Why Is Iran Attacking Ships? Blame Trump's Coercive Diplomacy

"Maximum pressure" can backfire. This may be happening with Iran.

Centcom photo of the Japanese tanker Kokuka Courageous

Two questions have come to the fore since two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman almost two weeks ago: Who was responsible and why? The US and UK were quick to blame Iran, but there's been skepticism, explained well by DefenseOne. The US has posted videos of what it claims are Iranian Revolutionary Guard Core (IRGC) boats removing a purported mine shortly after the attack. As DefenseOne points out, however, there's no way of telling from the video who sent the boat or what, if anything, it was removing from the ship's hull. In the end, the evidence is unlikely ever to be conclusive: It's an intelligence assessment, which is based on probabilities, not certainties. The proximity to Iran, the type of boat, and the diplomatic backdrop all support the proposition that it was Iran, however, and there's no clear sign that it was someone else. Assuming it is Iran, then, why would Iran do it?

Julian Lee of Bloomberg and others have argued Iran has "little to gain" from the attacks, but this betrays a misunderstanding of the forces of coercive diplomacy. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) just over a year ago and has since applied increased sanctions against Iran. Ostensibly, this was to encourage Iran to accept tighter constraints on its nuclear program or perhaps the program's outright abolition. The real reason may, in fact, be domestic politicking: Being tough on Iran plays well with Trump's base.

Either way, the hoped-for outcome has always been somewhere between "highly unlikely" and "pure fantasy": Iran sees nuclear weapons as the ultimate safeguard against an attack by the US or its allies. At a time of easing tensions and with the carrot of an improved economy and relations with the West, Iran could just about be convinced to shelve its program temporarily. Now, rising tensions and tough sanctions suggest to Iran that it needs nuclear weapons more than ever. Trump has offered Iran little in return for compliance—and even if he did, his capriciousness means any promises he makes are not credible. Moreover, giving in to his demands could simply lead to further demands. From Iran's perspective, it must not comply with US demands, no matter the cost.

How does someone respond to attempts to coerce them to do something they see as impossible? They search, desperately, for another way—and find it in unlikely places. Solutions that would otherwise seem crazy or futile suddenly appear reasonable. A prime example of this was Egypt's 1973 war against Israel, which was seen as invincible. Many observers on the Israeli side thought Egypt could not possibly mean to attack because it could not win. They failed to comprehend that the situation (in particular, Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula), was so unacceptable to Egypt's leaders and populace that they were compelled to take action—even if it meant losing. In the court of public opinion, it would have been better to fight and lose than simply to acquiesce to Israel's presence on Egyptian territory.

This sort of "win or die trying" mentality may have set in among the upper echelons of Iran's government. Iran surely does not want a war with the US and knows it would lose, but it may believe it can improve its situation by taking risks. In any case, it cannot accept the current situation of "maximum pressure" from an untrustworthy opponent offering no real prospect of ending that pressure. It is therefore not so much that Iran has nothing to gain from attacks, but that, from its perspective, it has nothing to lose. Opponents who have nothing to lose are dangerous and unpredictable. An American leadership that creates such a condition among its opponents is reckless.


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