The worst problem with the current US-Iran facedown is that it’s a “crisis of evasion”. The adversaries work themselves to the brink of either “It’s war,” or “Let’s talk.” Then they back down to avoid having to make the tough choice. Neither side is prepared to go to war.
Despite all their pugnacious rhetoric and threats of a war that “will be the official end of Iran”, as Trump tweeted Sunday, officials on both sides keep reverting to the refrain that they “don’t want a war” but “if forced to” they’ll fight one.
Nor have they reached the point where they are ready to sit down and talk. Iran has rejected Trump’s invitation to “strike a new nuclear deal”. It refuses to enter any new negotiating process with Washington unless two conditions are met.
Firstly, the US must return to the deal from which it withdrew and, secondly, it must lift all the sanctions it re-imposed.
The current European position, which opposes the bellicose escalation, reinforces the conviction that the crisis will not lead to war and that what is essentially needed is an agreement that will save face for both sides.
Europe and above all France, Britain and Germany, which are among the P5+1 that signed the nuclear accord, and the EU Commission, believe that Trump does not want a military engagement and that his threats of “fury” and “destruction” are part of a psychological war he is waging as a means to force Tehran to submit to US demands.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has listed 12 conditions that Iran needs to meet in order to normalise relations with Washington.
They include the need to dismantle the Iranian nuclear programme, to halt its ballistic missiles programme, to stop meddling in the domestic affairs of neighbouring countries and, above all, to stop threatening Israel and supporting “terrorist organisations”.
By the latter, Pompeo refers to the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which threaten Israel, and the Houthi militias in Yemen which threaten Saudi Arabia.
The Europeans also realise that the US military build-up in the Gulf (the deployment of an aircraft carrier and bomber group coupled with permission from Gulf countries to deploy troops and materiel on their territory) is to distract Iran from its engagement in other regional crises such as those in Yemen and Syria.
Washington believes that the pressure of a direct threat will compel Iran to cease its support for the Houthis and to reconsider the option of at least a partial withdrawal from Syria in order to alleviate Israeli apprehensions.
Israel suspects that Iran plans to create a front against Israel on the Syrian side of the occupied Golan Heights.
Because of such readings of Washington’s motives, the Europeans are more set against the tit-for-tat brinksmanship and are more determined to keep Iran committed to the nuclear accord.
“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side but ends with some kind of conflict,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in Brussels on 13 May, adding: “And most of all we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to re-nuclearisation.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas echoed European opposition to Washington’s escalation strategy.
Berlin “still regards this nuclear agreement as the basis for Iran not having any nuclear weapons in the future and we regard this as existential for our security... We are concerned about developments and the tensions in the region... We do not want there to be a military escalation,” he said following a meeting with Pompeo in Brussels on 14 May.
File Photo: Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, second from right, gets a tour of the guided-missile destroyer Jamaran, in the Persian Gulf, Iran, Feb. 19, 2010 (AP)
In like manner, EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, who also met with Pompeo in Brussels, said: “We continue to fully support the nuclear deal with Iran, its full implementation” and stressed the need for dialogue as “the only and the best way to address differences and avoid escalation” in the region.
Neither side takes this call for dialogue seriously because neither side is convinced it is in their interests yet. Iran, too, realises that Washington’s escalation strategy is a form of psychological warfare and that the US does want war because it would jeopardise US interests in the region.
Brigadier General Hossain Salami, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, used some taunting rhetoric to express this realisation.
“The difference between us and them is that they are afraid of war and don’t have the will for it,” he told the Iranian parliament last week.
He also likened the US to “the World Trade Center towers that collapse with a sudden blow”. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spoke more diplomatically following meetings with foreign leaders.
“There will be no war because neither do we want a war, nor has anyone the idea or illusion it can confront Iran in the region.”
Iranian Supreme Guide Sayed Ali Husseini Khamenei summed up the Iranian position as follows: “No war, No negotiation.”
But this begs the question as to whether it has a third alternative. If it does, it has not yet indicated what it may be, but using proxy war tactics might be a possibility.
Were the attacks against Saudi oil tankers near the UAE’s Fujeira port and against two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia instances of such an alternative? If so, they did not work insofar as they did not push the crisis to a breaking point that would culminate in either of the two ultimate options: war or negotiations.
Ultimately, Tehran’s situation is more dangerous, because the other side — the US — is using the crisis as a means to win strategic gains in a wider game that also includes the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century”.
The formal unveiling of this peace project for the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict has been put off until after Ramadan, which means that the US will be in a position to use the current escalation as a means to prevent Tehran from taking any steps to obstruct the deal.
Simultaneously, this situation can also give impetus to practical steps to form the “Arab NATO” on the grounds of the need to confront the mounting Iranian peril.
In fact, this might be one of the aims behind Saudi Arabia’s call for three summits (a Gulf summit, a mini Arab summit, and an Islamic summit) in Mecca during the lasted days of Ramadan.
Whatever the case, the crisis between the US and Iran now centres on the need for a third option between war and negotiation that can resolve this volatile standoff.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Washington, Tehran and the third option