Fatih Celenay*, Onur Sultan**
International society has been watching a duel of words and actions between Iran and US since May 2018 when President Trump declared the US would unilaterally withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the nuclear deal as commonly known. This came after President Trump signed a slew of harsh sanctions against Iran. President Trump stated: “ The Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terror. It exports dangerous missiles, fuels conflicts across the Middle East, and supports terrorist proxies” and since then Washington applies “increasing maximum pressure” on Tehran.
Lately, after explosions in two vessels in the Gulf of Oman on 13 June, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US had intelligence that Iran was behind the explosions and that this came as the last in a series of attacks against US and allied interests. He listed those events as:
- Coordinated attacks to four sea vessels in UAE and two oil pumping stations in Saudi Arabia on 14 May, mostly evaluated within the context of war in Yemen,
- A single rocket landing inside Green Zone near US embassy in Iraq on 13 May, which interestingly prompted US to position bombers and aircraft carriers and order partial evacuation of the embassy,
- A Taliban suicide bomber targeting a US convoy in Kabul on 31 May to slightly wound four US service members, a claim found far-stretched by pundits, and finally
- An attack to the arrivals terminal of Abha airport in Saudi Arabia that has been widely seen as part of War in Yemen.
In the latest event in the Gulf of Oman, the US military released a drone video the next day (14 June) showing an Iranian boat removing an unexploded mine attached to the hull of one of the vessels. As the video bears cuts, Japanese operator of the ship claimed the ship was hit by a flying object, further adding doubts to the US claims. Then, on Monday US announced that it will station 1000 additional troops in the Middle East and on Thursday it declared that one of its most expensive drones, a Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk was downed by Iranian forces over international waters. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps responded with a statement saying the drone was flying alongside a manned aircraft and that the drone was warned to change direction while over Iranian territory but after several warnings it was shot down. Last, on 21 June, President Trump tweeted: “ We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not….”
a. State of Play: The current confrontations between the US and Iran are not today’s unexpected incidents. Since Trump came to power in January 2017, he has asserted that Iran has been a state sponsoring terrorism in the Middle East and abusing the diplomatic and economic space created by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement that became possible after intense European efforts.
According to the White House, while benefitting from the JCPOA, Iran continued backing up terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, and Shia elements in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and the country increased its support for the Assad regime. Trump argued that Iran used the funds from sanctions relief, and that it was a big mistake for the former US Administration to sign the nuclear deal. This line of argument lies behind the latest harsh sanctions.
b. From Iranian side: It is possible to say that “the maximum pressure” coming by sanctions does really hurt Iran and Iranians. This can be read from statements by the Iranian President Rouhani confessing that the consequences of the US economic sanctions would be dire for the Iranian people. He also demanded EU to alleviate the effects of these economic sanctions, and stated it was not fair to punish Iranian people while Tehran had been compliant with JCPOA since the beginning. Rouhani added that Iran would decrease the level of its commitment to the nuclear deal if the economic sanctions were not lifted. Rouhani also accepted that the sanctions significantly damaged the Iranian economy and Iranian people were in a difficult situation. Against this backdrop, France, Germany and UK formed in January 2019 “The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)” as a means to continue non-dollar trade with Iran.
Many commentators wrongly assume Iranians do not care about the pressure coming by economic sanctions. It should be noted that current Iranian Administration came to the power by the promise of a stronger economy and higher level of welfare. However, today’s picture is completely different than the one Rouhani and reformists promised to create in the past. As the effects of the sanctions deepen and become more felt, so does the number of disgruntled Iranians.
There is abundant literature on the consequences of the economic sanctions arguing this will eventually bring about a regime change in Iran. The missing part is that the regime is well aware of this fact. For that reason, the regime plays an aggressive role in the Middle East aiming to change balance of power, invoking religious and nationalist rhetoric to rally public support, an important element for survival.
