Trump Came Far Too Close to War. He Must De-escalate Further: Scrap New Sanctions and Row Back to the Iran Deal | Opinion

Last week's near catastrophe between the United States and Iran was a double-edged sword. On the positive side, both countries concluded that continuing down the path of military escalation was a dead-end journey. But the tension in the U.S.-Iran relationship—defined by 40 years of covert operations, diplomatic isolation, and pervasive mistrust—is still very much in play.

President Donald Trump made the right call on the night of January 7 to not retaliate against Iran for its ballistic missile attack against two bases in Iraq housing U.S. forces. The Iranian attack itself was a response to the earlier U.S. drone strike that killed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. The limited scope of the missile strike, the absence of U.S. casualties, and the fact Tehran warned the Iraqi government prior to the operation all suggest Iran was more interested in a symbolic retaliation than an escalation. Trump, it appears, got the message and acted with appropriate restraint.

Unfortunately, in announcing additional economic sanctions the morning after, the administration risks destroying whatever slim opportunity exists for de-escalation. On January 10, President Trump signed an executive order that would penalize any individual, entity, or government who in any way transacts, finances, or deals with Iran's construction, manufacturing, mining, and textile industries. This is a mistake with dangerous repercussions, for it increases the probability of another incident like last week's flare-up. As long as maximum pressure remains the bedrock of the U.S. strategy, U.S.-Iran relations will remain a powder-keg ready to explode at the smallest sign of trouble.

The Trump administration made a bet in May 2018 that withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, reimposing financial sanctions previously lifted under the deal, and squeezing Tehran's finances harder over time would force Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to succumb to Washington's long list of demands. The assumption ingrained in the U.S. policymaking process was a simple one: The less cash the Iranians have in their bank accounts, the more desperate they will be to capitulate to Washington's terms.

The assumption was proven incorrect almost immediately. Iran didn't cave as so many predicted, but retaliated in ever more aggressive ways. Tehran methodically loosened its compliance with the nuclear deal by exceeding the limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium and reinstalling more advanced centrifuges. More U.S. sanctions, particularly on Iran's crude exports, convinced the regime that harsher countermeasures were required. Ships sailing through the Persian Gulf were mysteriously sabotaged with explosives. Some vessels were taken into Iranian custody and held for weeks at a time. Last September, cruise missiles allegedly launched from Iranian soil struck Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, taking half the Kingdom's production offline. Tehran's ballistic missile strike in Iraq last week was just the latest in a chain of events that started shortly after Washington placed all its chips in the maximum pressure basket.

Iran's behavior over the past 20 months should not be a surprise. The Islamic Republic has been consistent over its 40-year history in refusing to be coerced or dictated to by foreign powers. Capitulating is out of the question for the country's leaders. From Iran's perspective, Washington's maximum pressure campaign is a fancy way of demanding Tehran sign a surrender document.

What exactly has the United States gained from its maximum pressure strategy? There isn't much to brag about. In fact, the results are dismal: an Iran churning more enriched uranium every month; the Middle East aflame in various proxy conflicts; no negotiation in sight; and a spiral of escalation that last week almost drew the United States into another major war in the region.

A doubling down on the maximum pressure strategy as the White House is pursuing, however, is a dangerous cocktail that over time will eventually lead Washington and Tehran back to the same, dark place. Maximum pressure and de-escalation are incompatible.

The question then becomes: what should Washington do going forward?

First, the United States needs to keep the Iran problem in perspective and not overreact to every Iranian action. The Islamic Republic is but one power in the region whose economy is roughly the size of Michigan. Its air force is dilapidated, its regular army is sub-par, and its political leadership is old, tired, and frail. Concerns about Tehran becoming the hegemon of the Middle East are vastly inflated.

Second, the White House needs to put diplomacy back where it belongs: At the top of the policy toolkit. Today, administration officials talk about their willingness to engage in unconditional diplomacy with Iran without doing anything at all to move the diplomatic ball down the field. Rather than withholding a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Washington should be seizing any opportunity available that enhances dialogue and allows both the U.S. and Iran to cut through the fog of misinformation.

Third, the administration should get back to the May 2018 status-quo, before Washington walked away from the nuclear deal. The JCPOA was not an ideal agreement, but it did temporarily remove the biggest dispute off the table and provide a foundation for an otherwise rocky relationship. The White House should float a pragmatic offer to the Iranians: If Tehran returns to full compliance with the JCPOA and stops its escalation in the Gulf, the U.S. will also return to compliance and lift the sanctions that have cut Tehran's oil exports by 80 percent. This arrangement is the quickest way to stabilize U.S.-Iran relations and create the momentum that could open up more comprehensive negotiations on other issues.

Most critically, however, little would do more for de-escalation than removing U.S. forces from Iran's limited reach. Our military presence in the region has provided a shooting target, putting our servicemembers at risk long after the achievable mission—the defeat of the ISIS caliphate—was completed. The last thing the U.S. needs is for maximum pressure to turn into military calamity.

Last week's war scare should serve as a wake-up call: if both don't act with restraint, the cycle of escalation between the U.S. and Iran could end in violence. With the situation now somewhat de-escalated, the U.S. has a chance to reassess its strategy before it results in any more damage.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​