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Iran: Back to square one

While the Trump administration says military action against Iran is not precluded, war is unlikely, at least for now

Bassem Aly , Wednesday 19 Jun 2019
Gulf of Oman
An oil tanker is seen after it was attacked at the Gulf of Oman, in waters between Gulf Arab states and Iran, June 13, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)
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US top diplomat Mike Pompeo replied “of course” when recently asked whether military action against Iran is being discussed.

Other statements coming from the US Congress showed that war is under consideration. For example, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger warned that the US Navy could “push, shove, stomp, and destroy Iran in a heartbeat”.

As Ali Vaez — the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, who closely consulted with all parties to the nuclear negotiations in the past few years — puts it: “We have never been closer to a brink of an inadvertent or deliberate military confrontation between Iran and the US or their respective regional allies.There are numerous friction points, tensions are high, and there are no channels of communication between the main antagonists.Any confrontation between Tehran and Washington is likely to quickly turn into a region-wide conflagration as Iran activates its region-wide network of partners and proxies to deter the US from striking it again.”

In a nutshell, the US Department of State considers Iran as the “world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”. In May, the United States said it will deploy 1,500 “mostly protective” troops in the Middle East, although US President Donald Trump and his administration “don’t think they [Iran] want to fight with us”.This decision followed a US accusation that Iran carried out attacks against tankers in Fujairah. Pompeo also accused Iran’s government of attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday. Iran denied the accusations.

So, are both sides heading to war? According to Pierre Pahlavi, professor and deputy head of defence studies at the Canadian Forces College, the Middle East is “indisputably a powder keg”, just like the 20th century Balkans.As in 1914, the “mechanism of alliances has the potential to lead to a regional war — or even global — conflict”. Moreover, the “characteristic of this type of ‘grey zone’ hostilities is the lack of clarity and communication, which leaves room for miscalculated spiralling”, Pahlavi explained.

He, nevertheless, stressed that “several factors suggest a regional conflagration is not inevitable in the short term… First, all the protagonists are perfectly aware of the dangers of intensifying skirmishes, and the catastrophic consequences that a direct confrontation could engender. That’s why they have so far kept from fighting each other directly, consciously choosing instead to rely on proxy warfare. For example, when US Special Forces kill Russian mercenaries, it is not officially the United States and Russia that are fighting each other,” Pahlavi noted.

“The way the 14 April 2018 Western strikes against Syrian facilities were conducted, and the precautions taken to avoid Russian and Iranian targets, were also symptomatic of Western cautiousness. Despite Trump’s vehement rhetoric, the Americans and their European allies are reluctant to embark on a conflict that could possibly lead to World War III. Specialists have also noted some confusion in Western chancelleries and even a split in the White House between sabre-rattlers and more prudential realists.”

Pahlavi referred to the “fundamentally asymmetrical” balance of power between Iran and its regional foes, which is “disadvantageous” for Tehran due to its lack of “high-tech military equipment to accompany” the deployment of its “several hundred thousand men”. This will lead Iran, in the foreseeable future, to continue to “build on its hybrid and asymmetrical approach designed to remain below the threshold of armed conflict”.

But nothing happens in a vacuum. Some old patterns of the US-Iranian nuclear crisis seem to rise once again. It worked this way: US administrations impose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear plans, yet open room for diplomacy, and warn they might use force as a last resort.

Despite a 2015 nuclear deal, the same cycle is seemingly taking place now.Trump objected to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump’s administration argued that JCPOA “enriched the Iranian regime and enabled its malign behaviour, while at best delaying its ability to pursue nuclear weapons and allowing it to preserve nuclear research and development”.

Trump decertified the deal in October 2017 and withdrew from it in May 2018. Afterwards, US sanctions were re-imposed on the Islamic republic.The White House warned companies “doing business in Iran will be provided a period of time” to allow them to wind down operations in or business involving Iran or face sanctions on the basis of violating US law. So far, 1,000 individuals and entities in Iran are suffering the woes of sanctions.

This wave of economic, punitive measures also included severe limitations on Iran’s oil and non-oil exports.The JCPOA was a rich package. In return for lifting sanctions JCPOA restricted Iran’s ability to move forward with almost all aspects of its nuclear project, including operating centrifuges, uranium stockpiling, building nuclear reactors, purchasing dual-use materials, and pursuing advanced centrifuge research and development. But still Trump saw it as the “worst deal in history”.

For Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, JCPOA “isn’t working for many constituencies, mostly because Iran is not receiving a bang for its buck”, which necessitates forcing it into a new negotiation “where all issues are fair game — nuclear and non-nuclear”.

“Iran has a history of exhibiting ‘heroic flexibility’ during international crises, when acquiescence outweighed resistance in order to preserve the regime. We’ve seen it before in Iran’s decision to accept the ceasefire ending the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and when Tehran came to the negotiating table during the height of international sanctions, pre-nuclear deal in 2012.

Given the maximum pressure campaign’s results — a plunging rial, businesses fleeing Iran, and terror proxies on austerity budgets — Iran may eventually change its posture,” said Brodsky, an ex-fellow at the White House.

But, under no circumstances should escalation be understood as a unilateral approach by Washington. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said last week that Iran is increasing its production of enriched uranium.

Highlighting that this move “will be reversed once other parties live up to their commitments”, Iran’s atomic energy administration said it will go beyond the uranium stockpile limit determined by JCPOA from 27 June.

“Today the countdown to pass the 300 kilogrammes reserve of enriched uranium has started and in 10 days’ time... we will pass this limit,” Spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi was quoted as saying in a televised briefing.

As Vaez pointed out to Al-Ahram Weekly, Iran is unlikely to enter into serious negotiations with the Trump administration before the 2020 US presidential race, for Tehran doubts that Trump’s national security team is “amenable to a mutually beneficial deal”, especially that “not much time is left in Trump’s first term… If Trump is re-elected, the Iranian leadership will probably conclude that it has no choice other than negotiating with him, but it would only do so after it has resuscitated its nuclear leverage by ramping up its programme.That means new negotiations will only be possible after a renewed nuclear crisis,” he said.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 20 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Back to square one 

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