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Iran – Drumbeats of War?

Iran – Drumbeats of War?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Several developments have considerably increased the tension surrounding the Iranian issue in recent days. On the American side, the administration has included the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (8 April) on the list of terrorist organizations, has then announced the end of the "waivers" from sanctions on oil purchases from Iran (22 April), added new sanctions against the Iranian mining and steel sectors (8 May), and declared that it was sending additional military forces in the region [1], claiming it to be a response to specific Iranian threats.

On the Iranian side, President Rouhani announced on May 8th, i.e. a year after the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement (JCPOA), that Iran was going to free itself from two of the obligations imposed by the agreement. Indeed, Tehran will stop exporting its surplus of enriched uranium and heavy water, which automatically implies, after a certain period of time, exceeding the stock limit authorized by the JCPOA in these two areas. The Iranians justify this decision by pointing to the inability of the other signatories - and in particular Europe - to resist US sanctions, and by emphasizing that Iran thus fulfils its part of the deal without receiving any of the economic benefits expected in return. In fact, the state of the Iranian economy has significantly deteriorated over the past few months, with obviously very serious social consequences.

The "patience" shown by Iranian leaders could be explained by their hope that the effect of the sanctions would at least be mitigated [...] and that, quite simply, President Trump would not be re-elected next year.

Many experts anticipated such measures from Tehran, and even thought they would come sooner (in November for instance, when the return of US sanctions was implemented). The "patience" shown by Iranian leaders could be explained by their hope that the effect of the sanctions would at least be mitigated by a combination of American exemptions with the sanctions and various efforts of partners other than the United States to maintain economic relations with Iran; and that, quite simply, President Trump would not be re-elected next year. The announcements of May 8th clearly indicate that Iranians’ views on these two matters have changed.

What is most significant, however, in President Rouhani's statements, is not so much the measures adopted as the announcement of a disturbing process, to say the least. Indeed, if within two months - which is very short - the other signatories of the agreement have not been able to compensate for the American defection and meet Iran's economic needs, Tehran will stop respecting the other constraints on its nuclear program. This includes a return to a level of uranium enrichment that would de facto lead Iran back on the path to access weapons-grade fissile materials (i.e. the acquisition of the bomb). How should these Iranian announcements thus be interpreted?

Two readings of the Iranian announcements

According to a first reading, Tehran’s aim is first and foremost to relaunch an international action in order for its demands to be taken into account more seriously. A senior Iranian personality speaking at Institut Montaigne this weekend indicated that Iranian leaders wanted to stay within the JCPOA and that they remained open to discussion. According to our interlocutor, the announcements weren’t an "ultimatum" from the Iranians to the Europeans and other signatories, but rather an "electroshock" intended to "revive the nuclear agreement, which is currently not doing well". Some elements support such an interpretation: the deviation from the JCPOA provisions remains minimal for the time being, and Iranian announcements are sufficiently vague - both regarding the subsequent breaches of the agreement that are envisaged and the actions likely to appease Tehran - to open up space for real negotiation.

On the other hand, Iranians can hardly expect Europe - along with China and Russia - to set up the mechanisms by which to defy the United States’ ambitions in the next few weeks. There is also a certain irony in putting pressure on Europeans rather than on the Russians or the Chinese. The former have come up with an instrument (INSTEX), which - albeit late and fragile - could eventually enable them to preserve a minimum of trade with Iran. In the meantime, the Russians, who are relatively indifferent to the Iranian nuclear issue, mainly occupy a rhetorical position [2], while the Chinese are clearly preparing to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil in order to limit the risks of confrontation with the Americans. For all these reasons, we are obliged to consider a second reading of the Iranian announcements: they de facto initiate Iran’s gradual withdrawal from the JCPOA, and allow each new future decision that goes against the agreement to be justified by the absence of additional efforts from the other signatories.

Iranians can hardly expect Europe - along with China and Russia - to set up the mechanisms by which to defy the United States’ ambitions in the next few weeks.

In fact, it is conceivable that the "Rouhani plan" - presented as the result of the unanimous decision of the National Security Council, which represents all the tendencies of the Islamic Republic's power system - constitutes a middle way between those who support the strategy of "heroic patience" and those who support a firm response to the Trump administration’s policy of "maximum pressure". It is also worth noting that Iran's announcements contain some threatening elements on topics other than the nuclear program that amount to blackmail. Indeed, they include the possibility for Iran to "open the floodgates" to Afghan emigration towards Europe, the risk of new outbreaks of terrorism, and destabilization in the region.

