When Tehran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015, it was hoping to improve relations with the West. However, US President Barack Obama was unable to get the deal ratified by Congress, leaving Washington’s commitment subject to a presidential waiver every three months. His successor, Donald Trump, used this same waiver to withdraw the US from the deal in 2018.
Although a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, Washington unilaterally re-imposed sanctions on Iran that had been lifted as part of the deal, with the aim of forcing Iran to agree to its terms on regional issues as well as Iran’s ballistic missile programme, the country’s main defensive means according to Iranian officials.
For Iran, the options open to it were not ideal. The two main options were to quit the JCPOA, which could have quickly given the US what it wanted: an international consensus against Iran on Trump’s agenda. Or to swallow the sanctions and continue working with other parties to the deal, in the hope that those parties would help Iran circumvent the sanctions. It chose the second option.
A year later, Tehran was faced with another bitter fact: other parties to the deal did not commit to its implementation as expected and halted almost all of their businesses with Iran, fearing US retribution if they did not.
In response, Tehran adopted a new though measured policy that had two dimensions: the first was a gradual decrease in Iran’s JCPOA commitments. Although Iranian officials insist that the four steps taken in this regard are in compliance with the JCPOA, they are not in line with Iran’s previous position of full compliance. The second was a more robust position vis-à-vis American military pressure on the country, which reached its peak with the downing of a US spy drone in June 2019.
With these actions, Tehran has showcased the options it can come up with if cornered by the US. Indeed, this new policy has moved global attention from Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its regional activities back to its nuclear programme.
In the region, US allies who encouraged and were encouraged by the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA and were expecting at least limited military action by Washington against Tehran, kept insisting that Iran was a threat to regional stability. Their reasoning, though differing in details, included two assumptions: the first was that inflating the ‘Iran threat’ would eventually lead the US to take some kind of military action, undermining Iran’s regional position and shifting the regional balance of power in their favour. The second assumption was that Iran had neither the military capability nor the will to withstand a US strike.
Both assumptions were cast into serious doubt after the aforementioned actions taken by Tehran and Its regional allies. Trump showed restraint when it came to targeting Iranian positions after Iran downed the US drone – even amid his administration’s claim that the incident took place in international airspace. His muted response to the targeting of oil tankers in and out of the Strait of Hormuz and the 14 September attack on major oil production plants in Saudi Arabia further undermined the assumption that US military action against Iran – at least till the next US presidential elections – is imminent. Moreover, in addition to demonstrating its military capability, Iran’s downing of the drone was meant to send a clear message about its willingness to engage militarily if the US were to strike.
Iran’s strategic shift was aimed at the US and its ‘maximum pressure’ policy, not its regional allies. Still, while trying to keep the US at bay, Iran’s policy has affected the calculations and policies of its regional rivals and enemies to brutal effect.
Israel was caught off guard by the downing of the US drone, its policy being based not on an Iran capable of initiating and choosing the timing of a confrontation but rather a passive Iran that only reacts to a US/Israeli strike on a limited scale. As such, Israel did not want the US to target Tehran for fear of retaliation by the so-called Axis of Resistance – Iran and its regional allies.
For the Saudis, Trump represented an opportunity to shift the regional balance of power away from Iran. They made it clear that they would compensate up front a US move in that direction either via military purchases or direct investments in the States. However, their expectations were dashed by Trump’s rhetoric on his ‘US-first’ priorities as well as his reticence following the tanker attacks and then the drone incident. They lost the rest of their hope when Trump turned a blind eye to the strike on the Saudi Aramco oil production facilities. Rumours of reconciliation talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia soon began spreading.
Similarly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) deviated from its initial anti-Iran, pro-maximum pressure policy, dialling down its rhetoric and holding rounds of direct talks with the Iranians.
Iran’s strategy following the US’ withdrawal from the JCPOA has focused on two objectives. The first is to push back against the maximum pressure policy with the aim of proving its irrelevance in bringing Iran to the negotiating table on US terms. The second is to drive a wedge between the US and its regional allies, especially Iran’s Arab neighbours.
The situation seems to be moving in Iran’s desired direction. However, uncertainty remains high, especially in light of Trump’s unclear prospects for a second term and Iran’s continued lessening of its JCPOA commitments.
There are, however, some positive signs, notably the UAE’s new stance, the reported behind-the-scenes Iran-Saudi talks and the dialling down of incendiary rhetoric between Tehran and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – at least at the official level. One thing is certain though: Tehran has broken the strategic deadlock the US agenda was intended to create. Future developments will have to take that reality into account.