National Security & Defense

Understanding the Surge in Tensions with Iran

The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln transits the Atlantic Ocean in January. (Mass Communication Specialist Third Class Clint Davis/US Navy)
Tehran's new threats are a sign that U.S. policy is working.

Over the weekend, the White House announced it was sending an aircraft-carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” related to Iran. These warnings reportedly were Israeli intelligence reports indicating that Iran was planning attacks against U.S. personnel and allies in the Middle East.

Press reports differed on the nature of the planned Iranian attacks. There were reports that Iranian officials gave a green light to Iran’s terrorist proxies to attack U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Syria. Other reports said Iran planned to orchestrate drone attacks in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. There also was a report that Iran had moved short-range ballistic missiles by boat in waters off its shores.

There has been speculation that Iran was planning these attacks in retaliation for damage done to the Iranian economy by sanctions the U.S. reimposed after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA). These attacks may also have been planned in response to the Trump administration’s recent designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization.

President Trump’s critics are claiming that a surge in tensions with Iran in response to his withdrawal from the JCPOA proves the U.S. withdrawal from this agreement was a mistake and increases the threat from Iran. But the facts suggest otherwise. Iran is desperately trying to reverse the effects of President Trump’s successful Iran policy, known as the maximum-pressure strategy.

The Trump administration recently toughened its sanctions against Iran. Last month it ended exemptions to oil sanctions. Nuclear sanctions also have been strengthened, including a demand that Iran cease uranium enrichment. Yesterday, the Trump administration extended U.S. sanctions on Iran’s steel, aluminum, copper, and iron sectors.

The Obama administration told the American people that the JCPOA would improve relations with Iran and bring it into the international community. However, Iran’s behavior actually worsened after the JCPOA, especially with its decision to send troops to Syria. President Trump decided not to rely on the weak nuclear deal to restrain Iranian behavior and protect American interests in the region. Reminiscent of President Reagan’s “Peace through Strength” dictum, the deployment of military forces is a show of U.S. force to prevent hostilities, not to start a war with Iran.

In addition, although European governments still oppose President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and new U.S. sanctions against Iran, European corporations are honoring U.S. sanctions and have left Iran in droves, including Air France, British Airways, KLM, Total, Siemens, and Volkswagen.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani announced yesterday that in response to European companies’ cooperating with reimposed U.S. sanctions, Iran will soon violate elements of the JCPOA by increasing its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water, which is needed for a plutonium-producing reactor. Rouhani also said Iran would increase uranium enrichment above the limit of 3.67 percent set by the JCPOA if European firms do not cease honoring U.S. sanctions. Rouhani’s threats to withdraw from the nuclear deal probably will further dissuade European companies from doing business in Iran.

Rouhani’s threats to partially withdraw from the JCPOA will have a negligible effect on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons because the agreement is so weak. The nuclear deal already allows Iran to pursue nuclear-weapons-related activities, permitting it to enrich uranium with 5,000 centrifuge machines while the agreement is in effect. Its inspection provisions are likewise very weak and Iran has violated them by not permitting inspections of military sites. Iran also has refused to fully account for its past nuclear-weapons work.

Israeli intelligence discovered last year from a trove of Iranian documents (the “Iran nuclear archive”) the existence of a secret atomic warehouse in Tehran that may have contained 300 tons of equipment and 15 kilograms of radioactive material. Rouhani’s threats are therefore absurd because he is threatening to withdraw from an ineffective nuclear agreement that Iran is already cheating on.

Iran’s attempt to blackmail Europe over President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA is also likely to backfire. An EU statement issued today said, “We reject any ultimatums and we will assess Iran’s compliance on the basis of Iran’s performance regarding its nuclear-related commitments.” Rouhani’s ultimatum will alienate European leaders who were already concerned about Iran’s belligerent behavior, including its troop presence in Syria, meddling in Iraq and Yemen, and sponsorship of terrorism.

In response to Iranian assassination squads operating in Europe to kill Iranian dissidents, the European Union imposed sanctions on Iran in January 2019, the first EU sanctions since the JCPOA was implemented. The EU is also considering sanctioning Iran over its ballistic-missile tests. Rouhani’s blackmail threat and new reports that Iran is planning attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East could push Europe closer to the Trump administration.

Iran’s recent threats and alleged plans to attack U.S. interests reflect the success of President Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy on Iran. U.S. sanctions have isolated Iran and deprived its ruling mullahs of funds to spend on the military, terrorism, and meddling in regional disputes. The sanctions also have caused Iran’s oil exports to drop to about 1.3 million barrels a day, down from 2.8 million before the U.S. left the JCPOA. Iran’s oil exports probably will drop much further due to the Trump administration’s recent decision to end all exemptions to U.S. oil sanctions. Iran’s economy is expected to shrink by 6 percent in 2019 after having shrunk 3.9 percent in 2018. Inflation could reach 50 percent this year.

At the same time, President Trump remains open to dialogue with Iranian leaders. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a list of twelve U.S. requirements for a new agreement with Iran on nuclear and regional issues in a May 2018 speech at the Heritage Foundation. So far, Iranian officials have shown no interest in dialogue with the U.S. and are sticking to hostile rhetoric to divide and threaten America.

While a new agreement that addresses the full range of threats from Iran is not on the horizon, the current maximum-pressure strategy has yielded many important achievements, including delegitimizing Iran’s nuclear program, strengthening America’s relationships with Israel and the Gulf states, and repairing the damage done to these relationships by the Obama administration. President Trump’s Iran policy has also revived longstanding U.S. policies to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles worldwide.

The bottom line: Terrorist and blackmail threats from Iran are not going to save Obama’s fraudulent nuclear deal or deter the U.S. from standing up to Iran’s ruling mullahs.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff.

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