A Path to War With Iran

How Washington’s Escalation Could Lead to Unintended Catastrophe

Iran's Revolutionary Guards fire missiles during a war game near the holy city of Qom, November 2006 Fars News / Reuters

When President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last May, many critics argued that he risked setting off a chain of events that could lead to war. The nuclear deal wasn’t perfect, supporters of the deal acknowledged, but if the United States precipitously walked away and the deal collapsed, Iran might resume its nuclear enrichment program, and to stop it, the United States would end up with no option but to use force. This in turn could ignite a wider conflagration. But administration officials and other opponents of the deal dismissed such concerns—even as they insisted that in the agreement’s absence, the best way to block Iran’s nuclear program was with the “credible military option.”

Now the inevitable escalation cycle seems well under way. As part of its “maximum pressure” campaign, in the past month alone the United States has designated the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist group; ended the waivers that allowed a small number of countries to purchase Iranian oil despite U.S. sanctions; announced additional sanctions designed to cripple the country’s economy; and even deployed an aircraft carrier strike group and B-52 bombers to the region to send “a clear and unmistakable message” to the Iranian regime not to challenge the United States. 

Predictably, Iran has responded not by caving to U.S. demands (let alone collapsing) but with a pressure campaign of its own. On May 8, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would suspend compliance with parts of the nuclear deal and would withdraw entirely if Europe did not find a way to deliver economic benefits to Iran within 60 days—something nearly impossible to achieve. Four days later, four Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates were sabotaged with explosives, and two days after that drones crashed into Saudi oil facilities, causing explosions and shutting down a pipeline. No Iranian role in these events has been proved, but

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