The changing dynamics of the Iranian crisis

The crisis in relations between the United States and Iran has continued to evolve in a manner that is creating an osmotic concern and anxiety not only within the Middle East- Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and Egypt- but also in Member countries of the European Union, China, Japan, Russia, Canada and other countries of Central Asia. Anxiety is certainly mounting gradually as oil has edged further above US Dollar 63 per barrel.

There have been reports that both United States and Iran have undertaken the homework of identifying targets within the ambit of influence of both these countries. The US has moved reinforcements to the region and also taken the step of reducing its non-essential diplomatic personnel in Iraq. Analysts following the dynamics feel that the "Iran hawks" in the Trump administration - National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo currently sense an opportunity that, according to them might usher in regime change in Tehran. Some within this following also feel that if maximum economic pressure does not work then military action should not be ruled out in the appropriate circumstances.

One needs to realize at this point that Iran’s economy is suffering from the re-imposition of US sanctions that were lifted under a 2015 nuclear accord with world powers. It is having a serious socio-economic impact on its general population.

The arrival of President Trump in the international scene has been the turning point.

The scenario has seen several factors within its dynamics. The latest has been the revelation through leaked documents in the British newspaper ‘Mail on Sunday’ about the comments made by the British Ambassador to Washington Kim Darroch (who has since resigned). He had indicated to London that President Trump had pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal because it was associated with his predecessor Barack Obama. Darroch had apparently also been critical of the US State Department for not being able to articulate any sort of joint plan for reaching out to partners and allies, whether in Europe or in the region. President Trump himself has however sought to play down the idea that his officials are divided regarding Iran.

Efforts are apparently being undertaken now by the EU and Britain to bring about a reasonable resolution to the evolving crisis despite tensions created through the capture of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar by the British authorities and the capture of the Stena Impero tanker carrying oil possibly destined for Britain. This tanker is now under Iranian custody in its Bandar Abbas Port. The latest step has been taken through the convening of a JCPOA meeting in Vienna on July 28. These efforts indicate that various Parties realize that the Middle East is not onlyalready one of the most unstable regions in the world but that if the different parties also are armed with nuclear weapons it would represent an existential threat to mankind. They are consequently correctly urging all those associated with the heightening of the crisis "to pause and consider the possible consequences of their actions." This approach seems to have been overlooked with the latest US decision to impose US sanctions on Iran’s Foreign Minister M. Javed Zarif. The sanctions will freeze any of Zarif’s assets in the United States or that are controlled by US entities. It will also aim to curtail his international travel. It is understood that an effort is underway where Britain and its European partners- France and Germany- will encourage Iran to stick to its pledges contained in the nuclear deal that involved Iran limiting nuclear activities in return for the easing of economic sanctions.

Britain, France and Germany have reiterated their support for the nuclear deal once again. They have also mentioned that they were "deeply troubled" by recent events in the Gulf and "concerned" over US-Iran relations. A statement issued by them has mentioned that "we believe the time has come to act responsibly and seek a path to stop the escalation of tensions and resume dialogue". They have also rationally pointed out that "the risks are such that it is necessary for all stakeholders to pause and consider the possible consequences of their actions." This concern on the part of these countries had emerged with an announcement earlier in July that Iran would be breaching the nuclear deal by transgressing the limit set on uranium enrichment.

James Robbins has underlined the anxiety that is emerging in Europe. He has pointed out that these Germany and France are particularly being pro-active and constructive to try to prevent the crisis in relations with Iran deteriorating into something far worse: armed conflict. In this context the world will carefully monitor how the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will attempt to resolve the crisis. It is already being mentioned that the new British Administration might try to persuade the EU to agree to create a Europe-led maritime protection force that would patrol the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

One needs to remember that in 2015 Iran signed up to a long-term deal - called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - after the international community expressed concerns they were trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran, which insisted its nuclear programme, was entirely peaceful, agreed to limit some nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors. It may be recalled that under this Agreement Iran was permitted3.67 % uranium enrichment cap and a stockpile of 300 kilograms.  In return, the other signatories – USA, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia - agreed to lift some of the crippling economic sanctions placed on Iran. However in 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the USA from the Agreement.

