Prelude to war or diplomatic overture?

What’s next for the United States and Iran.


Tensions continue to rise amid a deteriorating economic situation in Iran and a build-up of US military equipment in the Middle East. Predictions for the future, however, remain polarised. Some argue that the current friction will come to nothing. Pointing to the similarities between President Donald Trump’s relations with North Korea and Iran, some suggest that a diplomatic breakthrough may be on the cards. Refusal by either side to back down and engage in discussions, however, has led others to predict that war is becoming an inevitability.

Both views are misplaced. The situation is more volatile today than it was during the crisis with North Korea. Personal grudges, clashing ideologies, and political pressures narrow the potential for compromise. The stakes, however, are also arguably much higher. The involvement of the vital strategic and political interests of both sides means that a full-blown war will not be allowed to happen.

Relations between the United States and Iran have been strained since the 1950s. Despite these tensions, in 2015 Iran reached an agreement with six countries, including the US, to limit its enrichment of uranium in return for the removal of sanctions placed on it by other countries.

In May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The sanctions he has since reinstated on Iran have caused triple digit inflation and massive reductions in the value of its oil exports. Economic hardship has in turn led to conservative criticism of President Hasan Rouhani’s decision to enter into the JCPOA in the first place.

On May 8th of this year, Iran gave the remaining countries in the JCPOA sixty days to come up with a way of protecting Iranian oil sales from US sanctions. If China, Russia and the EU states fail to find a solution, it has threatened to suspend its restrictions on uranium enrichment and halt the redesigning of its heavy-water reactor.

Some commentators have predicted a similar alleviation in tensions between Trump and Rouhani as occurred between North Korea and the US.

There are certainly commonalities between the two crises. Then as now John Bolton very publicly pushed for America to take an aggressive stance towards a so-called threat. Writing in the Wall Street Journal a month before becoming National Security Adviser, he argued that it would be “perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”

Why is this situation different? In February 2018, John Bolton had little in the way of formal power; it would be another month before he ascended to the position of National Security Advisor.

But tensions between the US and Iran run much deeper. On the American side, many individuals with personal bones to pick are involved. Bolton has openly professed his dislike for Iran since his time in the Bush administration. As a profoundly Christian Zionist, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s views run counter to Iran’s bellicose attitude towards Israel. Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric could not be more at odds with Iran’s conservative Islamist government.

From the Iranian perspective, the government has little reason to trust the US. The Americans have a long history of improper involvement in Iran, including the CIA’s 1953 instigation of a coup against their democratically elected Prime Minister, as well as its role in the Iran-Contra affair. Both ensure that Iranian hatred for the Americans runs deep.

The weakened position of the moderates in Iran’s government also limits the potential for discourse. Calls for dissent and withdrawal from the nuclear agreement grow ever louder among Iran’s conservatives. Rouhani’s promise that the JCPOA would bring economic prosperity was overconfident and short-lived. Growing scepticism regarding the President’s foreign policy will thus severely limit his potential for conciliation with the US.

Does this mean war? Probably not.

The threat to oil and gas facilities in the Persian Gulf will likely make even the most hawkish policymaker think twice before acting. A war with Iran would also give it free reign to attack Israel, an American ally.

Wanting to maintain its soft power in the region, the US will not attempt a direct intervention in Iran. A more realistic prediction for the future is a series of proxy wars between the two states. Indirect conflict between Iranian backed militias and US or Israeli armed forces will intensify in countries such as Syria if relations remain in deadlock. More drastically, however, failure to limit the impact of crippling US sanctions could cause Iran to withdraw from the nuclear agreement. This would mean an end to international oversight on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

What seems increasingly clear is that the US is out to pick a fight. Pompeo took the provocative step in April of listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation. Yet a recent statement by the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria argued that the threat from Iranian-backed forces had not increased. That Iran’s alleged “troubling escalatory measures” may just be an excuse for American neoconservatives to reassert their position in the Middle East seems likely. The question now is whether the US will succeed in entrenching its influence in the region. If it doesn’t, a miscalculation from either side could lead to unintended conflict.

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