Iran Has No Good Options in Responding to American Pressures

Hassan Rouhani

by Shireen T. Hunter    

With the failure of the latest mediation efforts between Iran and the United States by the prime minister of Japan, followed by attacks on two tankers in the Gulf  of Oman, Iran has decided to speed up the process of reducing its commitments under the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA).

First, Iran practiced what it termed “strategic patience” in the face of the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement and Europe’s inability or unwillingness to shoulder its own commitments under the agreement. Now, Tehran has begun gradually to increase its stockpile of enriched uranium beyond 300 kilograms.

It also announced recently that if Europe does not take immediate action to ease trade at least in essential goods such as food, medicine, and airplane parts, it would stop the process of transforming the Arak heavy water reactor, which was also part of the nuclear deal. Iran has taken pains to explain that all its actions are within the provisions of the nuclear deal and thus totally legal. Perhaps more important, some politicians, including Hojjat al-Islam Mojtaba Zolnour, a representative of the Supreme leader to the Revolutionary Guards Corp, hinted that if restrictions on Iran are not eased Tehran would consider withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

From a purely logical and legal perspective, Iran’s actions are not only understandable but also quite justifiable. In an agreement based on mutual concessions, if one side reneges on its commitments, the other side cannot be expected to continue adhering to its part of the bargain. But the real question here is not whether Iran is justified in reducing and perhaps eventually abandoning its commitments under the JCPOA and potentially even the NPT. The important question is whether these Iranian actions can force America and Europe to fulfill their part of the bargain or  merely lead them to increase pressure on Tehran even further and thus increase the risk of military confrontation.

Incremental Increases in Enriched Uranium Production

Unless Iran has the required knowledge and the determination to produce a nuclear device quickly, something that it denies, then such incremental actions as noted above should not produce a drastic change in American behavior towards Tehran. But it would give further ammunition to Iran’s detractors in the West and also in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East to say that “we told you so” that Iran had not given up its ambitions to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity. Some regional countries and U.S. hawks will clamor for military attacks at least on Iran’s sensitive military sites, which the U.S. military has already prepared to do, on the pretext that they might be hidden centers for nuclear weapons production. Should such attacks take place they are unlikely to remain limited to those sites, because often military operations have a way of acquiring their own independent momentum and going beyond their initial objectives.

Iranian withdrawal from the NPT would intensify such concerns and might prompt an even harsher U.S. reaction. It would certainly increase pressure for some sort of preemptive strike on sensitive Iranian military and industrial centers. Moreover, Iran does not have the knowhow and ability to produce a viable system of nuclear deterrence or even a dirty bomb without lengthy efforts. Despite hyperbolic assertions since 1993 that Iran is only a year or six months away from having a nuclear device, it is unlikely that Tehran has such knowledge and certainly not the fissionable material. Given Iran’s strategic vulnerabilities, notwithstanding the claim that Islamic beliefs have prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons, if Tehran had the capacity, most probably it would have been  sorely tempted secretly to develop such a device.

After all, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and other majority Muslim states like Saudi Arabia would love to have them if they could. More to the point, if the United States and Israel were convinced that Iran could produce nuclear weapons and was determined to do so, they would have already attacked certain Iranian sites. Iran’s hint at producing a bomb, when it doesn’t have the capacity to produce a credible nuclear deterrence in secret, only increases the risk that others will take preemptive action to thwart such plans.

The Risks Involved in Sabotage

Some hardliners in Iran still continue to  say that if Iran cannot export its oil, others will not be able to do so either. But this, too, is a risky position. The identity of those involved in the sabotage of several oil tankers in recent weeks in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman is not yet clear. It doesn’t make much sense that Iran had been involved in these actions, especially the attacks on the Japanese ships, as it was trying to get Japan to invest in its ports on the Sea of Oman. But many of Iran’s actions over the years have not made sense in terms of its own interests. In fact, the Revolutionary Guard might have been involved in these operations outside the control of the Iranian government. Certain elements in the country thrive on turmoil and brinkmanship and are dead set against the normalization of Iran’s relations with the outside world for they see it as threatening their hold on power.

Thus far, Western and other reactions to recent events in the Persian Gulf have been muted. Not wanting to help ignite a war, they have refused to lay the blame squarely on Iran’s doorstep. Indeed, there is not yet sufficient proof of Tehran’s guilt. But neither has anyone done much to ease pressure on Tehran.

