By Bonnie Kristian
May 19, 2020
Iranian naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman devolved into disaster Sunday afternoon when a missile from one Iranian ship accidentally struck another, killing 19 and injuring 15 more. The friendly-fire incident is the second large-scale, deadly error the Iranian military has made this year after it mistakenly shot down a passenger jet departing Tehran.
Now, as then, the situation is tragic but also instructive for U.S. foreign policy: “Firing at your own targets, whether military or civil, in such a short space of time, is not human error. It’s a catastrophic failure of management and command,” said Maziar Khosravi, an Iranian reformist-linked journalist. It’s indicative of how weak the regime in Tehran truly is — and how incapable it is of posing an existential threat to the United States. It’s a reminder that the only way Iran can reliably threaten American lives is if Washington keeps them within Iran’s limited reach in the Middle East.
Threat inflation has long been a dangerous feature of the conversation around Iran policy in Washington. That has held true amid the Trump administration, where Iran hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham vie for the president’s ear. “The threat streams from Iran against American interests are real and severe,” Graham claimed in a briefing last year. “I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe,” Sen. Tom Cotton once told Politico, “as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism” in Iran.
Cotton is correct in calling Tehran theocratic and despotic, and, though his assertion elsewhere that “there are no mythical moderates in this regime” isn’t true, that hard-line, anti-Washington voices dominate Iranian politics. But there are two glaring flaws in this framing: The first is a confusion of Tehran’s rhetoric with its actual military capability. The second is a perhaps willful refusal to recognize Washington’s role in pushing Iranian politics toward radicalism.
This week’s naval accident is a good counterexample to the rhetoric-capability confusion. It’s not the first accident with this class of ship, and it reiterates that Iran is a middling power, hemmed in by political and religious enemies in its region, and partnered with a declining Moscow unlikely to risk great power war on Tehran’s behalf. Iran’s very reputation as a state sponsor of terror is a sign of weakness, not strength. U.S. intelligence agencies have said for 13 years that Iran isn’t running a nuclear weapons program, and even Iran’s recent enrichment of enough uranium to make a single bomb is thought to be a negotiating strategy.
“We continue to assess that Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats reported to Congress in January 2019. However, “Iran almost certainly will continue to develop and maintain terrorist capabilities as an option to deter or retaliate against its perceived adversaries.”
Both these points are crucial to understand. Iran is not a nuclear power, and its conventional military strength is limited. The entire Iranian GDP is less than what the U.S. spends on the Pentagon’s annual budget. The Iranian military budget averages less than $20 billion a year and eats up 7.5% of Iranian GDP, nearly double the usual U.S. proportion. These realities limit Tehran’s ability to meaningfully threaten the U.S. No amount of chanting “Death to America” can change the fact that Iran’s military spending places enormous strain on its economy, meaning it can’t easily ramp up, and yet is still quite small.
Words can’t hurt us, and Iran’s sticks and stones are in short supply.
But Tehran can still do damage, and as Coats warned, it will seek “to deter or retaliate against its perceived adversaries.” The greatest perceived adversary is certainly Washington, a fear reinforced by regular regime change threats from the likes of Graham and Cotton, to say nothing of President Trump’s unconstitutional rejection (repeated in a veto last week) of all congressional assertions of authority over his ability to attack Iran.
U.S.-Iran history in the 20th century and two decades of U.S. military intervention in nearby nations (Iraq and Afghanistan border Iran; Syria and Yemen have Iran-linked forces fighting their civil wars) already had Iran on high alert over the possibility of such an attack. Then Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions. This counterproductive and inhumane (especially amid a pandemic) policy has put Trump’s goals for Iran more out of reach than before. It exacerbated Iranian troublemaking and undermined diplomacy. It has also given new political capital to hard-liners in Tehran, undercutting moderates.
U.S.-Iran relations are thus in a perilous escalatory cycle: Provocative words or attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East fuel threat inflation in Washington. Hawkish calls to strike Iran or even conduct regime change, backed by the economic damage of maximum pressure, increase Iranian alarm. Eager to prove it will not be cowed into compliance, Tehran responds by lashing out, and the cycle begins again.
We can break the cycle before it escalates into outright war. Washington must reject threat inflation and recognize that the only way Iran can pose a significant threat to Americans is if we prolong our litany of Middle East wars that ought to be ended anyway. U.S.-Iran relations may never be good, but they can be much better than this.