by Shireen T. Hunter
According to press reports, Iran has all but despaired of the European Union’s ability—or, perhaps more accurately, willingness—to work out a system of financial transactions that could facilitate Tehran’s trade with Europe. Not only that, largely under pressure from Denmark and Holland, the EU imposed sanctions on Iran’s ministry of intelligence and two individuals on charges of plotting to kill leaders of the Ahwaz separatist movement in Europe. This group was involved in the bombings that took place in Ahwaz in September 2018.
These developments seriously undermine the chances that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, will survive. Iran will be in an even more difficult situation if it fails to maintain trade relations with countries such as India and China or, more importantly, can’t gain access to the money earned from its exports. Under these conditions, domestic pressures, especially from the Iranian hardliners who opposed the JCPOA from the beginning, would mount on the government of President Hassan Rouhani to leave the JCPOA and resume its suspended nuclear activities.
In fact, rumors have spread that Iran’s exit from the JCPOA and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s resignation are imminent. The government has since denied these rumors. Because Iran has not received any real benefit from the agreement, the hardliners’ arguments may be making headway with the Iranian people. The lack of faith shown by the United States and now Europe in carrying out their side of the nuclear bargain would seem to vindicate those Iranians who argue that only nuclear weapons can provide for Iran’s security and shield it from potential attacks by the United States, Israel, or both.
Should the government of President Rouhani succumb to such pressures, Iran hawks in the United States and some Iranian opposition groups—along with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—would lobby President Trump to take military action against Iran. Such pressures could reach irresistible levels. Within the Trump administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton, in particular, would champion such a move while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is unlikely to put up any opposition. Bolton and other Iran hawks would argue that, as long as Iran is standing, the United States cannot reduce the level of its military engagement in the Middle East and Southwest Asia war zones because Iran would otherwise fill the vacuum. According to this logic, before reducing its overseas military engagements in Syria or Afghanistan, the United States must effectively disable Iran economically and militarily.
The United States might feel pressured to attack Iran for other reasons. Iran is the last country on the list of regime change in the post-9/11 period that has thus far escaped American military intervention, directly or through proxies. Iraq was invaded in 2003, Libya was attacked in 2010, and Syria has been devastated by civil war. For the foreseeable future, none of these states will be able to influence Middle East dynamics significantly, nor do they pose any military threat to America’s regional allies, notably Israel. In short, Iran is the last remaining link in this chain of dismantling state systems in the region. Moreover, at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, some in the United States and in the region would have preferred that America attacked Iran first and then Iraq. These people will not feel safe until Iran is attacked.
A main goal of security hawks in the United States, as described in the 1992 US Defense Planning Guidance (which has never been superseded), has been “to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources under consolidated control be sufficient to generate global power.” The document lists Southwest Asia as one such region. In this region, Iran is the country best suited to become the hub of regional power. This concern about Iran’s potential did not start with the Islamic revolution. America’s change of heart regarding the shah was partly because of his ambitions to turn Iran into a viable economic and military power. Any other viable regime in post-Islamist Iran, including a nationalist regime, would also want to develop the country’s resources. This might be one reason why the current American administration favors the Mojahedin e-Khalgh (MEK), rather than any other opposition group, as the successor to the Islamist government. Reports are circulating that the United States has moved back some MEK fighters to Iraq, perhaps in anticipation of moving them into Iran. The MEK was willing to support Saddam Hussein and cede Iran’s Khuzestan province to Iraq. There is no reason to think that it won’t similarly follow U.S. bidding.
The hawks’ ideal scenario involves Iran’s disintegration along ethnic and linguistic lines, or at least its transformation into a loose federation with a weak central power. Such goals, which can’t be achieved through sanctions and destabilization efforts, would require military operations, though short of a full-scale land invasion. A massive air strike targeting Iran’s vital infrastructure would suffice. For some years now, many analysts have recommended such an option. Amitai Etzioni, for instance, once said that the United States should confront Iran by bombing its civilian infrastructure or risk losing the Middle East. Key U.S. policymakers in the Trump administration share such views, as do key U.S. regional allies.
There is one last reason why the US might attack Iran. Many in America have not forgiven Iran for its 1979 revolution, the hostage crisis, and the defiant behavior it adopted. They believe that allowing Iran to get away with this behavior sends the wrong message to other potential challengers. In short, Iran is a rebellious satrapy that must be subdued.
Of course, the current Iranian regime could self-dissolve and accept all the 12 conditions laid out by Secretary of State Pompeo. But Iran is unlikely to do so. Instead, Tehran would try to make potential military operations as costly as possible for the United States.
Therefore, those in the United States—as well as in Europe and elsewhere—who do not want another devastating war in the Middle East should do all they can to end the current U.S.-Iran standoff. One possible way of avoiding disaster would be for the United States to suspend sanctions on Iran for a year in exchange for Iran agreeing to new and wide-ranging talks on all outstanding issues between the two states. Key European states could try to broker such a deal. Of course, for this suggestion even to be considered, Iran must indicate willingness to engage in broad and comprehensive talks with the United States, and be prepared to reconsider the most controversial aspects of its foreign policy.