Should such events occur again and if there is even a whiff of Iranian involvement, the risk of U.S. action against Iran and an outbreak of war would increase exponentially. Already, President Donald Trump has ordered more troops for the Middle East region, justifying it in terms of an increased Iranian threat. He might be pressed by his hawkish advisers to squeeze Iran even more.

What Should Iran Do?

Since a strategy of escalation is unlikely to pay off, Iran should opt for a policy of engagement abroad and reform within. Domestically, reducing some cultural and other restrictions would ease psychological pressures on the people and might help them cope better with material difficulties. More serious reforms in the running of the country—better managing the economy, improving the professionalism of various institutions, and curbing corruption—would not be easy, since powerful interest groups have stakes in opposing such reforms.

Despite the uncertainties involved in any future agreements and compromises with the United States , Iran must bite the bullet and talk to America. It does not make sense for a country like Iran not to talk to the key international player no matter how bad it thinks it is. Iran talks even to those countries that insult it. Nor is the United States the only country that has reneged on its promise to Tehran. Russia and China have also done so many times, but Iran still courts them. To get a better deal internationally, Iran must expand its options by engaging with all major international and regional players. Obsessive anti-Americanism and the pursuit of unrealistic and unrealizable revolutionary goals have seriously narrowed Tehran’s diplomatic and economic options.

Iran needs to secure its national interests as opposed to chasing after revolutionary illusions. Will Iran’s hardliners pay any attention to the country’s national interest, or will they persist in their revolutionary delusions? Even the hardliners must recognize that the status quo is untenable. Even if there is no war with America, the continuation of current conditions will eventually hollow out Iran from within and even undermine its people’s physical and mental health.

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Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.

SHOW 12 COMMENTS

12 Comments

  1. Here’s a comment I posted in the London Times leading article today. I think it is appropriate especially in light of the fact that the IRGC commander has very openly admitted that his missiles can hit any ship in the Persian Gulf area, inspiring no confidence in the peaceful attitude of the Ayatollahs.

    Iran has been occupied by an alien force. To refer to that force as Iranian is wrong. It is an inhumane regime and cannot be negotiated with. The sooner the world treats it as such, the better. Otherwise, it will use the vast energy resources of Iran, to make nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, to strengthen its own theocratic ideologies. Please help Iranians to remove the Ayatollahs. They will put Iranians in harm’s way, by making Iran vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes to its nuclear enrichment facilities. Some of these facilities are in civilian areas. Secure the vessels in the Persian Gulf with military escorts, or else the vast number of IRGC proxies will raise hell in the shipping lanes. The choice is yours, ignore the Iranian opposition in Iran and in the diaspora, and you will have a nightmare on your hands. We are the only people who can command our country. You can’t force the Ayatollahs to agree to your terms. You can only deal with real Iranians, who built the first civilization on Earth, thousands of years ago. Our ancient Ahuramazdan philosophy is the only peaceful solution for Iran.

  2. The sanctions are making Iran more self sufficient an US more Isolated as well. The US knows that any attack would be responded so it means war. The world is getting the lessons like moving towards finding sustainable ways if getting around US economy. The sanctions could help Iran to get rid of the corruption caused mainly by petrodollars. If they only wait they will get more reward than to escalate.

  3. Sensible remarks from professor Hunter. But I doubt if what Iran does will make much difference in what USA does or will do One view is that it is driven by the domestic politics via Adelson/Netanyahoo connection. Trump wants to get re elected and Adelson money is essential for that purpose. This is argued lucidly by Phil Weiss in Mondoweiss’s today edition. Another view is that Iran is the only country with fiercely independent foreign policy in the region and its subjugation will restore US’s nearly total hegemony in the Gulf (with exception of Iraq) which was lost after the fall of Shah.
    Third point of view is that the ultimate annihilation of Palestinian aspirations will come with the defeat of Iran. Analogous to Oslo process and Palestinian concessions preceding it (like recognizing Israel in 67 borders) which followed Sadam’s defeat in Gulf war, destruction of Iran will finish off what is left of the resistance axis to total US/Israel hegemony and pave the way for Palestinian surrender according to this POV.
    Professor Hunter exaggerates the revolutionary rhetoric of the Islamic Rebublic; they are just that, the rhetoric. They advance the national interests not harm them.
    In fact, pin prick attacks may not be a bad strategy if it is combined with wise diplomacy. And the wise diplomacy is to eventually talk to USA to gain time. Relying on Europe. China or Russia is unfortunately a pipe dream made up by realists like Zarif ; a camp that probably includes professor Hunter. This is unfortunate not just for Iran, but for China and Russia since now is the time to stand up to the hegemon. If you don’t, it will be your turn next!

