June 24, 2019

How to Deescalate the Dangerous Iran Standoff

The “maximum pressure” campaign, initiated by the Trump Administration under the stewardship of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, has brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. While President Trump apparently reversed course on his decision to launch strikes following Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, the danger of the U.S. and Iran triggering an all out regional war remains imminent.

President Trump asserts he wishes to avoid a military confrontation with Iran. Yet his approach of piling on economic sanctions regardless of Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA lacks coherence or clarity and is highly unlikely to achieve its stated goal of Iranian surrender. Instead, it has led to an increasingly provocative Iranian response.

If the Trump Administration stays the course on maximum pressure, war is all but inevitable. With both sides now engaging in dangerous brinkmanship, the U.S. must take concrete steps immediately to avert another catastrophic American military intervention in the Middle East.

Abandon “Maximum Pressure” in Favor of Diplomatic Compromise

A new U.S. strategy on Iran that includes credible economic incentives must be pursued in order to convince Iran of the merits of negotiations. The U.S. should credibly signal that it will suspend sanctions imposed after May 2018 to provide space for de-escalation and credible incentive for negotiation. 

  • The Trump administration instigated a new escalation of tensions with Iran and isolation from its allies in May 2018 when it decided to abandon Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, and began its “maximum pressure” sanctions policy in violation of the multilateral accord.
  • After a year of upholding its nuclear commitments in spite of the U.S. withdrawal and “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran is now taking limited, reversible steps to halt compliance with aspects of the JCPOA. This includes a decision to surpass the JCPOA’s limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile on June 27th.
  • Iranian leaders have stressed that they won’t negotiate under pressure and, as recent actions show, have begun increasing their own leverage. Meanwhile, President Trump has exhausted all U.S. pressure tools short of war.
  • Trump must signal to the Iranians that he is prepared to exchange pressure relief in return for pressure relief if he truly wants to get a deal and avoid a disastrous war. To jumpstart negotiations, the U.S. should signal that it will suspend sanctions imposed in violation of the JCPOA. Once both sides have returned to their obligations under the JCPOA, negotiations can begin on building on the deal.

Reestablish Communication Channels with Iran

The U.S. and Iran must reestablish the permanent communication channel that existed under the previous administration. Doing so is important to guard against a spiraling tit for tat and enable a dedicated channel for deconfliction and deescalation.  

  • The Trump administration eliminated the bilateral communication channels that were established during the negotiation of the JCPOA. These channels, which existed at the level of secretary of state, helped contain tense episodes under the Obama administration—including securing the speedy release of U.S. sailors that had strayed into Iranian waters.
  • The U.S. should appoint a senior special envoy for engaging Iran to focus on confidence-building and decreasing mutual distrust and animosity. The envoy should have a proven track record of successful diplomatic engagement, a deep understanding of Iran, and the confidence of the parties that negotiated the JCPOA.
  • A direct U.S.-Iran channel for dialogue will reduce tensions in the overall relationship, enable a mutual understanding regarding each side’s intentions, and allow both sides to talk quickly should an incident occur–such as dispute over violating territorial boundaries or threats to Persian Gulf stability.
  • Additionally, establishing a permanent emergency deconfliction channel between the U.S. and Iranian militaries will also help prevent misunderstandings and avoid dangerous escalation of accidents.


UN Investigation into Drone Downing & Other Recent Incidents

The global and U.S. public skepticism to the administration’s claims regarding the drone downing and sabotage of oil tankers reflect the erosion of American credibility. Any response to an alleged violation of international law and norms should be rooted in those established rules rather than perpetuate lawlessness. 

  • Iran’s shooting down of the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone came one week after the sabotage of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, which the Trump administration blamed on Iran. Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton also blamed Iran for an attack on four commercial ships in the same area one month ago.
  • The bar for the evidence for the allegations should be extraordinarily high. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton both have track records of manipulating intelligence.
  • Much of the international community, including U.S. allies in Europe, have viewed with suspicion U.S. claims that Iran was behind the oil tanker sabotage.
  • Rather than further isolate itself internationally, the Trump administration should allow for an impartial international investigation spearheaded by the UN into the tanker and drone incidents.


Congress Must Act Now to Prevent War

Congress must uphold its responsibility as a coequal branch of government and the only party with the authority to declare war by sending a clear message that Trump and Bolton cannot make an end-run around Congress to start a war with Iran.


  • Congress should pass legislation to block funds for the Trump administration to launch a war on Iran without Congressional approval. The Senate can do so by voting on and passing the Udall-Kaine amendment to the annual defense authorization bill. Stand alone legislation in each chamber, the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act (S. 1039/H.R. 2354) – introduced by Sens. Udall, Paul and Durbin and Reps. Eshoo and Thompson – also exists to bar such funding.

Congress should pass legislation to repeal the 2001 AUMF that some in the Trump administration claim provides authorization to wage war on Iran. The Repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force bill (H.R. 1274) from Rep. Barbara Lee would repeal the 2001 AUMF from using it as legal justification to attack Iran 17 years after it was introduced. The AUMF Clarification Act (H.R. 2829) from Reps. Massie and Levin would clarify that neither the 2001 AUMF nor the 2002 AUMF can be twisted to greenlight a war with Iran.

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