Is escalation the United States’ goal?

From this last point of view, a sort of objective complicity brings the American "hard-liners" closer to the Iranian "hard-liners". Indeed, this seems perfectly plausible, in particular when American spokesmen justify their military actions in the Gulf (or Secretary of State Pompeo’s surprise trip to Baghdad) with information on the Revolutionary Guards "targeting" American positions in the region.

Yet from an external point of view, it seemed like the Trump administration was having it both ways in recent months: it had succeeded in weakening the Islamic Republic through sanctions, while maintaining the non-proliferation benefit of keeping Iran in the JCPOA. By tightening sanctions, it has taken the deliberate risk of reviving Iran's nuclear program and of sparking more aggressivity from Tehran at the regional level. This has led us to where we are today.

It is very likely that Donald Trump himself does not want war: he has recently publicly repeated his disagreement on this point with John Bolton, his national security advisor.

It is very likely that Donald Trump himself does not want war: he has recently publicly repeated his disagreement on this point with John Bolton, his national security advisor. His administration, undoubtedly encouraged by Netanyahu, nevertheless seems to be embarked on a strategy aiming to provoke Tehran by an escalation of tension.

The great risk is that Iran will end up following Washington in such an escalation, precisely because the Iranian "hawks" see war as the best guarantee for the survival of the Islamic regime, just like during the Iraq-Iran conflict in the 1980s - contrary to the dreams of "regime change" of some in Washington. In this context, any incident in the Straits of Hormuz or Iraq, or even Syria, can turn into a large-scale military confrontation between Iran and the United States (and its allies). The absence of a "deconfliction" channel between Washington and Tehran can only increase the risk of accidental conflict, as can be currently seen with the incidents involving four ships, including two Saudi tankers, off the United Arab Emirates coast, which may be subject to conflicting interpretations and accusations between the various stakeholders.

The time has come for a strong European diplomatic initiative.

In order to avoid an increasingly probable deflagration, international actors must change their approach. Until now, the Iranian challenge has only inspired Russia, China or even the Europeans to adopt a set of diplomatic positions, without taking any major risks given the economic implications of the application of the extraterritoriality of American laws. It is also true that, by maintaining an uncompromising attitude towards their ballistic program and regional positions, the Iranians have not facilitated their partners’ active engagement so far.

Can the dramatization that we are currently witnessing at least have the advantage of moving the lines? This could be the case under two conditions:


  • First, the call for negotiation that may underlie the latest Iranian measures - according to the first reading mentioned above - will not have any serious follow-ups if the negotiation is limited to a dialogue between Europe and Iran, the former being naturally urged to "do more" in the economic field. The resolution of this crisis requires the opening of an area of cooperation between China, Russia, Europe, perhaps India or other major partners, leading all of the latter to then negotiate with both Tehran and Washington.

    In practical terms, the idea of a new visit to Tehran by the three ministers - German, British and French - inspired by the Fischer-Straw-Villepin visit in 2003, has been circulating for months. In reality, we must now think bigger and try to launch a European diplomatic offensive vis-a-visMoscow and Beijing, as well as Tehran and Washington.
  • Second, the solution (if it exists) lies in Washington, at the level of Mr Trump himself, and not his staff. The President recently repeated that he was waiting for "the Iranians to call him". This is obviously impossible, taken at face value and under current circumstances. Yet should we exclude that Mr Trump could be sensitive to non-public proposals that ultimately allow him to achieve this goal ? His presence in Europe in June could be the opportunity to launch much-needed persuasion attempts. The message to be sent to him should be: it is actually on the Iranian issue (and not on the Israeli-Palestinian one) that he may achieve the "deal of the century". 


[1] The Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, and then the USS Arlington (assault vessel), the latter having however already been planned before the recent escalation.
[2] This rhetorical position is not devoid of hypocrisy: when welcoming Mr Zarif (Iranian Foreign Minister) in Moscow, immediately after the Iranian announcements, Mr Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) mocked the Europeans’ minimal engagement on this matter. In a major niche concerning the implementation of the JCPOA, civil nuclear cooperation, Russia and China are not rushing to implement their own commitments to Iran.


Copyright : ATTA KENARE / AFP

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