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How Iran’s lethal tanker assault pertains to the nuclear deal

How should the United States respond to Iran’s July 31 drone attack on Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned, Liberian-flagged Israeli oil tanker in international waters off the coast of Oman, with a Romanian captain and a British? Crew member killed?

The US was obviously not a direct target of the Iranian attack. But Washington, along with other maritime powers, is the ultimate guarantor of freedom of navigation on the world’s oceans – a vital US interest. The United States shares the responsibility of protecting this essential principle, deterring attacks on it, and punishing outrageous violations, with other countries.

How should the United States respond to Iran’s July 31 drone attack on Mercer Street, a Japanese-owned, Liberian-flagged Israeli oil tanker in international waters off the coast of Oman, with a Romanian captain and a British? Crew member killed?

The US was obviously not a direct target of the Iranian attack. But Washington, along with other maritime powers, is the ultimate guarantor of freedom of navigation on the world’s oceans – a vital US interest. The United States shares the responsibility of protecting this essential principle, deterring attacks on it, and punishing outrageous violations, with other countries.

At the same time, the ship attack is, of course, part of the broader gray zone campaigns Iran is waging in several arenas with the United States and – sometimes separately, sometimes jointly – with Israel. And it would be unwise to separate either the ship attack or the gray area campaign from the ongoing negotiations between Iran, the United States and other powers over a possible return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) .

A debate is undoubtedly ongoing in Washington about these links and how a response to the ship attack will affect the JCPOA talks. The US decision on August 1 to identify Iran as the culprit and, in the words of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to promise “an appropriate response”, reflects an important stage in the debate on Washington’s course of action.

It is likely that some key officials in the Biden administration believe that publicly identifying Iran is an important step by the US in itself. In this way of thinking, any US role in responding to the attack on Iran through targeted attacks on Iranian assets – openly or covertly, through military action, cyber war or other means – would represent a return to a direct US-Iranian confrontation that most recently occurred with the United States Assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 in retaliation for attacks on US targets in Iraq.

Any such escalation, the argument goes, would risk confirming to the Iranian leadership that Washington has no interest in serious diplomacy and is not trustworthy. To avoid that risk, proponents of this approach would probably prefer to applaud on the sidelines of an adequate Israeli response to the attack and limit US efforts to diplomatic statements rather than involving the US in any action.

However, some senior officials are certain that publicly fingering Iran as the culprit of the ship attack will only raise expectations of a more substantial US response. They will recognize the loss of US deterrent power if a deadly attack on civilian shipping is not followed by a forceful response.

In this back and forth, there is a lack of recognition of the implications of a strong, effective response to the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Far from derailing a possible deal, as some in the White House are sure to fear, a US response to the attack would remove one of the main reasons talks are stalled. Currently, there are at least four reasons why an agreement has not been reached despite US President Joe Biden’s public pledge to reach an agreement with Iran. A US response to the attack on Mercer Street should reduce that number to three.

Why not a deal? First, Iran’s financial problems have eased. Beginning in 2020, during the days of then-US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and continued throughout the Biden administration, a sharp and sustained surge in both the price of oil and the volume of Iranian crude oil exports brought billions of dollars to Tehran Revenue, which reduces the economic urgency of a nuclear deal that would lift many existing sanctions.

Second, Iran recognizes that the economic benefits of going back to the 2015 accord will not be as great as originally announced. Even with a new deal, many global banks and corporations are likely to shy away from doing business in Iran. So, while the incentive to return to the JCPOA is real, it is not as great as is generally believed.

Third, while diplomacy is stuttering, Iran is making tremendous strides in what some experts call a “nuclear outbreak” within a few weeks – widely regarded as the ability to build a bomb. While this threshold and the exact status of the Iranian program are controversial, it is undeniable that Iran has made significant strides toward nuclear capability in recent months.

Fourth, Tehran and its proxies have aggressively tested the White House – both with attacks on shipping in the Gulf and proxy attacks by Iranian-backed militias on US targets in Iraq – without knowing exactly where Washington draws the line. The most common US response to date has been to meet pro-Iranian militias in northeast Syria, sending a message to Tehran that the US is avoiding, not deterring, conflict. Until that message is cleared, Iran is likely to step up its attacks further.

An effective US response to the attack on Mercer Street would affect Iran’s calculations on this fourth question. Such a response could include coordinated action with partners targeting naval bases of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, factories that assemble or manufacture parts for military drones, or facilities that support arms exports to Iranian proxies in Iraq, Yemen, Syria or Lebanon . Alternatively, with the support and involvement of partners, Washington could target a wider range of Iranian assets to underscore its capabilities and add uncertainty to Tehran about future US activities. This would be a far cry from pin-sticking actions against proxy groups and mere public statements, both of which only invite further Iranian tests.

The United States and its partners – who could range from Britain, which could be directly affected by the attack on Mercer Street, to Israel and the Arab Gulf States – need not strive to provide an effective response. You wouldn’t even have to claim public recognition or responsibility; the message would be clear. Such a response would increase deterrence in this arena. It would signal to US regional allies that reducing the US military footprint in the Middle East does not mean Washington shirking its role as a guarantor of international norms, including the vitally important freedom of shipping. And of particular importance to the Biden administration, an effective response would have the advantage of addressing one of the four reasons for the impasse in the JCPOA negotiations.

Some in the Biden administration will argue the opposite – an effective response to Iran’s deadly ship attack will frighten the Tehran regime, affirm the supreme leader and its new president that the United States is an untrustworthy hostile power, and even fuel an escalation of violence and confrontation. This is a legitimate concern. However, it is much more likely that Iran will see US inaction as an invitation to further testing, which in turn increases the prospect of even more deadly attacks than the one on Mercer Street and further poisons the potential for diplomacy.

Sane people can contradict the JCPOA’s revival wisdom. But if Washington is committed to this course, the tactical route will be through effective response to the attack on Mercer Street. It will not ensure the success of nuclear diplomacy, but it will remove a major obstacle to an agreement.

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