This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform
Tensions are escalating in the Gulf between the US and Iran.
Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani has said his country is suffering “unprecedented pressure” from international sanctions, which the US has tightened further.
The landmark 2015 nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), signed between Iran and members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, is almost dead. The US pulled out last year, and Iran now says it will no longer comply with the terms of the deal; and if no progress is made on easing sanctions, the country’s uranium-enrichment programme will be stepped up.
US Security advisor John Bolton has warned that any attack on America or its allies will be met by “unrelenting force”, and a powerful US aircraft-carrier group and warplanes have been dispatched to the region.
The US has declared Iran, or its proxies, to be responsible for four recent attacks on commercial tankers believed to have been in UAE territorial waters.
As the threat of conflict in the Gulf grows, the World Economic Forum asked Barbara Slavin, Director and Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, to assess the situation.
1) Four years ago Barack Obama offered to extend a hand if Iranian leaders “unclenched their fist”. That gesture led to a nuclear deal. Now we have a US carrier group and B-52s heading for the Persian Gulf. What went wrong?
It is easy to blame the election of Donald Trump for crippling the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and certainly, the Trump administration bears most of the blame for the sharp deterioration in relations.
The US under Trump has demonstrated extreme hostility toward Iran, quit the nuclear deal and imposed ever more Draconian sanctions despite Iran’s compliance with its nuclear obligations. But underlying tensions between the US and Iran persisted even under the Obama administration and it would be inaccurate to lay all the fault at Trump’s feet.
The JCPOA should have led to a kind of détente between the US and Iran, but forces in both countries would not allow that. In Iran, the intelligence apparatus kept an American, Siamak Namazi, hostage when it freed other captives in January 2016, and proceeded to arrest more innocent Americans, including Siamak’s octogenarian father. Iran continued its hardline rhetoric against the US and Israel, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could not even bring himself to meet with President Obama at the UN.
In the US, meanwhile, Congress passed legislation by veto-proof majorities requiring Europeans and others who used to be able to travel to the US visa free to get visas if they had visited Iran. This was a restraint of trade and violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the JCPOA, which exchanged curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme in return for better access to the global market.
That said, Trump’s irrational insistence on tearing up a deal that was working with nothing to put in its place is the main reason US-Iran relations are at an historic low. His action has alienated our European allies and isolated the US, as well as forfeiting a more balanced policy toward the Middle East that could have fostered conflict resolution.
Instead, conflicts continue most disastrously in Yemen, the worst tendencies of regional leaders have been encouraged, and Iran remains entrenched in the affairs of its neighbours.
2) Iran is unlikely to seek direct military conflict with the US. But how likely are we to see increased clashes between both countries’ proxies, and how dangerous is this for the region?
This is a very dangerous situation as we have seen with the recent reports of damage to oil tankers off the United Arab Emirates.
I am old enough to remember the direct clashes that occurred in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s between US and Iranian forces that led to the tragedy of a US cruiser, the Vincennes, shooting down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people on board.
There could also be attacks by Iran-backed proxies on US forces and those of our allies in the region. Iraq is of particular concern given how exposed our 5,000 troops there are and the number of armed militias roaming around the country with minimal command and control. A rocket fired by the Houthis from Yemen could also hit Saudis and/or Americans, sparking retaliation and an escalatory cycle that would be difficult to control. One should also not discount the possibility of false-flag operations by regional players who want to see a US-Iran conflict.
All of this was completely unnecessary and flows directly from the Trump administration decision to try to cut off ALL Iranian oil exports and literally starve the regime into submission. To do this and not expect Iran to react in some way was the height of diplomatic malpractice and recklessness.
3) Iran is effectively cut off from the global economy, and the country’s economy is in crisis. Yet Iran announces it’s ready to fight and is pushing on with a programme that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Is there a rationale behind Iran’s actions? And are the United States’ tactics of squeezing Iran’s economy likely to succeed or simply harden its resolve?
Iran has shown extraordinary patience. It has been over a year since the US unilaterally quit the JCPOA, but the pressure on Iran began even earlier. European firms that had been planning investment in Iran withdrew soon after Trump was elected, depriving Iran of the benefits it had been promised under the deal. The psychological impact has also been severe; ordinary Iranians have never seemed so hopeless.
US tactics have succeeded in crashing the Iranian economy and morale, but unless Iran sees a realistic diplomatic strategy combined with the sanctions, it’s hard for me to imagine that Iran will agree to negotiations on a new and “better” JCPOA. Iranian officials see how feckless the Trump administration has been in its dealings with other adversaries and have no reason to put faith in any promises the US would make in return for more Iranian concessions.
Pragmatists like President Rouhani have been discredited and could be replaced with harder-line officials who have never sought reconciliation with Washington and who identify more with the Russians and Chinese. It makes more sense for Tehran to hunker down, try to increase leverage on both the nuclear and regional fronts, and wait to see the results of US elections in 2020.
4) What would it take to get both sides back to the negotiating table?
Frankly, it’s hard to see talks occurring with this administration unless Trump is re-elected, in which case the economic pressures may leave Iran with no choice but to put out feelers. Iranians would also probably want to see Trump reshuffle his cabinet, discarding John Bolton and possibly also Mike Pompeo.
Both men are identified with calls for regime change in Iran, in Bolton’s case through military action. Trump would at a minimum need to appoint an envoy with a background of successful diplomacy with Iran – a Ryan Crocker or a James Dobbins, for example – to begin back-channel negotiations. Both men worked with Iran to stand up a government in Afghanistan after 9-11.
Trump would need to give up his goal of photo-op summitry. Iran is not North Korea and its leaders have no interest in being props in a reality show.
The US would also need to scrap Pompeo’s “12 demands” as apparent preconditions for negotiations and focus on a narrower set of concerns. If it follows the successful pattern of the Obama administration, it would look to extend and possibly toughen the nuclear restrictions in the JCPOA in return for more extensive and reliable sanctions relief.
A swap of prisoners could also be included. Discussions on regional conflicts and missiles would need to include other parties and be separate from a nuclear agreement. I have written about what else would be required in this blog.