  4. 1-(14 June, 2019) Trump: “[Iran] They’re a nation of terror”!
    A ‘nation’!? – that makes more than 80 million of us Iranians ‘terrorists’! By the same token, what should ‘we’ call more than 300 million Americans – a nation of what? Given the indiscriminate murder of millions of civilians by the US troops and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen – not to mention millions savagely killed, wounded and traumatised in Vietnam and South America, and the ecological disasters – all on false premises, would “[America] They’re a nation of savages” properly reciprocate Trump’s rubbish?! And if the past two invasions (Vietnam and Iraq) based on official lies do not make the US a land of remorseless killers then what would!? Trump has the audacity to publicly make such a foolish speech about us – “a nation of terror”!

    2- We should be prepared to see more solid ‘evidence’ in the future! Recall the CIA’s (Antonio Mendez) invention and creation of the fake story ‘ARGO’ in 1980 to smuggle 6 American Embassy officials out of Iran! The US government and CIA have all resources to manufacture any propaganda, including the Hollywood with its countless artists, set designers, actors, props and digital film technicians with their most sophisticated Photoshop programs to create any visually impressive fake video about any individual or group. They also have their lapdogs, such as the UK, the pro-Zionism media, the Arab Sheikhs and Israel to verify any such ‘evidence’ to propagate and intimidate.

    3- There is no point in negotiating with these mentally unstable neurotic businessmen; we should refuse acknowledging their backward Administration as representative of the American People. We should not budge in the face of this American Agamemnon and his psychological warfare; should not exchange a word unless the US publically apologises for their crimes especially the mass murder of 1000s of Iranian soldiers in the 1980s by actively assisting Saddam’s chemical attacks on both the Iranian forces and the civilians!

  5. Yes, life is too hard under these sanctions, but Iran is not a submissive nation.

    1-This is the American President: (14 June, 2019) Trump: “[Iran] They’re a nation of terror”!
    A ‘nation’!? – that makes more than 80 million of us Iranians ‘terrorists’! By the same token, what should ‘we’ call more than 300 million Americans – a nation of what? Given the indiscriminate murder of millions of civilians by the US troops and its allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen – not to mention millions savagely killed, wounded and traumatised in Vietnam and South America, and the ecological disasters – all on false premises, would “[America] They’re a nation of savages” reciprocate Trump’s rubbish?! And if the past two invasions (Vietnam and Iraq) based on official lies do not make the US a land of remorseless killers then what would!? Trump has the audacity to publicly make such a foolish speech about us – “a nation of terror”!

    2- Should we negotiate with such a foul mouthed man and his sick Administration? No doubt we should expect to see more of American solid ‘evidence’ in the future! Recall the CIA’s (Antonio Mendez) invention and creation of the fake story ‘ARGO’ in 1980 to smuggle 6 American Embassy officials out of Iran! The US government and CIA have all resources to manufacture any propaganda, including the Hollywood with its countless artists, set designers, actors, props and digital film technicians with their most sophisticated Photoshop programs to create any visually impressive fake video about any individual or group. They also have their lapdogs, such as the UK, pro-Zionism media, the Arab Sheikhs and Israel to verify any such ‘evidence’ to further intimidate Iran.

    3- To negotiate with bully is a mistake; we should not negotiate with such mentally unstable neurotic businessmen and should refuse acknowledging their backward Administration as the representative of the American People. Iran should not budge in the face of this American Agamemnon and his psychological warfare; should not exchange a word; the first condition should be for the US to publically apologise for their past crimes, especially for the mass murder of 1000s of Iranian soldiers in the 1980s by actively assisting Saddam’s ‘chemical’ attacks on both the Iranian forces and the civilians!

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