Analysis

As Tensions Rise Between U.S. and Iran, Each Side Is Waiting for the Other to Blink

Both Tehran and Washington eschew war, but must save face. A powerful mediator, like Moscow and Beijing, is necessary to pull them back from the brink

Spanish, British, French and American naval vessels sail in formation in the Mediterranean Sea, April 24, 2019
AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump gave the Iranians his phone number and told them to call if they want to talk. The Iranians replied that they have no intention of calling, because there’s nobody to talk to. They don’t trust either America or the Europeans.

Iran warned Washington that any attack on it would be answered with great force, but in the same breath, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said there won’t be war with America. The New York Times reported that the United States plans to send 120,000 troops to the Gulf on top of bomber squadrons and an aircraft carrier; Trump denied it, calling it fake news.

Two Saudi oil tankers and four commercial ships were damaged by “unknown” saboteurs. Riyadh accused Iran; Tehran denied it. Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired missiles at Saudi oil facilities but said they were responding to the Saudis’ war in Yemen, not trying to deter an attack on Iran.

The deputy commander of the Western forces in Iraq and Syria, British Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, said there’s no increased threat from Iranian-backed militias. U.S. Central Command disagreed, saying it has concrete information about plans to attack American targets.

Is anyone telling the truth? Does anyone know what’s happening?

Tensions are rising, the atmosphere in the Gulf is filled with flammable vapor and speculation is running wild. Will there be war? Will there be negotiations? Will the Iranian regime collapse? Will it fold, or will it start a conflict because it’s fed up with sanctions?

Iran already made its strategic decision when it said it would reduce its commitment to the nuclear deal. For now, that means increasing its stockpiles of heavy water and low-enriched uranium.

But that decision has no real effect on Iran’s nuclear program as long as Tehran doesn’t enrich uranium to high levels, kick out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and restart facilities closed under the agreement. It’s not there yet.

Iran still considers the nuclear agreement in force but has retracted its commitment to uphold the deal in full despite America’s withdrawal from it. While it won’t engage in violations that might prompt military action against it, its full compliance is no longer assured.

This was a cautious step to the brink; now we’re waiting for one side to blink. But it could also be an invitation to negotiate.

The West’s working assumption, especially in Washington, is that the sanctions will force Iran to fold and agree to new negotiations, which would reopen the nuclear deal and also include its ballistic missile program and its intervention in countries like Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Iran has capitulated to sanctions or threats of war twice before.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani attending a government meeting in the capital Tehran. May 14, 2019
AFP

Once was in 2003, after America toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Then-President Mohammad Khatami wrote to his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush, offering comprehensive negotiations over all disagreements including the nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Bush ignored the offer, even though Iran froze its nuclear program to prove its goodwill.

The second was when Khamenei approved talks with the United States and five other countries that led to the nuclear deal.

Washington attributed the first capitulation to Iran’s feeling of being threatened militarily after America invaded Iraq and the second to economic pressure created by international sanctions. But while these explanations are theoretically logical, in Iran’s case, they’re insufficient.

Why, for instance, did Iran hold nuclear talks with Europe and the IAEA for a decade – until the end of 2012, about six months before Hassan Rohani was elected president – but consistently thwart and ultimately freeze the negotiations? If Iran feared an American attack in 2003, why it did it then stop fearing one and refuse to fold throughout that decade?

Moreover, if sanctions or threats of war could reliably alter countries’ behavior, why did Washington need to go to war against Iraq after more than decade of sanctions? And why didn’t Iran capitulate to the severe sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States before the nuclear deal?

Pragmatic Tehran

The West generally argues that the earlier sanctions weren’t tough enough and the military threat wasn’t seen as credible. As proof, pundits note that despite the sanctions, Iran was able to amass huge foreign currency reserves and finance various development programs, including the nuclear program and an advanced missile industry, thanks in part to a global smuggling enterprise abetted by other countries. Moreover, military action was vehemently opposed by Russia and China, which even threatened that it could spark a superpower war.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, Friday, May 18, 2019
Thomas Peter,AP

Yet in fact, Iran decided to enter substantive negotiations at the very moment when the military threat was removed, under U.S. President Barack Obama.

The greatest threat to the regime was actually the mass protests of 2009. And those weren’t against Iran’s foreign policy but against corruption, the dictatorship of the elite, severe human rights violations and the massive electoral fraud that led to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection as president.

