US-Iran standoff illustrates key foreign affairs lessons
In the long and tortured history of US-Iranian relations, chants of “Death to America” have become laughably commonplace and rightly ignored by our country.
But when officials recently received intelligence suggesting Iranian-backed forces might attack US personnel in and near Iraq with military or improvised ballistic missiles, it was a game-changer.
National Security Adviser John Bolton announced the United States was sending an aircraft carrier and Air Force bombers to the Persian Gulf so the military could respond quickly — and decisively — to any such attack. The Pentagon reportedly drafted plans for dispatching 120,000 troops.
The moves rattled the Iranians, one official in the region told me. They ratcheted up their own military posture, preferring to “die on our feet vs. die on our knees,” as the official put it.
Tensions remained perilously high until President Trump himself de-escalated the situation, saying he wanted the Iranians to call him. He even gave Swiss intermediaries a phone number.
Over the weekend, however, he reversed course, tweeting, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”
Amid this dangerous roller-coaster ride, there are several important takeaways:
I ntelligence collection has its limits. The United States, Israel, and some Arab countries have great technological and human intelligence-collection methods, but each has flaws and is susceptible to being played. The Iranians are aware they’re closely monitored, so it’s not beyond them to send out false flags. And why not? They can’t match the United States militarily or economically, but we closed our consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra last September after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iranian-backed militias fired three rockets near the facility. During this latest episode, the United States ordered the removal of its nonemergency government employees in the northern city of Erbil and the capital of Baghdad, all without a hostile shot. The Iranians may also be learning a lesson for themselves: Acts beyond idle chatter can have dangerous and unintended consequences
Proxies carry risks for all sides. Iran is famous for exporting terrorism and fomenting conflict through proxies, whether it’s Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or ad hoc armies in Iraq and Syria. But the Iranians should see, now, that being arm’s length from trouble doesn’t necessary keep them out of harm’s way. The United States, too, could learn something about the dangers of proxies. It’s unclear where the United States got the alarming — and potentially misleading — intelligence about Iran’s intentions. But Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — two countries with close ties to the Trump administration — also hate the Iranians, as does Israel, another close regional ally. Our country has to be wary of those who want us to do their bidding or harbor competing agendas.
Maximalism has its limits. The United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement even though it was unanimously backed by Russia, China, and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as the European Union. It then reimposed economic sanctions against Iran and, as part of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, Pompeo announced sanctions against third parties continuing to do business with Iran. The world is full of tough actors who only understand tough opponents, but the United States has taken a similar maximalist approach in North Korea, Venezuela, and even the Middle East peace process. To date, it has little to show for it and not many more peaceful options going forward.
Diplomacy has its merits. The United States has strained relations with many of its allies through acts such as abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, which I saw Secretary of State John Kerry negotiate firsthand in 2015. Key Europeans denied Pompeo a group photo op last week when he crashed their meeting in Brussels to update them on the situation with Iran. The British questioned the intelligence, the Spanish pulled their frigate from the US carrier strike group, and the Germans and Dutch suspended training troops in Iraq following our country’s military build-up. There is hardly a broad “coalition of the willing” waiting to join us in war with Iran, a country with a more formidable military and geography than President George W. Bush found when he invaded Iraq in 2003.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted Monday that “Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors have all gone,” before adding, “Try respect — it works.”
Respect, of course, is a two-way street, but both sides would be better served to follow Trump’s initial instinct and talk.
It’s the fount of diplomacy, and it’s the safest way to step back from this precipice.
Glen Johnson is a former Globe political reporter who was a senior communications official in the US State Department from 2013 to 2017. His book about diplomacy, “Window Seat on the World,” will be published in July.