U.S. Response to Iranian Brinkmanship

On Thursday, June 13, two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz were attacked. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States assessed the attack and concluded that it was perpetrated by Iran. The Iranian government has denied involvement and rejected the accusation. In response, the U.S. Central Command released video footage that it claims shows an Iranian patrol boat removing an unexploded ordnance from the hull of one of the tankers.

Q1: What is currently known about who conducted the attack on the two tankers?

A1: Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the U.S. government has assessed that the Iranians were responsible. What I found a little bit strange is Secretary Pompeo didn't characterize his level of confidence in that assessment, which is traditionally the way the intelligence community reports such things. As a former director of Central Intelligence Agency, he would surely be familiar with that practice. I presume that there is some other evidence that has not been made public that has been shared with allies. And I don't know of any contravening evidence against the assessment that Secretary Pompeo laid out yesterday, but I am struck at how much skepticism I am hearing from former senior U.S. government officials and from abroad.

Q2: If the attack was perpetrated by Iran, how was this a strategic move on the part of the Iranian government?

A2: I could understand a logic chain for why they would do it, and it seems to me the attacks were relatively measured. While Iranian military actions could provoke a shooting war, attacks of uncertain origin against commercial shipping and pipelines, causing no deaths, is a relatively cautious and calibrated approach.

I’ve thought for more than a year that Iran has been looking for a way to start talks with the United States from a position of maximal strength. Iranians have often approached negotiations not by behaving well and trying to create a positive climate but instead by behaving poorly and making the first concession to return their behavior to the status quo ante. That way, they get something without really giving something up. There's brinkmanship involved. They want the world to become concerned and to feel an urgent need for the United States and the Iranians to talk. It is an approach that stems from the Iranians being preoccupied with how much weaker they are than the United States. For the Iranians, the worst-case scenario is to be isolated and increasingly impoverished with the outside world ignoring them. Sanctions are hurting them, but there is no urgency on the U.S. part to ease them. That is a big problem for them.

Q3: What is the U.S. approach?

A3: The United States has a much more ambitious agenda of trying to shape Iranian behavior. I'm not sure how we get to the point where the Iranians decide they're going to behave well because I think the Iranians have convinced themselves that better behavior without getting something in exchange for it would be a sign of surrender. They fear that better behavior won't end U.S. animosity toward Iran; it will only accelerate a U.S. effort to destroy the government of the Islamic Republic.

Q4: How do Gulf tensions affect U.S. strategic interests in the region?

A4: There is clearly a concern that this conflict could turn into a real war, with consequences for the world. The United States has allies and partners throughout the region that are going to suffer if trade suffers. It's going to put U.S. soldiers and sailors at risk. It creates the danger of this conflict spreading into the already-fragile economic, political, and social situation in Iraq. And a U.S.-Iranian rivalry playing out in Iraq would not serve U.S. interests nor the interests of many U.S. allies. It seems to me that the more we can narrow the area in which the United States and Iran are engaging and the extent to which we can make that diplomatic rather than military, the better U.S. interests will be served.

Q5: How should the United States respond?

A5: It seems to me the answer is to talk to the Iranians—not because you like them, not because you trust them, but because talking provides a pathway to your needs. There are lots of intermediaries. Both the Germans and the Japanese were recently in Tehran. There were messengers from the Swiss. But it seems to me that there is a utility in talking with the Iranians, setting clear limits, providing both incentives and disincentives, and moving them toward behavior that is more consistent with U.S. interests.

Q6: How should Congress engage with this issue?

A6: I think there are strong possibilities of a role for Congress to play in opening a dialogue with the Iranians. I would certainly hope we would consider it. Congress, of course, already has a role because Congress is responsible for the U.S. sanctions on Iran. But I think there is also a potential congressional role in parliamentary exchanges to clarify that the United States and Iran have shared interests and it is in the interest of both of our countries to pursue those interests.

Q7: Many are comparing this to the beginning of the Iraq War. What is your response to that?

A7: It doesn't feel similar to me. I don't think the administration is trying to prepare the country for a war with Iran. I don't think the administration really wants an open-ended war with Iran. I also think that the post-9/11 environment provided a radically different environment than we have right now.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program