Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Perilous Politics: Is Trump Setting US on Course for War with Iran?

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Iranian demonstrators gesturing around a mask depicting US President Donald Trump during a rally in Tehran. May 19, 2019. Photo AFP

The one-year anniversary of the United States’ (US) withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is surrounded with geopolitical uncertainty. Since his election in November 2016, US President Donald Trump has put the world on an unpredictable path. As erratic as this path may have appeared so far, however, it is currently taking a perilous turn. Recent events are sounding the alarm: on 12 May 2019, a sabotage operation hit four cargo vessels on the coast of Fujairah, a port in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This was followed two days later with a drone attack that targeted two oil pumping stations between Riyadh and the port city of Yanbu in Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi group has claimed the attack as a response to ‘continued aggression and blockade’ by a Saudi-led coalition in that country’s conflict.

Although Iran has denied its involvement in these events, the latter has triggered a series of tit-for-tat provocations between the US and the Islamic Republic, building on the previous weeks’ rising tensions. Almost exactly a year ago, Trump withdrew the US from the nuclear deal on the pretext that it did not cover Iran’s ballistic missiles’ programme and failed to address its support for armed groups and militias in the Middle East.

Since then, the Trump administration has gradually tightened its economic grip on Iran, severely undermining its oil exports. Specifically, Washington announced on 22 April 2019 that it was putting an end to exemptions allowing India, Turkey and China to keep on buying oil from Iran without facing US sanctions.

Two weeks earlier, on 7 April, the administration added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. To top it all off, US national security adviser John Bolton announced on 12 May that his country was deploying forces in the Middle East in response to a threat from Iran. Neither Bolton nor the acting defence secretary, Patrick Shanahan, gave further details about the nature of this threat.

However, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the possibility of conflict, declaring to the IRNA state news agency on 18 May that “there will be no war because neither do we want a war, nor has anyone the idea or illusion it can confront Iran in the region”.

During a visit to New York a month earlier, Zarif warned that a “B team” including Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and his Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Salman are aiming to push Iran and the US towards a conflict.

Trump has nevertheless distanced himself from his most warmongering advisors, issuing assurances that he is not seeking conflict and inviting Iran ease tensions between the two countries at the negotiating table. Despite this attempt to tone down previous hawkish rhetoric, on 18 May Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rejected Trump’s invitation to negotiate, describing it as “worthless” and adding that Iran will not surrender to anyone who intends to “bully” it.

For now, Iran has continued to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal, despite the US withdrawal. However, this may be coming to an end: Rouhani declared earlier this month that Iran would walk back some of the deal’s obligations.

As for Saudi Arabia, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said during a news conference that the kingdom wants to avert a war in the region but will retaliate with “all force and determination” if Iran chooses war.

With regard to the sabotage operation in the UAE, the country has not pointed any fingers yet, pending the findings of an investigation. It has, however, acknowledged a ‘difficult situation’ resulting from ‘Iran’s behavior’.

According to Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the Crisis Group, the US’ policy towards the Islamic Republic is based on the assumption that Iran will surrender if it is put under extreme pressure. This may prove unfounded, as it is not the first time that Iran has face harsh economic sanctions. Even so, the effects of the most recent sanctions are already being felt. Unemployment and poverty rates stand at 12 per cent and 40 per cent respectively. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund has indicated that inflation may reach 40 per cent this year. Medicines are extremely expensive, and many people have stopped seeking treatment as a result.

Despite this alarming socioeconomic situation, Iran may have the capacity to maintain its diplomatic line at least until the next US elections at the end of 2020. The country has learned from experience to subvert sanctions and survive. Furthermore, the past has shown that Iran only enters seriously into negotiations when it has leverage and is in a strong position. For instance, in 2012, when the negotiations with the US were still secret, Iran had already developed ‘thousands of nuclear centrifuges, tons of low-enriched uranium, bunkered uranium-enrichment facilities and a nearly completed heavy-water reactor’. In addition, Barack Obama, then US president, had dropped regime change from the US agenda and accepted that Iran could enrich uranium on its own soil.

Insufficient bargaining chips today may explain why the Iranian leadership is not willing to return to the negotiating table with the US.

It is tempting to compare the current situation with the 2003 premises of the war in Iraq: ungrounded motives, a Manichean discourse and John Bolton. Yet, resembling and equalling are two different things, and more people in US politics are today warning against an escalation with Iran. Elise Jordan, a former aide in George Bush Jr’s administration, expressed concern that no lessons have been learned from the Iraq war. Among other significant repercussions, the war killed at least a million people, destabilized the region, ignited jihadist terrorism and served as a breeding ground for the Islamic State.

The possibility of attacking a country that is four times larger than Iraq and three times more populated in a regional context marked by the wars in Syria and Yemen seems far from geopolitical wisdom, including within the Republican party.

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