact, renewed unilateral sanctions and caused this episode of strained relations between the U.S. and Iran, all out of self-interest and even the personal considerations of several politicians.

The current conflict is, in fact, uncomfortable for both the U.S. and Iran. Obviously, Iran is suffering under American sanctions. The U.S. is also very on edge regarding its interests in the Middle East; it is constantly sending more troops, and has apprehensively raised domestic security levels, meaning high security costs. The desire by the two sides to ease the crisis and hold peace talks is growing, not shrinking. Last September during the U.N. General Assembly, the presidents of the U.S. and Iran had hoped to meet, with France as mediator. In early December, the U.S. and Iran successfully negotiated an exchange of prisoners, a rare occurrence. France, Japan, Switzerland, Oman, Pakistan and other countries frequently shuttled and transmitted communication between the U.S. and Iran, displaying the global community’s efforts to resolve the crisis with multilateral diplomacy. Imagine if the U.S. overturned its previous classification of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization; the tension between the two countries would certainly be alleviated. Imagine if the United States returned to the Iran nuclear deal or to the multilateral framework for discussion of the Iran nuclear issue; the two countries could certainly sit down and hold talks.

On July 3, 1988, near the end of the Iran-Iraq War, after the small naval firefight between the U.S. and Iran, a U.S. warship fired a medium-range guided missile, downing a commercial passenger aircraft flying over the Persian Gulf and killing the 290 passengers and crew members on board. This devastating accident showed the U.S. and Iran the damage and unsustainability of war, and, to a certain extent, facilitated the end of the war in August 1988. The accident in Tehran airspace on Jan. 8 warned us once more that pursuing unilateralism, engaging in bullying behavior, playing with fringe policies and manufacturing escalation leads easily to a loss of control and unending consequences. Relevant countries should take this tragedy as an opportunity to reflect on right and wrong, to retract radical policies and promote safety for others as well as themselves.

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