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Why Iran is fighting back against Trump’s maximum pressure campaign

An expert explains Iran’s recent actions.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations on September 26, 2018 in New York City.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations on September 26, 2018, in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Iran may have attacked six oil tankers in a strategic Middle Eastern waterway vital for the world’s energy shipping. It for sure shot down an advanced and expensive US military drone. And it may soon no longer abide by part of the 2015 nuclear deal, meaning it could inch closer to potentially obtaining a nuclear bomb someday.

If all this sounds aggressive, it’s because it is.

But Iran isn’t acting like this for no reason. It’s doing so to push back against the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, under which it withdrew from the nuclear deal and put in place crippling economic sanctions on Tehran. The goal, it seems, is to compel Iran to give up its nuclear and missile programs, among other things (although Iran never explicitly stated it wants a nuclear weapon).

Iran is clearly not backing down, though, and instead has chosen violence as its recourse. That’s led many to fear a full-scale US-Iran war could be on the horizon. It almost became a much larger possibility this week before President Donald Trump stopped a limited attack on Iran in response to the downing of the drone.

So why is Iran responding this way? Why would it risk escalating a tense situation that could put it on a warpath with the world’s most powerful country?

To answer those and other questions, I called Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Alex Ward

A lot of people are asking why Iran would attack oil tankers or shoot down a US military drone and risk starting a war with the US. Why is Iran pushing back in the way it has been?

Afshon Ostovar

I think above all, Iran needs to change its situation. It sees that it has basically two paths: It can either continue to take sanctions and suffer the consequences or it can capitulate by agreeing to talks and pursuing compromises with the US. The Trump administration, particularly the president, wants the latter.

So if Iran is not willing to take sanctions and suffer, and if it’s not willing to compromise and capitulate, then it needs to do something to change the situation.

Actions like attacking civilian shipping are ways for Iran to claw back some leverage in its relationship with the US. So Iran is no longer passive in this relationship — it’s now an active partner.

Alex Ward

Why would Iran attack shipping, though, which the Trump administration blames Iran for doing?

Afshon Ostovar

That internationalizes the entire situation. Just about every country in the world that matters in the international economy is somehow connected to oil or shipping coming out of the Gulf.

Shipping in the Gulf is something that all the countries in Asia, Africa, and, to a lesser extent, Europe and the Americas all have a stake in. Important countries like Japan, China, South Korea all rely on petroleum products, gas, and oil from the Persian Gulf. So if shipping is threatened, they have to see the US-Iranian spat as something bigger that they need to consider.

And so Iran, I think right away, got what it wanted out of the situation. The US stepped back and President Trump started to speak more about deescalating matters and started to speak more about diplomacy. And there were also calls from European allies, Russia, China, and other countries talking about the need to calm tensions.

I think the challenge for Iran becomes how much more it can achieve through this behavior.

Alex Ward

So to be clear, Iran was looking for a bargaining chip or some leverage in the standoff with the US, and going after oil tankers and downing a drone gives it something to trade away: no further escalation.

Afshon Ostovar

Yeah, but the shipping part is key. The drone downing is just sort of part of the overall escalation of this.

Alex Ward

So Iran is basically escalating to deescalate?

Afshon Ostovar

In some respects, yes.

Alex Ward

But Iran has to be aware that trying to gain leverage in this way would increase the risk of conflict. Is that a fair characterization? And if so, how does Iran mitigate that risk?

Afshon Ostovar

Yes, it is a fair characterization, but Iran is banking on two things.

First, that the United States doesn’t actually want to go to war with Iran. Congress doesn’t support war. The American people don’t want any more war. And Trump has shown that he’s disinclined to get further involved in the Middle East. Iran knows all this.

Tehran still has to accept the idea that Trump can change his mind, though. But I think that Iran has thought through this and might even see a limited conflict to be in its interests.

Alex Ward

Wait, Iran may want a limited conflict? Why?

Afshon Ostovar

By limited conflict, I mean limited strikes by the United States on Iranian soil targeting anti-air missile batteries, bases, naval vessels, those sorts of things. In those attacks, people might die, some infrastructure might be damaged — but nothing overly significant.

But if that happens, if the US responds to attacks where nobody died with an attack on Iranian soil wherein people could get killed, then the United States is seen as a disproportionate actor in this conflict. That allows Iran to regain victimhood, and it could possibly get the Iranian people to back the regime during its tensions with the US. There’d be the rally-around-the-flag effect.