The recent events such as terrorist attacks in Iran which claimed the lives of many civilians, the destruction of oil tankers, and downing of the US drones (in both Iran and Yemen) are several important incidences to keep the public support alive, and are useful tools to frame the government argument about the conspiracies against Islam, Iranians, and Tehran.
Many Iranians believe that US is the great “Satan”, Israel is the small “Satan”, and the Arab states are the puppets of the Western countries. A US military or other action directly targeting Iran would unite a significant amount of the Iranians behind the current regime, and solidify the support for Tehran. This effect would be deepened if combined with a language not differentiating the Iranian people from the moves of the government. One of the tweets by Trump that read : “They [Iranians] are a much weakened nation today” can be a cited as a timely example for that.
Iranian regime seems to have joined the band in efforts to escalate the tension up to a certain point that would increase the level of nationalist and religious sentiments in the country because the effects of the economic sanctions has been getting stronger each day. Getting involved in a military conflict with the US would become the primary concern of the Iranian public, and the terrible economic conditions would be less questionable.
Moreover, Iranian leaders such as Khamenei and Rouhani repeatedly stated that they do not believe that JCPOA is beneficial to Iran anymore, and Khamenei once said it was a mistake to sign the nuclear deal because it does not serve Iran’s national interests. The opposition against the nuclear deal within Iran is so strong that some religious leaders even conflate the deal per se and stopping Iran’s nuclear investments because of the relations with Western countries with treason.
The importance of the nuclear technology for the Iranians is two-fold. If the state was to develop nuclear weapons and join the nuclear club, this would provide Tehran a kind of immunity from outside threats. Second, nuclear technology is an important issue of prestige for Iranians. In addition to its military use, nuclear technology harnessed for peaceful purposes is a kind of indicator of forwardness and superiority. That is why hedging towards a nuclear weapon technology is very important.
The international community and especially the Western countries are strongly against Iran’s ambitions regarding attainment of a nuclear weapon technology, and they want Iran to comply with provisions of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a party. JCPOA was a result of this Western anxiety over this issue and further will to make trade with this country by creating safeguards that would relieve some of the US concerns.
Iran has complied with the provisions of the agreement so far despite US withdrawal. This has two reasons. First, other signatories of the JCPOA and the EU still support the nuclear deal. Second, blatantly breaking out from the agreement would make Iran lose the support of the international community. Tehran does not want to be treated like North Korea. Instead, it wants to be a compliant member of international community, and it wants to integrate its economy with the world despite its support to shi’ite and militant groups in the Middle East.
However, a military confrontation with an outside power such as US would give the Iranian regime the perfect excuse to break out from the nuclear deal, and resume its nuclear program. Increasing the level of uranium enrichment would be one of the first steps, and Iran already declared that it decreased the level of its commitment to the nuclear deal and that it would breach uranium stockpile limits set with the JCPOA.
From the US side: Trump is a master in use of Twitter, his history in using personal tweets, measuring feedback and formulating resonant messages dates back as early as 2011. Brooking and Singer’s latest book “Like War” gives details on how President has had bent since earliest times in using the platform to stay in the spotlights and increase support. So, as often claimed, accusing him for not using the platform properly depends on point of view. Because he does know what he does very well.
In the latest tension with Iran, the US President wants to prop up support among US electors ahead of 2020 presidential elections. As history records no president to have lost elections during war time, Trump might be aiming to give the impression of a US president at war to his electors.
US President’s slogan before his election was “Make America Great Again”. The path he has opted for is an economical pro-active stance to increase welfare of the American people. In this regard, Trump has shown in many occasions, to include his support to leaders like Sisi, Haftar and Mohammad bin Salman that he is not the President that will favor values but one focusing on practical gains. He has no issues with being right or wrong but more with being on the winning side. Despite American bureaucrats’ and diplomats’ allegations asserting otherwise, actions speak louder. This modus operandi is visible in current American administration plans to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan and readiness to sit around negotiation table with Taliban which would let US soldiers return home and transfer total / partial authority to the latter. This is true despite obvious negative effects this would have on regional stability. So, within this context, it would be naïve to expect US to enter an all-out war with Iran based on the latter’s support to Hezbollah and terrorism.
