August 9, 2017
Iran’s recent aggression toward US forces in the Persian Gulf may be part of a strategy among the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline elements to goad Trump into a rash decision on the nuclear deal that earns them a political payday.  

On August 8, Iran flew a drone within one hundred feet of a US fighter jet attempting to land aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. The US F/A-18 was forced to change course to avoid the unarmed drone. This was the third incidence of unprofessional Iranian behavior toward US forces in the Gulf in as many weeks, following two buzzing incidents involving the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Navy on July 25 and 29.

In light of Trump’s antagonistic view of Tehran and his outspoken criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, notably expressed days before the first buzzing, the three naval incidents raise questions as to why Iran is provoking the United States in the Gulf.

One possibility is that, given political dynamics in Iran and the United States, these incidents are part of a sustained effort by Iran’s hardliners to increase tensions with the Trump administration. These hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his clerical supporters, the IRGC, and the judiciary, could see an opportunity to leverage Trump’s well-publicized aspirations for doing away with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the landmark nuclear deal between the P5+1 countries and Iran.

Trump has said in interviews that he does not want to recertify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal when it comes up for review in October, despite the contradictory opinions of his top national security officials. And, even though US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and others in the administration hope to maintain the nuclear deal, they have spoken publicly about how Iran has violated the spirit of the agreement through its involvement in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as its asymmetrical incidents in the Gulf. Whether McMaster’s statement is a genuine sentiment or an attempt to appear closer to Trump’s line of thinking, the tough message clearly goes against a reading of the JCPOA as a narrow nuclear agreement.

Trump’s statements and his team’s rhetoric play into the hands of Iran’s hawkish power centers, and may be fueling a feedback loop of IRGC events. Hardliners can hope that a steady drumbeat of irresponsible, high-profile IRGC incursions against US naval forces in the Gulf will provoke the Trump administration to withdraw from the JCPOA, attracting international condemnation of the United States and simultaneously weakening moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other domestic proponents of engagement with the West.

Elected to his second term but seen as under-delivering on the economic benefits he promised Iran would see from the nuclear agreement, Rouhani finds himself under immense pressure from the hardline establishment since his May 20 re-election.

Rouhani’s brother was arrested in July on corruption charges at the direction of Iran’s judiciary in a move seen by some as retaliation for Rouhani’s electoral victory. Further, Rouhani consulted Khamenei closely over cabinet minister picks in an attempt to lessen the hardline pressure on himself, disappointing supporters who hoped his cabinet would include the female and younger representatives who embraced him in his re-election campaign. Instead, Rouhani appointed an all-male cabinet spanning the political spectrum, only later appointing three female vice presidents following public criticism.

These signs point to a president who, if not necessarily bowed by Iran’s hardliners, is looking to pragmatically consolidate his gains and prioritize growing the economy over social or foreign policy reforms. Rouhani’s firm economic focus has effectively ceded security and foreign policy decisions to the IRGC, which reports to Khamenei. However, Rouhani’s economic agenda and his political standing could be further undermined if the United States were to drop out of the JCPOA.

In this scenario, the Trump administration could attempt to impose additional unilateral and secondary sanctions on Iran. Though it would be unable to rally the almost universal sanctions it used to bring Iran to the nuclear negotiating table under the Obama administration, the United States could still make doing business with Iran extremely difficult for eager European companies, and would almost certainly deter the investments from banks necessary for serious economic growth. Iran’s hardliners would benefit on the domestic scene by pointing to the ineffectiveness of the moderate Rouhani’s economic policies and, at the same time, see diminished European support for US efforts to tackle the IRGC’s actions abroad.

Iran would also have two bedeviling policy options from a US perspective. It could use Trump’s abandonment of the deal as an excuse to restart its nuclear program; or, by maintaining the agreement framework with Russia, China, and other JCPOA signatories, it could diplomatically isolate the United States.

The Trump administration is in a delicate dance with Iran. Given the antagonistic rhetoric emanating from both Washington and Tehran, it is not inconceivable that another IRGC-instigated incident in the Gulf could push Trump closer to abandoning the JCPOA.

As many have noted, the Trump administration would be well-served to forget about ditching the deal and to focus instead on rallying its regional partners against Iran’s destabilizing activities. The White House should examine the credibility of such prospects to counter Iran’s non-nuclear ambitions rather than being goaded into what would inevitably be a nuclear disaster.

Owen Daniels is assistant director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Follow him on Twitter @OJDaniels.

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