Iran is going into this turn too fast and may fly out the other side – into unknown territory. They are no longer approaching international relations, their own national security, interests of their people or any reasonable reading of legal prerogatives with a sense of perspective or likely consequences. Whatever their disaffection for the West, they need to slow down.
Under pressure from well-earned economic sanctions, this totalitarian Islamic theocracy has threatened US interests and allies in the region, amped up civil war in Yemen, seized three foreign tankers, attempted to put limpet mines on others, shot down a US drone over international waters, and threatened international shipping in the globally vital Strait of Hormuz.
They next declared, in a curious and long-winded statement, broad national rights to the Gulf, breaches of international protocols that do not exist, indifference to US participation in the former nuclear accord, resolve not to negotiate with criminals, followed by willingness to negotiate if sanctions are lifted, “security for security,” “strait for a strait,” then “the mother of all peace” and “the mother of all wars.”
Mother, indeed! This is one reason why countries with a certain disposition, intent and illogic should never be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, or a way to deliver them. But the turn gets tighter, rhetoric more belligerent, emotions hotter, and illogic thicker …
On August 9th, as US and allied navies planned to safely escort foreign tankers through the Gulf, assuring international oil supplies are undisrupted, Iran again lashed out. This time, they threatened to take unspecified action if “Israel becomes involved in the US-led naval mission” to keep the Gulf safe from Iranian interceptions.
According to Iran, protecting international waterways constitutes a “clear threat” to its “security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” Only a country that has lost control of the situation, lost perspective, and faded off geopolitical bearings could claim that an international escort assuring an end to state-sanctioned piracy was a threat to its sovereignty.
But then this is Iran, top “state sponsor” of international Islamic terror, recurring source of instability across the region, promotor of sectarian violence in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, purveyor of domestic social, political and religious oppression, sworn enemy of Israel and the United States, clandestine developer of enriched uranium for weapons, and – a country that has just seized three international tankers, all with impunity.
What more should we expect? In short, more behavior unbecoming of civilized society, international order, and rule of law. In the end, European allies still in conversation with Iran, or perhaps Russia or China, should help that country get a grip.
The trajectory of their behavior in and beyond the Gulf is not keeping them on the road, not aligned with self-serving, sensible, sustainable, security-minded diplomacy – but winging them outward toward a conflict they cannot win, with an alliance of adversaries which could in short order render their present military infrastructure … impaired.
The goal should not be conflict, not for the US, European allies, Iran or their hot-and-cold international colleagues. The goal should be a tempering of the turn, a slowing of tempers, a sense of balance in the moment, which means a conscious diplomatic opening – a chance for Iran to reestablish bearings, international footing, and re-win lost respect.
Voluntarily ending their ill-starred nuclear ambitions, placing limits on ballistic missiles, and reducing their illegitimate footprint in places from Syria, Iraq and Yemen would open the door to diplomatic and economic reintegration in the world, demonstrate an interest in rule of law, and offer a way forward.
Short of that, Iran seems headed for the long grass, on a path not secure, sustainable, logical or faithful to anything their people might hope for. The time is right to slow down. They are clearly going into this turn too fast and are as likely as not to fly out the other side – into unknown territory.
And one final note. Throughout the process of trying to reorient Iran, restore a sense of fidelity to the international order, and lead this illegitimate theocracy back to international norms – President Trump has demonstrated admirable resolve and restraint. He has neither over nor under reacted. While restraint may end, Iran has time to come to the table. For all concerned, that would be advisable. Someone needs to take the wheel.