It would be important to point out here that Iran has been subjected to careful monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since signing the deal in 2015 and they have till recently stated that Iran was following the agreed matrix conditions. However, this July they have confirmed that Iran had now breached the Deal’s cap on stockpiling of low-enriched uranium. Iran’s nuclear agency has said that it had enriched uranium to 4.5 per cent purity and was now considering lifting it to 20 per cent in 60 days time. On 15 July, after the Brussels meeting, Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy Chief has however mentioned that Iran's recent breaches of the 2015 nuclear deal are not significant and can be reversed. She has also invited Iran to reverse the steps and go back to full compliance.

After exercising strategic patience since 8 May 2018, this measure had apparently been undertaken, with the blessings of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in keeping with their anger over the manner in which the United States was treating their country. The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi has also reportedly said that Iran still wanted to salvage the deal but has blamed European countries for failing to live up to their own commitments. 

Washington's key Middle Eastern allies - Israel and Saudi Arabia – appear to be relatively happy with the firm position taken by the United States against Iran but Trump's European partners like Spain, Germany and the Netherlands are uneasy at the way things are heading and have all taken steps to suspend military activities in the region alongside the Americans, citing the rising tensions.

It is clear that this unfolding and multi-dimensional crisis has many elements. The Iran situation illustrates them all: an antipathy to international agreements; an over-reliance on regional allies with their own agendas to pursue; rising tensions with long-standing NATO partners; and, above all, an inability to determine and to prioritize Washington's real strategic interests. Some are also interpreting the emerging scenario as the revival of great power competition, where the US is seeking to re-orientate its deployments and to bolster its armed forces to face a rising China and an emboldened Russia. At present Iran clearly does not rate very high in Washington's strategic priorities as compared to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman and Egypt. This is also partially infuriating Iran.

Tamara Qiblawi has made some interesting observations. It has been pointed out that while in the Persian Gulf, a US aircraft carrier is lurking off the Iranian coast, sending out a message of aggression, in the Levant, the US is rolling out its version of a peace plan for the Israelis and the Palestinians. The US is banging war drums adjacent to Iran and extending an olive branch just a few hundred miles away. Such an approach is being interpreted as aiming towards strong-arming parties into accepting the tough demands of America. Unfortunately, some believe that such a course of action could propel decades-long tensions toward a new, and possibly more violent, chapter in the region's history.

The US Administration has already heightened pressure not only through economic coercion and cutting Iran’s oil export capability but also by putting a 'foreign terror organization' label on the elite wing of Iran's military- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. All of this has been ostensibly undertaken to force Iran back to the table for further negotiations on the existing nuclear deal. Tehran has however rebuffed Trump's overtures to talk. However, in the highly charged environment of the social media age, this is inevitably becoming a struggle as much about perceptions as reality.

One aspect is however very clear. US security strategists know that Iran, if attacked, could easily launch in response a hybrid war - both directly and through its proxies. Their aim would be to carry out sporadic and widely dispersed attacks on shipping and other targets in the Persian Gulf. This would send oil prices and insurance premiums up. This in turn could also perhaps encourage further punitive responses.

This clearly is an unpalatable prospect for all concerned, risking dangerous escalation. One can only hope that all parties will exercise caution and avoid a full-scale conflict. It needs to be understood by the US that despite their considerable military power, an air and maritime war against Iran would have severe implications and could raise all sorts of dangers and instability for neighboring countries in the Gulf region near the Strait of Hormuz.

One needs to conclude with the comments made by Shirin Ebadi and Judy Williams, world renowned peace activists- “Iran wants the economic sanctions lifted. The United States wants, at the minimum, an assurance that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons. Wisdom dictates that the US and Iran commit to an agreement that addresses these mutual concerns.”

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.