A Grim Assessment of U.S.-Iran Tensions

Wendy Sherman (Miller Center via Flickr)

by Mitchell Plitnick

Speaking to an adoring audience at the annual summit of the far-right Christians United for Israel (CUFI), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the audience that the Trump administration was determined to continue ratcheting up pressure on Iran.

“The ayatollahs have grievously deprived the Iranian people of that most basic, simple, fundamental right, their right to worship,” Pompeo told the evangelical crowd. “That same twisted, intolerant doctrine that fuels persecution inside Iran has also led the ayatollah and his cronies to cry out, quote, ‘death to Israel’ for four decades now.”

Pompeo went on to tell the crowd that, were it not for the Trump administration’s efforts to strangle the economy, Iran would have greatly bolstered its efforts to destroy Israel, something it has never attempted in all those four decades. Ominously, he added, “You know the stories, but we’ve implemented the strongest pressure campaign in history against the Iranian regime, and we are not done.”

Meanwhile, a panel of diplomats offered a grim assessment of the increasingly tense situation in the Persian Gulf between the United States and Iran. In a scene that has become commonplace, two former Obama administration officials—Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and one of the key negotiators of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and Rob Malley, a senior director in Obama’s National Security Council focusing on the Persian Gulf—joined former UK ambassador to Iran Sir Richard Dalton to portray the Trump administration as the problem, while characterizing Iran’s responses, even given the recent escalations, as restrained.

According to Sherman:

There’s no question that the action taken by Iran to go past the 3.67% in terms of the uranium enrichment creates a new and rather dangerous moment. There is no doubt that what Iran has chosen to do is reversible … nonetheless, each of these steps… does move us down a more dangerous path. That said, I do want to emphasize that I believe that President Trump began this cycle by withdrawing from the agreement and I want to give credit to the Europeans in particular as well as to some extent, Russia and China for working with Iran to maintain the joint comprehensive plan of action for over a year in spite of the maximum pressure campaign by the Trump administration.

Sherman’s view was echoed by Malley, who noted that there is still room for some diplomacy, even given the complete absence of trust between the United States and Iran, and that the current back-and-forth was unsustainable and would either turn into jockeying for negotiating position or, as is generally feared, a military confrontation. “It’s good to remember that it’s the first year of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign since president Trump announced that the United States would no longer be abiding by the JCPOA,” he said, adding:

The Iranian strategy seem to be to hunker down and wait, to count on Europe to be more on its side than with President Trump, isolate the United States, try to make up for U.S. sanctions through some mechanism and of course to wait for the U.S. electorate to speak and see if they could hold on till 2021. I think a number of things have accelerated the Iranian reaction … First is the impact of the sanctions which were greater, I think, than they expected. Some of the countries that they thought would not fall into line appear to have fallen into line and I’m thinking of China in particular, but not only, so obviously oil exports have collapsed much more quickly than Iranians might’ve expected.  Second, the increasingly politically untenable situation within Iran of continuing to abide by the JCPOA, even though they were facing greater economic punishment than they faced prior to the JCPOA, prior to having agreed to these limitations.

Malley pointed out that, despite worse conditions than anticipated, Iran continues to send out warnings in the hope of getting Europe to act and to increase pressure on the United States to back off its current policies. But he, like Sherman, indicated that there was little likelihood that the United States or Iran would change course dramatically enough to substantially lower the tensions.

Thus far, Europe has found neither a path nor the political will to challenge Washington on its dangerous policies in the Gulf. The alternative financing method it has set up, labeled INSTEX, has made an almost imperceptible impact thus far, and the Europeans have yet to find a way to pay for Iranian goods through that medium.

Dalton seemed to agree that Europe could do more and came up with some suggestions of actions the EU could take without getting into a direct conflict with Washington:

I think there are five things I want to draw attention to with respect to the European role. The first is intensive diplomatic efforts to stop the tit for tat escalation. We need Europe to be communicating with the United States. That snapback of sanctions as called for by Israel would be useless for our objectives in Europe and indeed for American objectives as well. Secondly, they should be pushing back on the exaggerations which informed much of the discourse about this problem. How many times do we hear about reining in nuclear blackmail, about Iran intending a nuclear weapons program, about breaches of the deal which can be seen and are seen by the Iranians as exercising their rights under article 36 of the deal under which a participant can suspend their duties if others hadn’t fulfilled their responsibilities?