Nor was this the uprising Bush had hoped to spark through sanctions – one aimed at toppling the regime. The protesters demanded reforms but didn’t seek to change the system of government.

Despite its uncompromising effort to protect itself against domestic threats, the Iranian regime has always taken a pragmatic line on foreign policy. It offered to help the United States in its war in Afghanistan and supported America’s attack on Iraq. Khamenei ordered action against Al-Qaida, and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq fought the Islamic State in close proximity to American forces.

Iran recognized the need to calm the Syrian-Israeli border, and when Yemen’s civil war began, it advised the Houthis to reach a compromise with the Yemeni regime rather than embark on an all-out war. Iran cooperates with both India and Pakistan, two rival nuclear powers, and though Shi’ite, it aids Afghanistan’s Sunni Taliban movement, which is negotiating with the United States.

Iran never demanded that Turkey sever relations with Israel, and despite its own excellent relations with Ankara, it’s also an ally of the Iraqi Kurds. It continues to seek a resumption of relations with Egypt, despite Cairo’s close military cooperation with Israel.

Iran wraps the ideological contractions of its foreign policy in flowery phrases like “heroic flexibility,” Khamenei’s term for his willingness to negotiate the nuclear deal. Now he’s talking about “a new stage of the Islamic revolution” to justify Iran’s reduced commitment to that agreement.

Rohani spoke of “strategic patience” to explain why Iran didn’t respond to the U.S. withdrawal from the deal. As long as revolutionary phrases can be found to cover a rational policy, everything is fine.

Rohani recently declared that “strategic patience has ended.” That heralded the return of the “resistance economy,” the slogan used for economic measures like cutting subsidies, halting major development plans and finding indirect ways to export oil and import other goods.

But trying to market the “resistance economy” to Iranians once again is a political risk because the regime, like the West, can’t predict how the public will respond.

Trump’s new sanctions on the metal industries could result in the layoff of around 1.5 million workers in the steel, aluminum and auto industries. Reducing the exchange-rate subsidies given to meat importers, and probably importers of other staples as well, will further raise food prices, which have already soared from 30 to 120 percent this year. Basic services will be cut severely due to the dramatic drop in oil revenues.

Popular revolt?

Will all this bring Iranians into the streets, to the delight of Trump and especially his national security adviser, John Bolton? Iranian history is full of public protests and political revolts that even led to revolutions; the current regime is the product of one such revolution, which initially enjoyed support from most segments of Iranian society.

Unrest bubbled for almost 30 years before Iranians overturned the Shah’s regime. The Islamic Revolution celebrated its 40th anniversary this year and the regime is still stable. Yet the same was said of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi right before the people ousted them.

It’s impossible to know whether sanctions combined with a military threat will bring out the critical masses needed for a revolution. But punishment and threats don’t offer Iranians a promising horizon, which is a necessary condition for an uprising. Rather, they may well bolster patriotism – not because the public loves the ayatollahs, but because of traumatic memories of Western occupation and aggression during and after the colonial era. Washington is now feeding these memories.

Iranian demonstrators carry a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and an effigy of US President Donald Trump during a rally in the capital Tehran, on May 10 2019.
AFP

The question isn’t just what Tehran will do about the enormous pressure it’s under, but what Washington will do if Iran doesn’t fold. It’s unlikely that the Trump administration has any plan beyond sanctions and waiting for an Iranian phone call. The attacks on the Saudi ships and pipeline aren’t justification for war. Moreover, the administration doesn’t even claim to have proof that Iran was behind the attacks, aside from general information that pro-Iranian forces were planning attacks on American targets.

Trump is also embroiled in a political battle with Congress, which has warned him not to drag the country into another Iraq-style war. Senior people in both houses have demanded more detailed information about the Iranian threat, and Thursday, congressional leaders received a closed briefing about it from Trump’s advisers.

Russia is benefiting from the sanctions on Iran, but a war that would bring massive American forces into the Gulf is the last thing it wants. China, which is waging a titanic battle with Washington over a trade agreement, has significantly reduced oil purchases from Iran, but a military conflict that would raise oil prices would cause it huge economic damage. The Arab Gulf states, which are in range of Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles, are also a barrier to war.

This dense web of interests and pressures demands a “deal of the century” for two parties that don’t want war but must preserve their honor and prestige. A powerful mediator who can break the mutual bear hug is also needed.

So maybe it’s time for Moscow and Beijing to enter the arena and return both sides to negotiations, while also collecting suitable mediation fees in diplomatic coin.