Clouds of war

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Clouds of war

The United States needs to dial down on its ‘maximum pressure’ tactics with Iran


Why in news?

  • President Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to stop a planned attack on Iran, in response to Tehran’s downing of an American spy drone, provides an opportunity for Washington to take a fresh look at the deepening crisis in the Gulf.

“Dovish” stance

  • A rare moment of restraint:S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull back from air strikes on Iran, after the latter shot down an American drone near the Strait of Hormuz, was a rare moment of restraint amid otherwise escalating tensions between the two countries.
  • Loss of Iranian lives: The rationale behind the pull-back, was that he did not want to cause any loss of Iranian lives as no American lives were hurt by the Iranians.
  • Champion of peace faction: Even as the war party in his own administration, led by the national security adviser, John Bolton, has been itching for a military showdown with Iran, Trump has presented himself as the champion of the peace faction.
    • Clearly, Mr. Trump, who had campaigned against the costly wars of the U.S. overseas, does not seem to be in favour of launching an open conflict with Iran.
    • During his campaign for presidency and since, Trump has repeatedly criticised America’s endless wars in West Asia.
    • Much of his political base in America’s heartland is unwilling to support another war in West Asia after the costly failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    • It is no surprise, then, that the world has seen on the one hand a steady drift towards a military conflict with Iran, and on the other, President Trump’s frequent call for an unconditional dialogue with Iran.

Iran-U.S. conflict: consequences

  • A war with Iran could be prolonged and disastrous. Iran has ballistic missiles, proxy militias and a relatively vibrant navy.
  • And the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of the world’s seaborne oil shipments move, is within its range.
  • Iran nuclear deal: Trump pulled the U.S. out of a nuclear deal with which Iran was fully compliant, setting off the escalation.
    • His plan was to squeeze the Iranian economy and force Tehran back to the table to renegotiate the nuclear issue as well as Iran’s missile programme and regional activism, for a “better deal”.
    • A year later, the U.S. and Iran are on the brink of a war.

“Maximum pressure” approach

  • US Restraint: Trump does not want to take a risk unless there are provocations from Iran targeting American lives.
    • After he reversed the decision to attack Iran, Trump said he appreciates Iran’s restraint in not shooting down a spy plane with about 30 security forces that was in Iran’s range along with the unmanned drone.
    • He seemed to have encouraged the Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, who was in Tehran earlier this month (June 2019), to convey his interest in engagement with Iran directly to the Iranian leadership.
    • But Iran has apparently turned down the offer.
    • While this approach is better than that of Mr. Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, who has threatened Iran with war several times, what the U.S. President overlooks is that the current state of tensions is a product of his “maximum pressure” tactic.
  • Problem with approach: The problem with Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach is that he doesn’t seem to have a plan between the sanctions-driven pressure tactics and a potential military conflict.
  • Iran’s response: Iran, on the other hand, is ready to take limited risks, as its actions such as the threat to breach the uranium enrichment limits set by the nuclear deal and the downing of the American drone suggest, to break the stranglehold of the sanctions.
    • Tehran is betting that it can afford to wait. Although Iran is hurting amidst new sanctions, it is playing the few cards it has with some effect.
    • Last month, Tehran set a 60-day deadline for scaling back its compliance with the nuclear agreement, if other powers don’t abide by its terms.
    • This is deepening the divisions between the US and Europe, which has affirmed the value of the nuclear agreement.

De-escalation & way forward

  • Direct talks: Direct talks between the US and Iran might be the only way to de-escalate the current tensions in the Gulf, devise a new framework for a stable regional balance while limiting the four decades of conflict between Washington and Tehran.
    • Finding the terms of that direct dialogue will obviously be a significant challenge.
  • Recalibration of policy: Trump has a situation where “maximum pressure” is not producing the desired result, and both countries are edging towards a war he doesn’t want.
    • Trump’s decision to call off the strike and the new red line he set for Iran could create an opportunity for such a recalibration.
      • He could seize the moment to assure Iran that his primary goal is engagement, not conflict. What Iran wants the most is relief from the sanctions.
      • Instead of sticking to a policy that has proved to be counter-productive and risky, Mr. Trump could offer Tehran some reprieve in return for its remaining in the nuclear deal, which could be followed up by a fresh diplomatic opening.
    • If he continues with the pressure tactics, tensions will stay high, the Strait of Hormuz would be on the brink, and further provocations by either side, or even an accident, could trigger a full-scale conflict. That is a dangerous slope.

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