President Donald Trump has moved closer to a military conflict with Iran than at any time in his presidency, redirecting warships to the Middle East to respond to what officials said Monday are heightened Iranian threats to U.S. troops and facilities.
The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier is headed to the region earlier than planned ahead of Iran’s expected announcement on Wednesday that it will pull back on some of its commitments under the Iran nuclear deal, which the U.S. quit a year ago on Trump’s order. The White House, meanwhile, is expected to impose even more sanctions on Iran in the coming days.
Taken together, Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign" against the Islamic Republic and its latest attempt at gunboat diplomacy may be reaching a hazardous crescendo.
“I don’t think either side wants to go to war, but this is the kind of brinksmanship that could get out of hand," said Alex Vatanka, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
The situation has escalated swiftly since Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization last month, a move some top Pentagon officials warned could lead to retaliation by Iran or its proxies against the United States and its allies, including Israel. The rising tensions are now sparking fears that a sudden move on either side, even if unintended, could spiral into a military conflict.
“It’s a standard part of the Iranian playbook: Under pressure, you don’t give in, you don’t submit, you strike back,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Like others, however, Maloney expressed concern about the rhetoric coming from the White House, where hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who has a track record of calling for the overthrow of the Iranian regime, has been a main architect of the tougher policy.
Regional experts are also keeping a close eye on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former lawmaker who harbors intense dislike for the Iranian regime. Pompeo and Bolton are believed to be more willing to do at least limited battle with Iran than Trump, who has long expressed wariness of getting entangled in wars in the Middle East. At times, that has led to mixed signals from the White House.
“The fact is we can’t put any faith in what this administration says, and that’s what really scares me,” Maloney said.
The potential for Iranian retaliation in the region has put U.S. officials on edge, especially in Iraq, where Iranian-armed Shia militias have attacked American troops and facilities in the past. Approximately 5,200 U.S. military personnel remain in the country.
“There has definitely been an uptick in threat reporting directed at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq,” a U.S. official told POLITICO. “It’s more than we’ve seen in a long time, and it suggests the de facto moratorium on attacks on U.S. facilities by Iranian sponsored groups is fraying.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Monday called the decision to send the Lincoln battle group from the Mediterranean Sea closer to Iran sooner than planned — along with bomber aircraft — "a prudent repositioning of assets in response to indications of a credible threat by Iranian regime forces.”
“We call on the Iranian regime to cease all provocation," Shanahan added. “We will hold the Iranian regime accountable for any attack on US forces or our interests.”
On Monday, the acting Pentagon spokesperson Charles Summers Jr. said the move "ensures we have the forces we need in the region to respond to contingencies and to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region."
"We do not seek war with the Iranian regime," he added, "but we will defend U.S. personnel, our allies and our interests in the region."
Iran is engaged in several diplomatic and military conflicts with U.S. allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have supported U.S. moves against Tehran.
In Yemen, for instance, Iran is supporting rebels fighting a Saudi-led military coalition backed by America.
“We’ve been hearing from the Saudis and the Emiratis that they expected to see Iranian escalation either in Yemen or the Red Sea to put pressure on their oil exports to Europe,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group.
But “Iraq is where [the Iranians] feel most comfortable, and there are a lot of options for targeting U.S. assets," he added.
An Arab diplomat, who supports the Trump’s administration’s posture toward Iran and spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, also told POLITICO that “if Iran is going to retaliate, it will probably retaliate in the region: Yemen, Iraq.”
Tehran is also expected to up the stakes in other ways.
An Iranian state media outlet reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani plans to announce on Wednesday that Iran will reduce its adherence to the pact. The move is pegged to the first anniversary of Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the nuclear deal.
It was not immediately clear what steps Iran would take. But the report indicated that the Iranians believe they have the right to make such moves under sections of the agreement that allow reciprocal actions when one party, in this case the United States, violates its commitments.
“My sense is that they are going to break out of some of the limits on research and development,” said Vaez, who is in regular contact with Iranian officials. “It’s a smart strategy. It’s an escalation, but an incremental and reversible one. They’re probably going to use it as leverage to put more pressure on the remaining signatories of the deal to throw them a lifeline.”
Those other countries party to the nuclear deal — China, Russia, Germany, France, Britain — have repeatedly condemned Trump’s decision to quit the agreement and urged Iran to stick to it.
The Europeans in particular have tried to set up a financial mechanism that could help Iran circumvent sanctions, but European companies for the most part are steering clear of the Iranian market in the face of potential U.S. sanctions.
The Trump administration has taken numerous actions in recent months to tighten a noose around Iran’s Islamist regime.
That includes trying to bring Iran’s oil revenue down to zero. The U.S. recently announced it would no longer grant waivers to countries that import Iranian oil, a set that includes India and China. It’s not clear whether those countries will cooperate, despite the threat they could face sanctions if they keep up their oil trade with Iran.
The Trump administration’s overall goal appears to be to starve the Iranian regime of funding so that at the very least it cannot support proxy militias and other groups that have given Tehran a foothold in other countries in the Middle East. The U.S. pressure has already badly damaged Iran’s economy.
“There’s going to be gradually increasing pressure,” predicted the Arab diplomat. “Any revenue stream Iran has, there’s going to be attempts to cut it off. The policy is designed to cut off revenue to a country that we all know conducts foreign terrorist operations."
But the sanctions will also make tougher the lives of ordinary Iranians who are increasingly struggling to make ends meet.
"It’s really unfortunate," the Arab diplomat said. "But this is the result of the regime’s policy choices."
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine