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Opinion: Iran's Aggression Continues Even Amid Coronavirus And 'Maximum Pressure'

In this Wednesday photo made available by U.S. Navy, Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels sail close to U.S. military ships in the Persian Gulf near Kuwait. Eleven Iranian naval vessels made "dangerous and harassing" maneuvers near U.S. ships in the Gulf on Wednesday, U.S. officials said. Iranian officials did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
U.S. Navy via AP
In this Wednesday photo made available by U.S. Navy, Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels sail close to U.S. military ships in the Persian Gulf near Kuwait. Eleven Iranian naval vessels made "dangerous and harassing" maneuvers near U.S. ships in the Gulf on Wednesday, U.S. officials said. Iranian officials did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

Ariane Tabatabai (@ArianeTabatabai) is an adjunct senior research scholar at the Columbia University School of Public and International Affairs.

Colin P. Clarke (@ColinPClarke) is a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Politics and Strategy.

In the early days of January, President Trump authorized the killing of Iran's top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, citing the need to reestablish deterrence after an Iranian proxy in Iraq killed an American contractor. Yet months later — and under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic — Iran hawks in the Trump administration, and their cheerleaders in Washington, continue to argue that their approach is working. But the continued escalation by Iran and its proxies in the region suggests otherwise.

On Wednesday, 11 Iranian naval vessels aggressively veered close to five American military vessels transiting the Persian Gulf, according to United States Central Command. This is hardly an isolated incident. Throughout the second half of 2019, Iran took a number of actions aimed at increasing the cost of the Trump administration's so-called "maximum pressure" campaign, which the president introduced after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran's actions have included attacks on oil production facilities and shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula and proxy attacks in Iraq, working through groups like Kataib Hezbollah and others.

President Trump appeared reluctant and unable to formulate a coherent strategy in the face of this escalation, while Tehran continued to push the envelope. Finally, the escalation culminated in a proxy attack in Iraq, leading to the death of a U.S. contractor in late 2019. And in the early days of 2020, the United States went from 0 to 100 when President Trump authorized the killing of Soleimani. At the time, we and many other experts warned that far from ending the escalation, this would lead to another cycle of violence, which would largely play out in Iraq and the Gulf.

But when Iran launched its initial response in January, hitting two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, Iran hawks claimed that critics were blowing the threat out of proportion. After all, Iran appeared done. Deterrence was restored. After this week's incident with the Iranian naval vessels, former national security adviser John Bolton tweeted, "We have been too lenient in responding to these incidents - that must change. US must not be passive but act to re-establish deterrence." But if Iran has been deterred, why does it continue to engage in offensive actions throughout the region?

Recent events clearly demonstrate that Iran has not been cowed and, to be sure, Tehran never planned to capitulate while the United States continued to implement its maximum pressure strategy and impose sanctions. Instead, the regime was carefully planning and executing a strategy based on calculated and calibrated actions. And the outbreak of a pandemic provides Iran with some opening. Iran is eager to distract from its own botched response to COVID-19, which has cost thousands of Iranian lives and laid bare the regime's incompetence.

It's also aware that the U.S. government is struggling with its own management of the disease and that President Trump wouldn't be eager to get tangled into another conflict now. In March, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq launched attacks and killed two Americans. Despite having drawn a red line a number of times, the administration didn't react — even though just two months prior, the killing of a single American had led the U.S. to take out a top Iranian military commander.

Far from restoring deterrence, the incoherent messages and inchoate strategy emanating from Washington seem to have signaled to Iran that it can keep dialing up the violence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region. To make matters worse, America has isolated itself rather than expand and leverage its partnerships to contain Iran. This has further emboldened rather than confined the Islamic republic.

Few would argue that the United States should ignore continued Iranian provocations. However, pushing for anything resembling a regime change in Iran, whether deliberate or unintended, would lead to a failed state sandwiched between two others — Iraq and Afghanistan — especially during a pandemic. The result would be a belt of instability that could convulse the entire region and have massive spillover effects. Yet, this is precisely the approach advocated by some within the administration and outside government (encouraged by members of the Iranian opposition in the diaspora whose intent is to topple the regime in Tehran on America's dime).

The U.S. should follow a more measured approach than targeting Iran's military officers. Put simply, the administration needs to find a middle ground between eschewing action while Iran targets American assets and forces in the region and responding disproportionately to the point where Iran feels compelled to further escalate. Critically, the administration must formulate a cohesive message to Iran's leaders and seek openings to deescalate tensions when they appear. Consistently working with U.S. partners in the region and allies in Europe (rather than undermining their efforts) is also key to ending the violence.

Outside of the true believers in the administration that use any Iranian action, or lack thereof, as "proof" that maximum pressure is working, few objective observers of the region see Iran's aggression attenuated. The coronavirus pandemic may ultimately limit Tehran's regional ambitions, perhaps forcing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to pursue more modest objectives. Still, Iran is determined to extend its influence in Iraq and work behind the scenes to eject U.S. forces. And the revolving door of Iraqi prime ministers shows that Iran still holds sway in Iraqi politics.

Iran's primary rival for regional hegemony, Saudi Arabia, is dealing with its own fallout from the coronavirus, with infections reported in the royal family. Moreover, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's foolhardy oil price skirmish with Moscow backfired, contributing to domestic economic issues in the kingdom, which may curtail its own adventurism to focus on dealing with internal challenges.

Every country is grappling with the coronavirus in one form or another. So is Iran, which has itself been devastated by the pandemic. And while many would suspect that a country suffering from economic disaster and a major health emergency would be unable to focus on much else, Iran's proxy forces give it an option to continue its efforts to compel the United States to reduce its presence in the region.

For Iran hawks, the maximum pressure campaign itself is a tautology. If the Iranian regime's aggression increases, it means that maximum pressure is working and the solution is more of it. If the regime's aggression decreases, it is allegedly proof of the wisdom of maximum pressure.

But foreign policy is about more than smoke and mirrors. And just like the United States' failed response to the coronavirus, meeting the legitimate challenge posed by Iran is not a public relations problem to be solved, or a story to be spun. It requires a clear strategy with the resources to back it up.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ariane Tabatabai
Colin P. Clarke