The level of instability present in the Gulf today is unsustainable, dangerous, and undoubtedly the creation of an increasingly desperate Iranian regime. Tehran has long favored asymmetric attacks that are difficult to factually tie to them or assaults conducted through proxies.
Until the most recent shoot down of an unmanned US aircraft on June 20, Iran had achieved a certain level of success in creating some doubt as to who was behind the recent attacks on six oil tankers in the Gulf and an oil pipeline and civilian airport in Saudi Arabia. The attacks, conducted either by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or proxy Houthi rebels in Yemen, continue to destabilize the region and pressurize oil prices.
The US policy of exerting maximum pressure on the Iranian regime still lacks sufficient coherency because it does not—at least publicly—lay out a path for success. If the US hopes that the policy will lead to changes in Iran’s malign behavior, it must provide a plan that ties improved behavior to a reduction in sanctions and the granting of oil waivers. A policy that is all stick and no carrot has not been, and will not be successful.
Regardless of the shortcomings in current US policy, the high tensions that exist in the Gulf region today are largely of Iran’s making. The attacks on shipping, infrastructure, and surveillance aircraft have undeniable Iranian fingerprints on them, but it remains unclear as to what effect the regime is trying to generate. Iran could be motivated by a desire to retaliate against the maximum pressure policy—if they cannot export petroleum products, they will make it difficult and perilous for others to do so—or they could be attempting to separate the interests of the Europeans, the United States, and major petrol importers such as China, Japan, and South Korea. No matter Tehran’s motivation, the attacks risk an escalation that could damage the global economy and ultimately prove devastating to Iran.
Assuming that assertions by Iran and the US that neither country desires to enter into a war are true, the time has come to forge a diplomatic way ahead. The recent aborted US strike on May 20 is stark evidence of the volatility present in the region and demonstrates how quickly and easily the situation could deteriorate into a conflict that no nation claims to want, and no nation can afford.
Iran recently announced that it was increasing the amount of uranium it was enriching, opened the possibility that they may be willing to enrich to near weapons grade, and admitted that it would soon exceed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) limit they were allowed to possess. These actions—much like the kinetic terror campaign it is now conducting in the Gulf—are almost certainly designed to isolate the US from Europe and other nations that might contribute to a diplomatic solution.
It’s time for Europe to decide how it intends to proceed in helping ease tensions in the Gulf and contributing to the negotiation of a new deal that addresses the shortcomings of the JCPOA to a degree of certainty that is acceptable to all sides, but, most importantly, is an agreement that can achieve US Senate ratification. The true flaw of the JCPOA was not that it did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or malign activity, but rather that it was an agreement that could not attain approval in the Senate. Because the JCPOA was never submitted to Congress, walking away from it could be easily accomplished through executive action. The world should expect better and the Europeans can help craft a more useful and comprehensive agreement. It’s nearly impossible to imagine Russia being helpful, but they can assist by not being unhelpful, as they so often have been in the region since the start of the Syrian civil war. China, a key JCPOA participant, can little tolerate continued instability in the Gulf—their main source of energy—and should be motivated to quietly help negotiate a more acceptable arrangement.
New negotiations will need to be structured differently than the JCPOA and should occur in a much less public fashion, but will need to be a negotiation where all parties see benefit. While many neo-conservatives in the US government see an opportunity to craft an agreement that starts the Iranian regime on a path toward their demise, it’s not reasonable to assume the regime will agree to that. Negotiations are only successful when every side sees benefit in making an agreement—that is, after all, the art of the deal.
In every challenge there is opportunity and the unfortunate situation in the Gulf presents an opportunity to get a more far reaching and satisfying agreement that provides appropriate oversight of Iran’s nuclear program so that it does not become a nuclear power, curtails Iranian ballistic missile development, and diminishes Iranian malign activity throughout the Middle East. In return, Tehran can and should expect a path that finally brings them into the community of nations—free to trade and interact within the global marketspace.
Negotiations will not be possible until Iran stops attacking shipping and other infrastructure. Neither the US, Europeans nor any well-intended nation can start on the difficult diplomatic road ahead until Tehran stands down from its ill-considered actions of the last several weeks. The current level of tension should also be enough to unite the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in common cause—giving each GCC member an opportunity to put differences aside—if only until the crisis has passed. The Omanis and Kuwaitis have historically provided communication routes between Iran and other GCC nations, but their ability to do so would be enhanced by a united GCC.
Despite current high tensions in the Gulf, there remains a window of opportunity to forge an agreement that all parties find acceptable. Continued attacks by Iran will reduce the opportunity, but a concerted global effort focused on reducing their malign behavior while providing a viable path for success seems to be a better idea than continuing the brinksmanship currently at play.
John Miller is a retired vice admiral in the US Navy who most recently served as commander of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and head of US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT). He is president of the Fozzie Miller Group and an associate fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, where he focuses on nuclear policy issues. Follow him on Twitter: @FozzieMiller.