And if the US is seen as the aggressor, this plays against the US in the international community, and actually helps Iran in international diplomatic efforts.

Alex Ward

So goal one is to gain leverage and a broader negotiation with the United States, and goal two is to potentially goad the US into taking some sort of limited strike on Iran and therefore make the US look worse than Iran in this conflict. Is that a fair characterization?

Afshon Ostovar

Yes. Goading the United States to respond to an attack, let’s say the shipping attacks or the downing of the drone. These attacks are limited; nobody’s gotten hurt, nobody’s dead.

But if the US responds to those attacks by attacking Iran militarily on Iranian soil or attacking Iranian naval vessels, and kills Iranians in that response, then the United States will be seen as the aggressor and Iran will be able to reclaim that victimhood. That would play to Iran’s benefit in international diplomacy.

Alex Ward

Is this a normal response for Iran?

Afshon Ostovar

This is more or less consistent with Iran’s behavior over the last 15 years. Really since 2005, Iran has shown a number of times that it is willing to push back against international pressure or foreign pressure. It’s willing to push back against the US by engaging in aggressive or assertive behavior that could risk triggering the conflict with the United States.

Iranian support for Shia militias during the Iraq War after 2005 is a prime example here. Iran was actively involved in the killing of American troops using Shia militias for years. Iran has also responded through covert operations such as trying to strike at Israeli targets through bombings in India or Georgia or Thailand.

There’s also the 2011 assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the United States, a plot that would have involved blowing up a restaurant in Georgetown in DC to kill the Saudi ambassador.

Iran engaged in all of these things at times when it was up against the wall. When it felt like it had really no good options left short of capitulation. So in that sense, this is totally consistent with Iranian behavior.

Alex Ward

So how does this end?

Afshon Ostovar

That’s the million-dollar question — for both sides. And frankly, I don’t think either side really has a good answer to that. Neither the United States nor Iran has adopted strategies that make it easy for the other side to quit.

So the United States, by having a maximum pressure campaign, isn’t leaving Iran many options when it says, “We’ll only give you sanctions relief after you’ve compromised.” Because if Iran is not going to compromise, then that means sanctions are going to seemingly stay on forever.

Iran, on the other hand, has said that it’s not going to talk until sanctions are lifted. So if the Iranians continue to refuse to talk, then sanctions will never be lifted. So neither side is willing to give in to the other.

I think President Trump actually has been making surprisingly overt efforts to get the Iranians to talk. Having [Japanese Prime Minister] Shinzo Abe carry a letter to the supreme leader to encourage talks I thought was really significant. That was a real opportunity for the Iranians to get off the current road to conflict and find another way of dealing with this matter.

But, of course, the supreme leader refused. And so the supreme leader, I don’t think, is leaving the Iranians many options of exiting this escalation dynamic. To put a fine point on it, I don’t think there is an end to this until one side backs down.

Alex Ward

So what comes next for Iran if the US pressure doesn’t let up?

Afshon Ostovar

Iran is in a challenging spot because I think it’s gained as much as it can gain from this behavior, whatever sort of international groundswell of calls for deescalation and talks and all that. Iran has gotten the US president to sort of walk back US policy and call for talks.

And all of that came out of Iran starting to escalate against international shipping. So Iran already got something out of it, but it’s getting diminishing returns after that.

So Iran can, one, continue doing what it’s doing, and if it continues doing what it’s doing, and the US doesn’t respond, then I think gradually the international community is going to tire of Iran’s behavior and there’s going to be more and more sympathy for the US position. Which means that there’s going to be more pressure on Iran to capitulate.

Or, two, Iran could escalate and try to trigger a US response. So they could attack the US in a way that is more direct by attacking a US naval vessel or trying to kill Americans in Iraq. Either one of those things would lead to escalation. And if the US escalates against Iran and kills Iranians on Iranian soil, then I think Iran might feel that they benefit from such a scenario, if it stays limited in scope.

Or, three, the Iranians can just stop doing what they’re doing. They’ve made their points, and they can move on to pursue diplomacy. And if they do that, they can quietly negotiate with the United States, perhaps through third-party countries, in less overt ways.

I don’t know if Iran wants to pursue any of those things. But I think what it has left is quite limited in terms of options.