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Iran – Tourniquet Strategy, Grenade Strategy, Post-Crisis Diplomacy

Iran – Tourniquet Strategy, Grenade Strategy, Post-Crisis Diplomacy
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Iran crossed a first threshold on Monday 8 July for non-compliance with its obligations under the 2015 Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA). It exceeds the stock of enriched uranium it is authorized to hold and has begun to increase the enrichment of its uranium beyond the level permitted by the JCPOA.

However, observers downplay the scope of these offences. Tehran's measures only marginally alter Iranian capacities. They seem intended to put pressure on Europeans in particular in order to obtain economic compensation from them for the American sanctions, rather than to relaunch a programme to gain access to the bomb. They are described as "carefully calibrated" and reversible.

As for another aspect of Iranian issues - regional tensions - , calm prevails for the moment, although probably temporarily (how will Tehran react to the arrest of one of its tankers off Gibraltar?). This lull is welcome following a period of withdrawal from Irak of American personnel in fear of Iranian attacks against American interests, "incidents" with several tankers in the Arabian Sea, the shot down of an American drone and an American retaliation against the Iranian territory cancelled by President Trump at the last minute.

Moreover, we can speculate that by progressively pulling out of the JCPOA (they have indicated that they will push the limits further in 60 days if they do not obtain satisfaction), the Iranians intend to give themselves some leverage to resume negotiations with Washington. This is the theory that "they must hold their heads high to renegotiate".

All these considerations may be correct. However, there are several reasons to be cautious about optimism:

  • By cancelling in April the "waivers" (exemptions) to the ban on the purchase of Iranian oil, the American administration has plunged the Iranian economy into a situation of asphyxia. It practices a kind of tourniquet strategy.
  •  Washington has added to the cancellation of the exemptions a whole series of vexatious measures, perceived in any case as humiliating by Tehran, including the inclusion of Revolutionary Guards on the list of terrorist organizations and sanctions against the Supreme Leader.
  • In this situation, the Iranian authorities have little choice but to raise tensions, both regionally and on the nuclear issue. For them, it is probably a necessity of internal politics (defending the country's dignity), a means of not allowing themselves to be marginalized at the international level (even China and Russia do not consider the Iranian issue a priori as essential), and finally, as already indicated, to put themselves in a position to resume negotiations.
  • Unlike the Americans, who can gradually tighten the tourniquet, the Iranians only have the strategy of the unpinned grenade: a gradual resumption of their nuclear programme is basically indifferent to the Americans and even plays into the hands of Washington's "hawks" eager to fight it; the real threat posed by Tehran is to set fire to the region, first by attacking third parties, then, one day, American interests.

On this last point, as much as on the nuclear issue, it is in theory a calculated threat. Iranian strategists intend to exploit the weakness of Mr. Trump's position: in the event of a real challenge to American interests in Iraq, the Gulf or elsewhere, would he be ready to go to war? The downing of the drone suggests that this is not the case, at least not in the pre-election period. Consequently, the American President risks finding himself in a scenario of attacks on America's interests, and, in turn, in a humiliating position, or at least in the face of a dilemma: not reacting or engaging in unpopular (amongst his own electoral base) military intervention.

Iran is not Syria and the Iranian regime could certainly absorb limited strikes as was the case with Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The United States could certainly use, as the Trump administration did in Syria, limited strikes. However, Iran is not Syria and the Iranian regime could certainly absorb limited strikes as was the case with Bashar al-Assad's regime. Let us add that if the Iranians, in parallel with the policy of regional tensions, were to pursue for good the return to a military nuclear programme, another major actor would also enter the game for good: Israel. The Jewish state could be called upon to conduct strikes.

Moreover, American opinion would probably turn in favour of US military intervention if Israel's security were perceived as in danger.

In total, therefore, the strategy of the tourniquet combined with that of the unpinned grenade really brings the Middle East to the brink of collapse. Can diplomacy draw a way out of the crisis?

A pessimistic view is that it is in the event of dramatic tension between the United States and Iran - if Washington were faced with the aforementioned dilemma of having to choose between doing nothing and embarking on military intervention - that the best chance of a negotiated solution would be offered: both sides might rally to a formula that would save each other's faces. We think of the precedent set by the Russian proposal for chemical disarmament in Syria in September 2013, which gave Mr. Obama a pretext to back down.

It would obviously be better to avoid this, especially since the precedent does not bode well. The element on which current diplomatic efforts are based - particularly on the part of France - is that President Trump does not hide his desire to open a discussion with Tehran - certainly in his own way, very personalized and spectacular as we have seen with North Korea. So far, the Iranian Supreme Leader, Mr. Khamenei, has refused any opening. He sharply rejected the extended hand of Japanese Prime Minister Abe, who appeared to be mandated by President Trump.

The strategy of the tourniquet combined with that of the unpinned grenade really brings the Middle East to the brink of collapse.

Will Mr. Macron, if following a similar diplomatic strategy, be more successful? For the time being, the objective is limited to obtaining a de-escalation, which is essential to create the conditions to resume dialogue. It is likely that even to achieve this limited objective, the French President will have to be able to guarantee Iran's ability to export part of its oil, thanks to European measures (activation of the so-called INSTEX mechanism to begin with), but above all to the return of some American "waivers". That is why, just as much as Mr. Macron's dialogue with Mr. Rohani and the visits of his diplomatic adviser to Tehran, it is the conversations between the President of the Republic and his American counterpart that are decisive.

Let us imagine for a moment that efforts to de-escalate the situation are successful. It will then be necessary to consider what the conditions could be for a relaunch of the Iranian-American dialogue. We would suggest that before this happens, an intermediate phase would be useful, if not essential. Between de-escalation (Phase I) and the resumption of dialogue (Phase III), "third parties" (Europe, China, India, regional actors) could propose a regional stabilization mechanism (Phase II) in which Iranians would be granted status, instead of being the outcasts of the region, while being encouraged to behave in a constructive manner. Let us repeat: we are very far from a situation of this type at the moment. It is to be feared that diplomacy, for the time being, will not allow us to bring politics back from the brink.

Copyright : ATTA KENARE / AFP

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