During his presidency President Trump has shown willingness to fight several times. But in all occasions he has made contradictory moves / gestures when push comes to shove. Latest rapprochement with North Korea and his efforts to balance hawkish statements of his national security advisor about Iran upon fall of rocket into Green Zone in Iraq can be read so.
But, a limited confrontation or an increased tension with Iran has potential to show partners in the Gulf that US is sharing their concerns regarding the country and further lubricate US arms industry. During his presidency, the US has been able to sell unprecedented amount of arms and war equipment to the oil-rich Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as poor countries like Egypt. For example, number one global leader arms recipient in both 2017 and 2018, Saudi Arabia bought 63 pc of its arms from the US in 2018. A simple google search to include keywords like “Saudi Arabia” “buys” “Patriot” generates 4.170.000 results. What is more, Patriot is not the only system US sells to the Kingdom. In 2017, the Kingdom stroke deal with US on provision of Lockheed Martin’s THAAD systems that would cost some $15 billions.
According to SIPRI database, Egypt has ranked globally between 2015 and 2018 fourth, fifth, third and fifth again. Its GDP per capita in constant fall since 2016, going from 3479 USD to 2412 USD in 2017 (World Bank Data), the country has been struggling with poverty and violations to rule of law. However, the country seems not to have neglected to buy arms despite those difficulties. Pieter Wezeman from SIPRI says in 2017, “7 of the 10 countries in the world with the highest military burden were in the Middle East.”
Finally, these confrontations / tensions with Iran serve to whitewash Trump administration’s and his recent favorite allies’ debatable moves by securitizing Iran. The havoc created by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen becomes legitimate, Israel’s newer illegitimate settlements in occupied lands is diverted from attention and discussion all through this latest standoff with Iran. Otherwise, how would it be possible to explain US intention to move a fleet to the Middle East and partial evacuation of Embassy in Baghdad after landing of a single rocket into the Green Zone. Anne Speckhard attracts attention to the fact that non-essential personnel of the Embassy had already been ordered days earlier from the attack to evacuate and asks: “Is the threat greater now than it was when the U.S. embassy was housed in Saddam’s former palace, and frequently underwent mortar fire? In those days none of the 5,000 embassy personnel were ordered home.”
So far, none of major powers have given official support to US assertions that Iran was behind the recent attacks to two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, neither have they shown tendency to support latest series of actions under the label of “maximum pressure” against Iran. In this regard, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has declared the video presented by US military as “not enough”. Russian ambassador to the UN accused US for “aggressive, accusatory rhetoric and artificially fueling anti-Iranian sentiment.” Responding to a question regarding Iran’s declaration that it would not abide by 300 kg enriched uranium limit imposed by the nuclear deal, EU’s Federica Mogherini last Monday said: “So far Iran has been compliant with its nuclear commitments as we had expected it to be, as we had encouraged it to be […] and we strongly hope, encourage, and expect that Iran continues to comply with its commitments under the JCPOA in full […] A common approach that all the Member States expressed is that of trying to focus all our action and all our diplomatic work to try to avoid an escalation and actually help de-escalating, because what we would not like to see is a military escalation in the region.”
But two things should be clear. One is that, Iran does indeed support terrorist groups and threaten stability in the region. Second, Trump administration does not seek an all-out war in the recent escalation. The administration wants to first create pressure upon Iran and then use it to make the state sit around table under more favorable terms to US. As a secondary target, US also wants Iran cut its support to terrorist groups.
Iran is well aware of the intention. As stated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamanei on 14 May: “There won’t be any war.” Because, he continued: “We don’t seek a war, and they don’t either. They know it’s not in their interests.”
* Non-resident Analyst at Beyond the Horizon International Security Studies Group.
** Ph.D. candidate and visiting fellow at Beyond the Horizon International Security Studies Group.