United States and Iran: Confrontation or Dialogue?
On 6 August 2018, the U.S. government officially rolled back nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. These sanctions had previously been lifted under the terms of the Iran nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But in May 2018, President Trump decided to withdraw the United States from this multilateral agreement. Through a 12-point demand set forth by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States has in essence adopted a maximalist posture vis-a-vis Iran that is widely regarded as unrealistic.
In response, Iran has complained both to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, accusing the U.S. government of violating international law and the 1955 Treaty of Amity between the United States and Iran. Additionally, Iran triggered the JCPOA’s internal mechanism, known as the Joint Commission, which issued a statement on behalf of the other signatories—Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany, and the EU—reconfirming “their commitment to the full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal.”
Considering the JCPOA vital to their economic and security interests, European governments have designed a new, so-called blocking regulation aimed at protecting European firms doing business with Iran from U.S. sanctions. Similarly, these governments have raised the possibility of Euro-denominated trade with Iran in order to bypass U.S. financial institutions, promoting investment in Iran by the European Investment Bank, and issuing lines of credit for trade with Iran. Citing numerous reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency confirming Iran’s full compliance with its JCPOA obligations, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, stated that renegotiating the JCPOA is "simply not an option." A JCPOA minus the United States has now become a distinct possibility. It reflects a new rift in transatlantic relations, and casts doubt on the wisdom of the White House’s decision to abandon a robust and effective multilateral agreement, to paraphrase U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Trump’s Iran policy also faces China’s categorical rejection of the United States’ call to cut its oil imports from Iran. Even India, which relies heavily on oil imports from Iran, has announced that it does not recognize U.S. unilateral sanctions, and recognizes only UN sanctions. NATO ally Turkey has also denounced U.S. sanctions on Iran and has pledged to maintain normal economic relations with Iran.
Meanwhile, many foreign companies have quit Iran due to new U.S. sanctions, exacerbating the government’s economic woes, attributable to mismanagement and corruption, which have led to outbursts of economic protests by ordinary Iranians. But with many Iranians blaming the U.S. for reneging on the nuclear deal, the Trump administration’s open advocacy of regime change from below has little chance of success. The administration is not helped by the fact that its stance aligns it with the MEK, a fringe Iranian opposition group with a history of siding with Iran’s enemies during the Iran-Iraq War. A more likely possibility, however, is a direct military confrontation between Iran and the United States, reminiscent of past clashes.
The Winds of War
Without doubt, the United States and Iran are today on a collision course and are treading the dangerous waters of open conflict. Iran's leaders have vowed to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz if Iran is denied the right to export its oil. Iran has also begun to flex its muscles by conducting naval war games in the Persian Gulf to add real teeth to these warnings. Although no match for the colossal U.S. military, Iran counts on its few advantages of asymmetrical warfare that would expand the theater of conflict well beyond Iran's borders.
Cognizant of U.S. overstretch and Washington’s priority of containing the twin China-Russia threats, Tehran is likely to engage in calculated brinksmanship in the Persian Gulf. This could raise the costs for the United States and its allies through, for example, skyrocketing oil prices that imperil the world economy. In such a scenario, the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the region would seek to keep the Strait open. This is bound to trigger clashes with Iran, which is equipped with radar-guided anti-ship ballistic missiles. Acting as the gendarme of the Persian Gulf would translate into prohibitive long-term costs for the United States.
President Trump, who in his campaign speeches lamented the wasteful Iraq war, may be averse towards igniting another unpredictable war that could affect his domestic economic priorities. At the same time, tensions with Iran have resulted in lucrative multi-billion dollar arms sales to Iran's Arab rivals, thus benefiting the Western military-industrial complex. However, such benefits may be eclipsed by the heavier price of conflict and distractions from fighting terrorism, in light of omnious reports of ISIS' comeback in Iraq. Indeed, the latter points to one of the fundamental pitfalls of Trump's hostile Iran policy, that is, the inability to focus and capitalize on areas of parallel interests with Iran.
The landmark JCPOA was not simply an important non-proliferation agreement. It was also a vehicle for building trust between the United States and Iran, resulting in Washington willing to lift nuclear-related sanctions and issue certain commercial licenses. Unfortunately, a U.S.-Iran reset after the JCPOA did not materialize because of outstanding non-nuclear, geopolitical issues. Threats, however, are not the way to deal with Iran and, as former U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman correctly stated, the Trump administration does not understand “Iran’s culture of resistance.”
The Necessity of U.S.-Iran Dialogue
Recent U.S.-Iran history can be instructive here. Recall how President Obama and Iran’s leader exchanged confidential letters, used the Sultanate of Oman as a secret channel for bilateral diplomacy, and consented to extensive multilateral negotiation rounds where Iranian and U.S. negotiators cultivated interpersonal amity. Unfortunately, nearly all the goodwill generated between the United States and Iran mainly through the nuclear negotiations has now evaporated.
Washington’s willful choice of a confrontational Iran policy stems from the notion that the JCPOA unhinged Iranian power in the region and undermined the United States’ containment strategy. The problem with this assessment is two-fold. First, it overlooks the non-zero-sum nature of U.S.-Iran competition with respect to, for example, the common threats posed by terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the burgeoning Afghan-based narcotic traffic. Second, it also ignores the destructive policies of U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia, which has laid a deadly siege on neighboring Yemen since 2015, antagonized and bullied its other neighbor Qatar, and sought unsuccessfully to destabilize Lebanon by coercing its prime minister.
Looking through a glass darkly: A Trump-Rouhani Summit?
In light of Trump's recent offer to talk with Iran “without any precondition,” a summit of heads of states between the United States and Iran is within the realm of possibilities. But this will require confidence-building measures and a moratorium on verbal assaults by both sides. Third party interlocutors can also contribute to this lofty objective. Even a preliminary dialogue between U.S. and Iranian military commanders can be potentially useful to bring down the tall wall of mistrust between Tehran and Washington; they know the region well and are fully aware of the multiple sources of regional instability.
Should a JCPOA minus the United States take shape in the coming months, cementing American isolation on this matter, then a gradual U-turn by the United States on the deal cannot be a priori excluded, just as the Trump administration has shown signs of reconsidering its rejection of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the crossroads of confrontation, peace, and dialogue, the wolves of history prowl and will clarify which path U.S.-Iran relations will take. Hopefully, it will be the path of peace and reconciliation based on mutual respect and recognition of each side's vital national interests.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi and Nader Entessar are political scientists and experts on Iran's foreign affairs. Their latest works are Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (2018), and Trump and Iran: Containment to Confrontation (forthcoming).