President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran has increased economic pressure on Teheran and tensions in the Gulf, but it does not make war inevitable. White House hardliners may argue that enhanced American pressure will either bring about regime change in Iran—their unarticulated goal—or force an end to Iran's aggression toward its neighbors and the United States. Just as the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini eventually relented under pressure and drank the "poisoned chalice" to end the barbaric Iraq-Iran war launched by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the hawks argue, his successor will eventually yield to American pressure.
This is wishful thinking, not a strategy.
The administration has never explained how withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran—however flawed it was—would stop Iran from supporting terrorism abroad, threatening U.S. regional allies, or continuing its theocratic oppression at home. The answer to the agreement's flaws was not unilateral withdrawal, but diplomatic and economic pressure on Teheran to improve the deal.
The administration's recent doubling down on forcing Iranian oil exports to zero is also further dividing Washington from its European allies and undermining what has been a major goal of both Republican and Democratic predecessors—stopping nuclear proliferation in the world's most strategic region.
Iran, and Iranians, will undoubtedly be hurt by the latest U.S. measures, but war is still not "inevitable" for one key reason: neither Trump nor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei want a military confrontation. Despite his in-house hardliners, Trump knows that wars are bad for business—and the Dow Jones—and rarely go as planned. Iran's rulers, in turn, would prefer to seek economic relief from the other partners in the nuclear deal, particularly European countries, while awaiting the end of Trump's first term in office and his possible replacement by a more compliant Democratic successor. That, too, may be wishful thinking, but Iran well knows the cost of war. It also knows that resorting to terrorism could trigger the American military retaliation it is eager to avoid.