The Middle East region and the American foreign-policy establishment are breathing a collective sigh of relief, as President Donald Trump has dialed back U.S. threats to Iran and undercut his administration’s top hawks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. But while tensions in the Persian Gulf may appear to be getting lower as a result, the likelihood of military exchanges between the United States and Iran are actually increasing.
In fact, this simmering crisis is entering a new, more dangerous phase. With armed forces on both sides on high alert, additional American naval and aerial hardware newly arrived in theater, and Saudi Arabia having pounded the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel force in Yemen for its attack on a major Saudi oil pipeline, there remains not only the potential for an unintended clash or misfire, but also a worrying threat that misperception may lead to conflict.
Iran prides itself on being able to ascertain what American intentions are, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and numerous other high ranking Iranian officials having studied in the United States as undergraduates or postgraduates—although their overconfidence in this regard hurt them in the eleventh hour of the negotiations between Zarif and former Secretary of State John Kerry, which in the end led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal).
The Costs of Misperception
Back in 2015, Iran incorrectly believed it had the United States over a barrel in the final phase of the JCPOA negotiations. The Obama administration had made a mistake, publicly describing the ongoing negotiations with Iran as a “foreign-policy success”—causing Iran to believe that American preferences for a deal were even stronger than they were.
This resulted in Iran failing to have a plan B when Kerry walked out of negotiations due to Iranian stalling on the strength of surveillance measures. Zarif, mistakenly believing that Washington wanted the deal even more than Tehran did, stonewalled. This led Kerry to announce (after he conferred with Obama directly) that he would walk away and return to Washington. With no backup plan in place, and having strong preferences in favor of the deal itself, Iran caved.
Fast-forward to the present crisis in the Gulf, the specter of Iran misperceiving American intentions has once again arisen—and this time with potentially more…
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