Rarely has a foreign country seemed so eager to get bombed by the United States as Iran does right now.
In its latest provocation, Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. It wasn’t a subtle operation. Revolutionary Guard forces rappelled onto the tanker from a helicopter, and if you have any doubt, it was all captured on videotape.
The act raised the stakes in the regime’s confrontation with the West. After the last round, when the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone, President Trump ordered a retaliatory strike that he abruptly cancelled, citing his fears of disproportionate casualties. Our natural instinct would be to hit Iran hard for its depredations and to establish a deterrent against such attacks before they get worse. But in this case, Iran clearly wants to provoke a reaction, which suggests the administration’s more cautious, “rope-a-dope” approach may be the right one.
Skeptics doubted that the administration’s unilateral sanctions could truly bite after the nuclear deal opened Iran for business with Europe. They were wrong. The oil embargo and banking sanctions, imposed after Trump pulled out of the deal, have been cratering the Iranian economy. The regime’s aggressions are an attempt to find a way out of the economic punishment.
The mullahs hope to exploit daylight between the Europeans and the United States (although poking the British won’t advance that goal) and to send a message to the White House that its pressure campaign doesn’t come without costs. Tehran also has begun breaching nuclear limits imposed under the Iran deal, another front in an effort to spook the West into rallying around the Iran deal and convincing Trump to relent.
What to do now? The administration should obviously render whatever assistance the British may request. It should continue to send more forces into the region as a message of resolve, and to work with allies to better secure shipping in the Strait. It should ratchet up the pressure campaign against Tehran, and revoke the remaining waivers that allow the Europeans to cooperate with Iran’s purportedly peaceful nuclear program.
It is quite possible that Iran considers its provocations a prelude to another nuclear negotiation. For his part, Trump continues to dangle the prospects of talks, even blessing diplomatic outreach by Senator Rand Paul. But the regime has a strong incentive to try to wait Trump out and hope the election of a pro-deal Democrat delivers what it wants without any more trouble. Perhaps the Iranians believe that Trump getting embroiled in a conflict advances that goal. Regardless, they obviously want to escape from the box that they are in, and Trump shouldn’t let them.