Tougher sanctions bring U.S.-Iran showdown
The U.S. moved closer to direct confrontation with Iran this week as Tehran responded to tighter U.S. oil sanctions with a partial withdrawal from its 2015 nuclear accord. Iran announced it would begin stockpiling heavy water and enriched uranium, and threatened more dramatic steps—including resuming construction of a nuclear reactor—if other countries backed the U.S. effort to strangle oil exports. After U.S. intelligence found indications of an Iranian plan to target U.S. troops in the Gulf region, the U.S. ordered carrier and bomber strike groups to the Persian Gulf, further intensifying a campaign to put “maximum pressure” on Iran. In April, the U.S. branded Iran’s elite military group, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a terrorist organization, and ended sanctions waivers. Those 180-day dispositions had allowed eight countries, including China, India, Japan, and Turkey, to import Iranian oil. National security adviser John Bolton said the carrier group was intended “to send a clear and unmistakable message” that “any attack on the United States’ interests or those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his nation would begin reducing its “commitments” to the nuclear deal, and set a 60-day deadline for Europe to give Iran relief from sanctions and access to banking and oil markets. “We will not start breaching commitments and waging any war,” he said. “But we will not give in to bullying, either.” The Trump administration pulled out of the deal one year ago, but European nations say Iran has remained in compliance.
What the editorials said
“The Trump administration is playing a dangerous game in Iran,” said The New York Times. Its pressure tactics have already pushed Iran into recession and its inflation rate to nearly 40 percent. The decision to brand the IRGC a terrorist group was made over Pentagon objections—and prompted Iran to slap “the same designation on American forces in the Middle East.” The risk of hostilities is rising, creating more need for a diplomatic channel just as the administration closes off any way to talk.
“Trump’s strategy of containment and financial pressure” is working, said The Wall Street Journal. But if history is any guide, Iran will sooner or later test his resolve. That is why Bolton was justified in issuing stark warnings that give Iran no room for misinterpretation.
What the columnists said
“The potential for escalation is real,” said Kathy Gilsinan and Krishnadev Calamur in TheAtlantic.com. The Iran-aligned Shiite militias in Yemen and the Gaza Strip can directly threaten the U.S. and its allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel with rocket attacks, as they did in September when they struck the U.S. consulate in Basra and embassy in Baghdad. What makes this dynamic even more combustible is both Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clearly stating this week that the U.S. will not differentiate between attacks from Iran’s proxies and those from Iran itself. If an attack takes place, said Pompeo, “by some third-party proxy, a militia group, Hezbollah—we will hold the Iranian leadership directly accountable.”
The nuclear deal was a disaster from the start, said Alex Titus in WashingtonExaminer.com. The Iranians got access to $100 billion in frozen oil revenue, and used it to bankroll “a host of bad actors” like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Hezbollah terrorists. And “because of the ‘sunset clauses’ in the deal, Iran can still build a nuclear bomb in due time.” There’s nothing to miss in the nuclear deal. Its policy of appeasement “led to chaos, not peace.”
What is the Trump administration’s goal? asked Stephen Walt in ForeignPolicy.com. Blackmail won’t get Iran to sign a new deal. And regime change is remote, since Iranians are “intensely patriotic” and will likely side with the mullahs against a bullying superpower. Hard-liners like Bolton and Pompeo could be trying to create a “pretext for preventive war” or simply to reduce Iran’s regional influence. But whacking Iran at every turn does nothing “to make Americans safer or more prosperous.” The U.S. has nothing to gain in a conflict. This is Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s fight—not America’s.