By Khattar Abou Diab, Al-Arab Newspaper
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have escalated significantly in recent weeks, bringing the two countries closer to the brink of a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf. Although there have been many armed conflicts in the region since the 1980s, a full-scale war between Iran and the U.S. is highly unlikely.
Shortly after taking office in 2016, U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned previous administrations’ vague foreign policies on Iran, which revolved around various political disagreements, in favor of a confrontational approach that articulated a list of consequences for Tehran if it crossed certain red lines.
In May 2018, Mr. Trump kept his election campaign promise and withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, and re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on the country. Six months later, the U.S. Treasury imposed the second set of sanctions against Iran, targeting the country’s oil exports, banking, shipping, and shipbuilding industries.
The U.S. further increased political and economic pressures on Tehran by designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization in April of this year. Also, to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero, and deprive the Islamic Republic regime of its primary source of revenue, Trump ended sanction exemptions on Iranian oil imports for India, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Greece, Taiwan, and Turkey and China.
China, which is Iran’s primary economic partner, finds itself in a precarious situation. Despite its escalating trade war with the U.S., China has not confronted Washington over its Iran policy. Some observers believe that China might take advantage of the current situation by secretly buying Iranian oil at a considerable discount and providing Tehran with the latest military-grade unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology. However, China, India, and Turkey cannot save the Iranian economy and stop the rial from dropping against major foreign currencies.
Beijing played a crucial role in lessening the impact of international sanctions against Iran between 2012 and 2015. However, things are different now, particularly since China has been buying most of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Beijing is walking a political tightrope in its dealings with the U.S. and Iran. It does not want to get involved in the dispute between Washington and Tehran. Its priority is to defuse its trade war with the U.S.
Meanwhile, the European signatories to the JCPOA have not used their economic and political clout to reduce the increasing tensions between Iran and the U.S. Until recently, the Islamic Republic had not responded directly to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and to new sets of stringent sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. However, the latest moves by the U.S. to designate the IRGC a terrorist organization, and to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, have prompted Tehran to issue an ultimatum to the EU. On May 7, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that his country would enrich uranium beyond limits set by the JCPOA if the EU did not fulfill its promise to protect Iran’s economy against the U.S. Sanctions within the next 60 days.
Washington has described Iran’s ultimatum to the EU as an act of “extortion.” Following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, the EU found itself in an unenviable position of having to keep the nuclear deal alive. The EU fears that a war between the U.S. and Iran will have dire consequences for continental Europe.
Although Iran cannot find a buyer for its surplus enriched uranium and excess heavy water, producing them beyond the limits set by the JCPOA will prompt the Europeans to side with President Trump against Tehran. Therefore, Iran cannot create a rift between Europe and the U.S. That is why the EU has dismissed Iran’s 60-day deadline. French President Emmanuel Macron has stressed the need for protecting the JCPOA and curb Iran’s ballistic missiles program.
French sources maintain that President Macron tried to convince Trump that instead of withdrawing from the JCPOA, the P5+1 should try to amend the agreement by changing the sunset clause and inserting new demands for Iran to halt its regional activities and ballistic missile program. Trump reportedly rejected the idea after Iran expanded its operations in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The EU tried hard to protect the Iranian economy from U.S. sanctions, but European banks, industries, and corporations stopped trading with Iran fearing U.S. reprisal.
The French government had tried to persuade Iran to scale back its ballistic missile program and operations in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon. Instead, Tehran tried to assassinate opposition leaders in Denmark, France, and the Netherlands last year. The U.S. and its regional allies have systematically isolated Iran in the past two years.
The Islamic Republic will do anything in its power to safeguard its political and strategic gains in the region, including fulfilling its commitments to the JCPOA. The only thing that would help Iran withstand the current political, economic and potentially military storm is the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran hopes that Trump will lose to a moderate Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential election who will be more sympathetic to the JCPOA and less hostile to the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has deployed aircraft carriers and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf in response to what the White House called “a credible threat” by Iranian military forces. The move coincides with the U.S. Treasury Department’s latest sanctions on the Iranian mine and metal industries.
Trump administration is not planning a comprehensive military attack against Iran as in the Iraq War. The Islamic Republic is nothing like the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. Iran and Iraq have different geopolitical significance. Also, Trump and former U.S. President George W. Bush and their respective administrations have different approaches to foreign policy. However, irrespective of who occupies the White House, the U.S. will retaliate against any Iranian aggression in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. will launch limited and surgical military operations against the Iranian-backed militias if they attack its troops or interests in the region, not unlike Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 (carried out by the U.S. military in the Iranian territorial waters in retaliation for the mining of the Persian Gulf which damaged an American warship.) Israel will most likely play a crucial role in any conflict in the Persian Gulf by attacking the Iranian-backed militias in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Many countries will have to play their part in preventing a war between Iran and the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic has tried to muster public support by reshuffling senior state officials and IRGC commanders. Political observers, however, do not think the regime can stop massive public unrest that started in December 2017. There have been many street protests during the past year by teachers, truckers, nurses, retired military personnel, pensioners, students and workers demanding an end to unemployment, hyperinflation and social injustices.
U.S. pressure might, however, provoke the hardliners and the ideologues inside the regime’s ruling elite to advocate military action against the American forces in the Persian Gulf, which will have dire consequences for the entire region.
[Note: Al-Arab is a London-based Arab-language Pan-Arab newspaper. Khattar Abou Diab is a French-Lebanese political scientist and expert in the Middle Eastern affairs and a professor at Paris-Sud University.]
[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]