With each new day, it seems Iran is in the headlines for another act of belligerence. On Thursday, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down an American surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. The incident came one week after the Trump administration blamed Iran for attacking two oil tankers—one Japanese, the other Norwegian—with mines in the Gulf of Oman. On Wednesday, an unidentified militia fired a rocket at a compound in southern Iraq used by ExxonMobil and other international oil firms. The incident was the fourth time in less than a week that rockets have been fired at facilities where Americans are stationed in Iraq, and the eighth rocket attack on American-linked facilities this year. While it is unclear who launched the most recent assault, experts have suspected that an Iranian-backed militia is responsible. There is certainly good reason to suspect Iran. The strike came two days after rockets were fired at Camp Taji in Iraq, north of Baghdad, a facility where American soldiers are present and which Iranian proxies attacked on May 1. The United States also believes that Iran or its proxies were behind an unsuccessful rocket attack against the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad on May 19. Beyond Iraq, Iran's atomic agency announced Monday that Tehran will exceed the limit that the nuclear deal places on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by next Thursday, and also threatened to blow past the level to which the deal allows Iran to enrich uranium. And these are just some of the recent incidents involving, or believed to involve, Iran!
On the surface, these acts of aggression seem disparate. Attacks near the Strait of Hormuz, suspected rocket attacks in Iraq by proxy, illicit nuclear activity—how can all of this chaos be connected? But these incidents comprise a coherent Iranian effort to coerce the West into stopping, or opposing, the Trump administration's policy of exerting "maximum pressure" on the Islamic Republic. Sure, the intended victims are Western leaders and countries, not shop owners, and, yes, the objectives go beyond simply obtaining money, but this campaign is, fundamentally, a form of extortion similar to the mafia—give me what I want, or else I will make you. The seemingly disparate events of recent weeks should be understood as part of a single, broader effort. This way, one can maintain clarity and avoid getting too sucked into the day-to-day craziness of the news of the moment.
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For Iran, the idea is to scare the West—perhaps through nuclear threats or attacks on international shipping—into yielding. In this case, yielding means lifting or opposing American sanctions, but it can also mean returning to the nuclear deal or, perhaps, returning to negotiations in which Iran has greater leverage because the West blinked first, fearing the prospect of war. The term "West" is important here because Iran does not only want to spook President Trump and his principals, though the mullahs certainly want to do that. But Iran's extortion also targets other Western countries, especially those in Europe, which are hellbent on remaining in the nuclear deal. Iran hopes to break the Western alliance and sees the Europeans' determination to avoid conflict at nearly all costs as a weakness to exploit.
Iran also sees American analysts, journalists, and commentators, bolstered by like-minded allies in Congress, warning hysterically after every provocation that war is on the horizon. These voices, led by former officials in the Obama administration, have made clear they want the United States to return to the nuclear deal, to set the country back on the road toward rapprochement with Tehran. But returning to the nuclear deal, or perhaps to negotiations for a new deal out of fear of conflict, would be nothing less than submitting to Iran's extortion, a form of irredeemable appeasement that would only embolden Iran to continue its aggression. Why would Iranian leaders stop what is working well? Iran clearly thinks America is a paper tiger; otherwise it would not be so belligerent. The only way to stop this spiral is to show that the United States will not yield. Specific Iranian acts may require specific American responses, but, overall, the most important point is that the United States must continue to exert maximum pressure on Tehran. Reversing course can only have a deleterious effect and further embolden the mullahs. Yet Iranian leaders hear the reverberations of Ben Rhodes's echo chamber, a network of experts and journalists who praise the nuclear deal and vilify those who oppose it, and see prime targets for their extortion. They see Trump as someone who may yield on maximum pressure, but they know a Democrat elected president in 2020 will yield.
In this game of international extortion, however, the extortionist is not the one with the power. Rather, it's the target that has all the money and the much bigger guns. Iran should keep this in mind and remember that, when America flexes its muscles, the earth shakes. Iran must be made to see that it cannot extort the United States and benefit from its current method of escalation, and that it can only help itself through negotiations. That means continuing to sanction the hell out of the Islamic Republic and weaken Iranian power, all the while strengthening America's bargaining position for future talks. Iran will view anything else as a form of submission and continue to terrorize, unafraid of the consequences.