Escalating U.S.-Iran Tensions: What’s Next?

The United States moves an aircraft carrier near Iran as tensions rise in May 2019. Michael Singley/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Neither Iran nor the United States likely wants war, but the possibility of a miscommunication is considerable, risking a dangerous escalation.

May 17, 2019

The United States moves an aircraft carrier near Iran as tensions rise in May 2019. Michael Singley/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

As tensions flare between the United States and Iran, CFR Senior Fellow Philip H. Gordon examines the prospects for resolving differences or raising the risk of a military altercation.

The Trump administration has maneuvered U.S. warships and evacuated diplomatic staff in Iraq, citing unspecified threats from Iran. What is your read?

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There is every reason to believe these threats are credible. While no clear evidence has been made public, we can suspect that Iran was behind the recent drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities and acts of sabotage on ships in the Gulf. Such actions—asymmetrical and difficult to trace—would be consistent with previous Iranian actions, and it is plausible that Iran would retaliate for the latest U.S. sanctions and try to send a message to Washington to back off.

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All that said, the Trump administration faces a big challenge because of its reputation for making false statements. The perception that it is looking to provoke a conflict with Iran undermines the credibility of its allegations.  

The backdrop is escalating U.S. economic pressure, with the goal of driving Iran’s oil exports to zero. How are Iran’s leaders interpreting U.S. intentions?

There is no doubt that U.S. sanctions are causing pain in Iran, and Iranian leaders have to be worried about the possibility of further sanctions or even the use of force by the United States. But Iranian leaders probably also suspect—quite rightly—that neither President Trump nor most Americans want a military conflict with Iran. So they may calculate that however difficult their economic situation, they can hold firm and wait Trump out, or even get him to back down by threatening an escalation of their own.

That is the big risk here: neither side likely wants war, but the possibility of misreading the other side’s intentions is considerable.  

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Given all this, will the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) survive?

Ever since Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement in May 2018, the Europeans have been desperately trying to keep it alive by continuing as much trade with Iran as possible so that Iran has an incentive to remain in the deal. Last year, they created a special financial mechanism to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran without running afoul of U.S. sanctions. But I think this process has run its course. 

It’s hard to imagine what the Europeans could do in the next sixty days to satisfy Iran’s demands without being hit by U.S. sanctions they cannot afford. That means Iran will probably resume nuclear activities in July, and the JCPOA will likely collapse. The United States will then have to figure out how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program without the deal’s restrictions and inspections regime in place.

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Is there a way out of this escalation?

It is always possible that Iran will return to the nuclear negotiating table, which Trump says he wants, but it’s hard to see them doing so with an administration they don’t trust and from a position of weakness. It’s even harder to imagine them agreeing to the sort of nuclear deal Trump desires—one that lasts forever, prevents all uranium enrichment, includes even more far-reaching inspections, and covers ballistic missiles and regional activities. 

Another possibility is that Iran hunkers down and tries to wait out the Trump administration. But that also seems unlikely, especially now that they have said they’ll leave the nuclear deal in sixty days if their demands are not met.

Barring some miracle, such as the near-term collapse of the Iranian regime, it’s hard to see how this current conflict could end without the United States backing down or without a further and very dangerous escalation. The Trump administration should have considered all this before it walked away from the nuclear deal in the first place.

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