As Iran seeks negotiating leverage, risks of miscalculation multiply
Iran's latest escalation — exceeding a key limitation of the 2015 nuclear agreement — continues its calculated, 2-pronged strategy to ratchet up pressure on the U.S.
The big picture: In the past 2 months, Iran or its proxies have allegedly attacked 6 oil tankers, shot down 2 U.S. drones and struck Saudi oil infrastructure. Meanwhile, Iran has taken a step-by-step approach to violating its commitments under the nuclear deal, provoking international condemnation and raising the odds of confrontation.
Details: Iran’s nuclear and regional actions have 3 goals:
- Increase costs for the U.S., to deter further pressure or attack by demonstrating willingness to hit back.
- Receive economic concessions from the remaining signatories to the nuclear deal (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the EU), such as purchases of Iranian oil.
- Build leverage for future talks, even if Trump is reelected but especially if a Democrat succeeds him.
Between the lines: Iran’s steps have been calibrated to avoid the immediate collapse of the nuclear agreement or a military response from the U.S. or Israel.
- The attacks in the Gulf did not result in loss of life, and Iran’s nuclear steps are all reversible. Tehran is building leverage, not a bomb.
But, but, but: Despite Iran’s deliberate approach, the danger of miscalculation is high.
- As Iran racks up nuclear deal violations, it risks pushing away its European friends — not necessarily into the arms of the Trump administration, but toward the conclusion that the nuclear deal is not worth saving.
- As Tehran turns up the temperature in the region, the greatest risk is the killing of a U.S. soldier or diplomat. Even a president who campaigned on ending U.S. wars in the Middle East would be hard-pressed not to respond militarily.
Henry Rome is an Iran analyst at Eurasia Group.