With each passing day, the United States and Iran draw each other deeper into conflict. So far, they have stopped short of war. But the likelihood of an armed conflict increases with every additional provocation, whether it is an attack on a civilian tanker ship or another round of sanctions. Both countries, with their all-or-nothing strategies, are to blame. President Donald Trump’s administration has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran built on suffocating economic sanctions and a de facto oil and gas embargo. Iran has pursued a maximum resistance strategy, escalating into attacks on shipping lanes, downing a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf, and rejecting out of hand all opportunities for de-escalatory talks with Washington. With both states unwilling to back down, the march toward war continues.
A DEEPER SOURCE OF CONFLICT
That relations could have deteriorated to this degree is remarkable. Only four years ago, Washington and Tehran signed a historic multilateral agreement that curtailed Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for U.S. sanctions relief. The deal didn’t end the mistrust between the two countries, nor did it solve long-standing disagreements about Iran’s foreign policy in the Middle East, but it created a much-needed mechanism for diplomatic engagement, which the deal’s proponents saw as necessary to avoid a war.
Trump was an outspoken critic of the deal on the campaign trail, and upon taking office, he began to ratchet up pressure on Tehran. For all its faults, the Trump administration at least seemed to grasp a crucial fact: although Iran’s nuclear program had become a focal point of U.S.-Iranian tensions, it was never the real source of acrimony between the two countries. The roots of those tensions lay deeper—in Iran’s support for militant groups at war with Israel, such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in its ties to enemies of the United States’ Gulf allies, such as the Houthis in Yemen. No less consequential was Iran’
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