Analysis

U.S.-Iran Escalation on Verge of Turning Into Real Slugfest

Neither Washington nor Tehran is in a rush to arm its warplanes, but the risk that this tug of war becomes an exchange of military blows has become more real

British oil tanker Stena Impero that was seized by Iran.
Stena Bulk,AP

The threat issued by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt after the seizure of a British oil tanker by Iran on Friday, according to which this would have “grave implications,” immediately raised an assumption that Britain, not the U.S., would be the one spearheading military action against the Revolutionary Guards.

But Hunt hurried to clarify that his country was not seeking a military solution but rather a diplomatic one. Britain, which maintains full diplomatic relations with Iran and is abiding by the nuclear accord, will not be fulfilling the wishes of those seeking war against Iran.

Washington is also not in a rush to arm its warplanes and ready its missiles in preparation for military action, which could plunge the entire region into war. Along with threats and warnings sounded by Trump, the U.S. president also allowed Republican Senator Rand Paul to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York last week, with the purpose of finding a way out of the crisis in the Gulf.

>> Read more: Iran's attack on U.S. drone is just a preview of what's to come in the Mideast | Analysis ■ Iran's Guards release video showing seizure of British tanker | WATCH

Iran is adopting a similar strategy. On one hand, it’s threatening the freedom of movement in the Persian Gulf, warning that any military attack against it will be met with a determined counterattack. But at the same time, Zarif declared that his country would be willing to add a clause to the nuclear accord, in which it would commit to allowing more extensive and tighter monitoring of its nuclear facilities if sanctions were lifted.

Zarif is not expressing his own thoughts; he’s presenting an official Iranian position which could be the opening gambit in renewed negotiations, even if this is not currently acceptable in Washington. Its main importance lies in the fact that, in contrast to the usual declarations by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has so far rejected any dealings with the U.S., he is now allowing one thread sticking out from the jumbled mess to be unraveled, in order to test Washington’s reaction.

Khamenei has shown in the past that in times of distress he tends to adopt a policy of “heroic flexibility,” a policy he invented to justify negotiations over the nuclear accord.

Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif arrives for a meeting at the United Nations in New York, July 18, 2019.
AFP

In 2002, he allowed then-President Mohammad Khatami to correspond with President George W. Bush and propose negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an American commitment not to attack. Bush did not reply to Khatami’s letter and Iran – which had agreed to unilaterally suspend its nuclear program – resumed its development at full speed.

Four years later, Iranian then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter to Bush, calling on him to conduct a dialogue on “world affairs” and on handling global crises. In 2008, Ahmadinejad sent a letter to Bush’s successor Barack Obama, congratulating him on winning the election – a first missive of its kind from a post-revolution Iranian president – again calling for a dialogue on world affairs.

This week, the New York Times published a long interview it held with Ahmadinejad, who since 2013 has not held any official position but who is still close to the Revolutionary Guards, with a respectable following among conservatives. Ahmadinejad, who has not yet given up his intention of running for president again, said Trump was a businessman who could calculate costs and benefits and make decisions accordingly. Iran, he said, was telling the United States to consider the long-term costs for both countries and avoid looking at the short term.

It’s doubtful Ahmadinejad received Khamenei’s permission to grant this interview. In the past, he stood up to Khamenei and even criticized the way the country was being run, but his current words may reflect the position of other senior conservatives in Iran.

Former Revolutionary Guards commander Hossein Alai has said that Iran must “employ the mechanism of negotiations and not dispense with holding talks,” while the head of the committee for national security and foreign policy in Iran’s parliament, Mojtaba Zolnour, declared that Iran was not running away from talks and that the path of negotiations was still open.

Zolnour, who is one of the more radical conservatives in Iran, was formerly one of the most vehement opponents of the U.S. and the nuclear accord, recently threatened to act aggressively and with resolve against any attempts to harm Iran, saying it could destroy Israel in half an hour.

It’s hard to assess whether these statements, which bridge the divide between Western-educated Zarif, who is considered a reformer, and some of the more radical conservatives, reflect a dispute among conservatives or the outline of a new policy based on pressures Iran is now facing. But when public discourse in Iran pulls the term “contacts with the U.S.” out of a drawer containing absolute prohibitions, one may assume, with the required caution, that the course of negotiations will not only reopen but yield results that will calm the region.

Support for this can be found on the American side, with Trump facing determined legislators who are trying to restrict his ability to embark on an “illegal” war against Iran. A vote in Congress on legislation intended to curb the president’s authority was supported by most Democrats and 27 Republicans. Trump could use security reasons and American national interests to bypass such restrictions, but after skirting Congress’ restrictions on selling arms to Saudi Arabia with a presidential decree, he may find himself facing much more suffocating legislation.

Nevertheless, the sparring between Washington and Tehran seems on the verge of turning into a real slugfest. It’s true that the tactical sum of events does not necessitate war – the damage to four tankers in the Gulf, with no proof that Iran was responsible – the downing of an American drone, the denied downing of an Iranian drone and the seizure of a British tanker are weak pretexts for war despite the economic damage they inflict on oil business in the Gulf.

But if for the first time in 16 years the U.S. intends to deploy forces in Saudi Arabia (with Saudi consent), and with Trump intending to send a squadron of F-22 warplanes and 1,000 soldiers, it’s not only the American policy of disentangling from war zones that is being reversed. The risk that a tug of war becomes an exchange of military blows has become more real.