On May 26, Greece—at the behest of the U.S. and EU—seized an Iranian tanker suspected of violating sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s oil exports. Tehran retaliated the next day by seizing two Greek tankers in the Persian Gulf. Herman Shelanski, Ari Cicurel, and Andrew Ghalili examine the incident’s implications:
Iran did what it always does when facing limited, merely economic pressure—it ramped up its own counterpressure; . . . whenever the United States has responded to Iranian malign activity with sanctions alone, or even limited use of force, Tehran sees a green light to escalate.
So far, Iran’s counterpressure strategy has largely succeeded. While President Joe Biden ordered airstrikes in Syria in February 2021 and again in Syria and Iraq in June 2021, in retaliation for attacks on U.S. personnel, Iranian-backed Shiite militias further escalated shortly afterward with no U.S. follow-up. This is not surprising, as decades of U.S. interactions with Iran show that only when Tehran perceives a threat of military action in response to each attack can its leadership be compelled to abandon regional aggression.
Without the backing of credible military options, U.S. efforts to bolster sanctions enforcement encourage further Iranian tit-for-tat counterpressure, especially at the negotiating table. Meanwhile, during the protracted, open-ended nuclear negotiations, Iran continues funding its proxies and regional aggression. A more assertive approach that both enforces existing sanctions and boosts military readiness, offers the best prospects for reducing instability.
What the United States urgently needs and has lacked is a comprehensive Plan B strategy, where the administration declares a “Biden Doctrine.” This strategy should state that the United States will use all elements of national power, including rigorous sanctions enforcement and military force, to defend vital interests in the Middle East, with the highest priority being preventing a nuclear Iran.