- - Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Trump administration is not trying to incite a war with Iran. It is trying to prevent Iran from doing something stupid that could lead to a real war. The sanctions that the president has levied on Iran are hurting, and Tehran doesn’t like it.

Iran’s ability to fund surrogates such as Hezbollah has been greatly diminished; as a result, their capacity to do Iran’s dirty work in the area of terrorism has diminished. Iranian oil exports have dropped dramatically, and the impact — as usual — is on the rank and file citizenry rather than the ayatollahs or the senior members of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Iran’s options are limited, but they are not non-existent. The first option is to enter into serious negotiations with the United States to eliminate its nuclear weapons program and cease its provocative use of terror in the region to further its foreign policy objectives.

Realistically, this isn’t going to happen any time soon no matter how much economic sanctions hurt. Until the Iranian street erupts in protest, the elites in Tehran will attempt to wait the Americans out in hope for an administration more tractable than the present one in Washington. Despite that, the Iranian leadership will continue to attempt to make its displeasure known, but its options for doing so are both extremely limited and dangerous.

The most serious option the Iranians have is to close the Straits of Hormuz. This is highly unlikely as it would represent an act of belligerency. Freedom of the seas has been a “go to war issue” for the United States since 1798, and Iran was the subject of very firm American kinetic action in the mid-1980s when it began attacking oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War. Worse still, a closure of the straits would severely limit Iran’s already diminished oil exports. That option is extremely unlikely.

Iran could attempt to sink or disable an American aircraft carrier, surface combatant or amphibious transport ship. It has worked on an anti-navy strategy for years and has the capability to use swarms of suicide boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, bombers and submarines to attempt to overwhelm U.S. naval defenses in the region. A successful attack might have some temporary prestige value, but the victory would almost certainly be pyrrhric. At a minimum, the U.S. military would systematically dismantle Iran’s coastal defenses, air force, and navy. This is another dead-end option.

If American intelligence is correct, and the Iranians are planning to use their surrogates to attack American facilities in the region or American citizens, the United States has signaled that there will be severe consequences to that option, even if the leadership in Tehran believes that it has kept its fingerprints off.

If that action includes U.S. attacks on the facilities of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps throughout Iran, the regime faces an existential threat to its ability to control the population. The IRGC is the hammer of the state; if its ability to keep the dissidents and ethnic/religious factions in line is severely weakened, the grip of the ayatollahs will be seriously threatened.

Sabotaging oil tankers and other regional economic targets is the moral equivalent of setting fire to a bag of poop on a neighbor’s doorstep, ringing the doorbell and running away. It is both childish and ineffectual.

From a non-kinetic standpoint, Iran has resumed the stockpiling of weapons-grade nuclear material. This is another very dangerous course of action. American hawks have long advocated a pre-emptive strike on Iranian facilities, but that is not the most dangerous threat. Three successive American administrations have successfully restrained Israel from acting unilaterally to take out Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but the Israelis have made it clear that they will act if they become convinced that Iran is close to a bomb.

You can have a nuclear weapon and you can threaten to incinerate Israel, but you can’t do both; the Israelis have a 100 percent track record on that score. In addition, to that, the residual radiation from such a strike would be a disaster for Iran and the region as a whole.

The Trump administration desires two things from Iran. First, it wants Tehran to seriously discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Second, Iran must cease being a malign actor in the region. The Obama administration made a bad deal on the first and punted on the second. Tehran is hoping to outwait Mr. Trump. If Tehran has guessed wrong, things can go very badly for them indeed. It is a huge gamble.

• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs

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