Dalton also suggested that Europe, Russia, and China work together to get clear red lines from the United States, negotiate an interim agreement that would de-escalate the tensions between the parties,  and put together a long-term package that would involve the entire region and address all the concerns in both Tehran and Washington (and, he seemed to imply, Washington’s allies in the region).

Although Dalton’s de-escalation ideas are worthy, the lack of good faith the United States has demonstrated has undermined a longer-term deal. The speakers failed to mention that the problem of U.S. non-compliance didn’t start with Trump. After all, Barack Obama was unable to deliver on some of the promises of the JCPOA either. Although Obama did unfreeze significant Iranian assets, the hostile reaction of Congress to the JCPOA—which included a disturbing number of Democrats—in response to the campaigns of fear launched by myriad neoconservative, pro-Likud, and Republican groups chilled the atmosphere for U.S. businesses that had hoped to exploit a newly accessible Iranian market. And, although European companies were a bit bolder, even they became much more cautious due to American businesses’ timidity about investing in Iran.

The pro-JCPOA forces in Iran surely believe that Obama and his team were acting in good faith, but they must also recognize that, whatever their intentions, the previous U.S. administration was unable to sell the deal to Congress in a durable way. Sherman responded in this way to a question about why Iran should trust the United States:

All throughout the negotiations our counterparts constantly said to us, how do we know this will last, knowing that we had an election coming. I said, how do we know it will last on the Iranian side? President Rouhani has to deal with politics as well as does the supreme leader…[So what I told] our interlocutors was this will be durable depending upon how good of a deal it is. And the fact that it’s stayed durable for over a year, even after the United States, who had the most consequential and far reaching sanctions put back in place, is a testament to the strength of the deal itself and the mechanisms in it…The one other thing I will say. However, is because as you pointed out, the Trump administration left the deal, their credibility is in greater question about whether if Iran made a deal with them, it would stick. Nonetheless, everyone has to deal with the facts as they are today, not as they wish them to be and indeed you are quite right. The Iranians, if they entered into a negotiation with this administration, would be looking to see what might happen in our election and the closer and closer we get to our election and to what the polls say in those elections will play a role in the decisions that every one of the players in this drama takes.

In the final analysis, even if Trump is voted out or otherwise removed from office, getting to a point where a potentially calamitous war is no longer a daily threat will require a significant leap of faith on the part of the Iranians. And before that can even be wished for, there needs to be courageous leadership in the United States prepared to go farther than Obama did in recognizing that Iran is, for all its faults, a rational actor that needs to be brought into both the international community and the local Gulf community in a sincere way. It requires a leader who is willing to simultaneously deal with the fact that Iran supports groups that commit violent acts and that Iran is not “the leading state sponsor of terrorism” and never has been. Saudi Arabia rightly owns that title.

Such a president can re-enter the JCPOA, but the only way to undo the damage to it is to encourage investment in Iran. In 2015, there were many U.S. companies willing to make that investment if it looked like a decent risk. Creating the atmosphere that Obama failed to is the only way to begin to repair the mess Donald Trump has made of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf.

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.

SHOW 8 COMMENTS

8 Comments

  1. Moji Agha

    “Non-violence”?

    Like when the Mongols are raping pubescent girls in front of their parents and parents be practicing non-violence?

    You best wake up from your slumber, even sex is violence.

    Dr. Mossadegh failed, ayatollahs have not.

  2. Thanks to Mitchell Plitnick for the good summary of the panel. Too bad a diplomat from another JCPOA participant country other than the UK – France, Germany, Russia, China, or even the EU – wasn’t on the panel. We know the UK will fight with the US in the coming conflict. What will the others do?

  3. James LARRIMORE

    Russia and China, for the reason of state development and social advancement, are opposed to war; they are conservative powers that wish to concentrate on Peace rather than War.

    They will encourage Iran to remain in JCPOA but will not explicitly or substantially help Iran. In case of war, both states will help Iran to prvent her collapse. They can live with a war that bleeds the United States and floods EU with more refugees. In fact, while US is busy fighting Iran, Chinese will occupy Taiwan and put and end yto that Western aircraft career so near China, US would not be able to do anything.

    EU would remain very very enthusiastically neutral against Iran.

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