Iran’s Strategy of Reversible Escalation

General Mohammad Ali Jafari of the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

by Eldar Mamedov

In case anyone thought Iran was bluffing with its threats to respond robustly to U.S. “maximum pressure,” recent developments should have disabused them of that notion. Not only did Iran down a highly sophisticated American drone near its borders in the Persian Gulf, but it also announced plans to reduce its commitments under the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). The phase of strategic patience Iran exercised in the year after the United States violated the agreement has come to an end. It is now being replaced by an assertive action phase. That action will develop on two main fronts: the nuclear agreement and regional security.

Contrary to a popular view in the West, this shift is not the result of “hard-liners” displacing “moderates.” There is a job division within the Iranian system: diplomats deal with the nuclear dossier while the Revolutionary Guards lead on military deterrence. There is, however, an overarching unity of purpose: to strike back, with all means available, at what Iran sees as an economic war waged by the United States and its regional allies Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.

Far from being an act of suicidal defiance by some irascible religious fanatic, Iran’s decision to respond to U.S. pressure follows from a set of careful strategic calculations and domestic political imperatives. After respecting fully their JCPOA commitments and being denied economic dividends, Iranians decided that they should not be the only ones paying the price of the American decision to violate that agreement.

On the nuclear file, the decision to surpass the stockpiles of 300 kilograms of low enriched uranium (LEU) permitted by the JCPOA by July 2019 is designed to pressure the Europeans to deliver on their commitments to provide economic benefits to Iran. Although the EU insists on full implementation of the JCPOA, reduced compliance is the best that Iran can offer at this stage. Such a decision is the result of a national compromise among different forces, including those calling for pulling out of the JCPOA and possibly even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as well.

The purpose of this move, according to Iranian officials, is not to destroy the JCPOA but to save it. As soon as Iranians get the promised sanctions relief, the process can be quickly reversed to a stockpile below 300 kilograms of LEU.  To get back to that point, a practical solution has to be found on Iranian oil exports. If European companies refrain from buying Iranian oil out of a fear of heavy American sanctions, officials in Tehran insist that the EU issue credit lines: make money available to Iran to cover its needs in exchange for oil deliveries after the lifting of the sanctions in the future. Iranians reason that if the EU indeed sees the JCPOA as essential to its security, as its officials often claim, it should put its money where its mouth is.

On the military side, Iran is increasing pressure on the United States to abandon its “maximum pressure” policy by seeking to impose real costs. Tehran’s downing an American drone should be seen in this context, not as an unprovoked hostile act. Although American drones reportedly violated Iranian territorial integrity in the past, the current context obliges Iranians to respond, at some point, publicly and visibly, as both a deterrent and a demonstration of their ability to defend their people and territory.

Trump’s announcement that he stopped a retaliatory strike and now looks forward for “negotiations without preconditions” with Iran might appear as an opportunity to arrest the slide to war. Not so in the eyes of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This, again, is not a sign of some pathological stubbornness or ideological anti-Americanism. It is simply because negotiating now would validate the basic premise of the “maximum pressure” campaign: that suffocating Iran economically has forced it to the negotiating table to make further concessions—this time also on ballistic missiles and regional policies, deliberately excluded from the JCPOA. Trump´s imposition of sanctions on top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khamenei and foreign minister Javad Zarif, only underscores the hollowness of his offer to talk.

So, as Washington doesn´t appear to be serious about lifting the economic siege of Iran, Tehran will seek to coerce it to do so. The downing of the drone is a message that Iran means business. Absent changes in American behavior, this may not be the last step in the series of Iranian escalations. Officials in Tehran have repeatedly warned that, if they are unable to export oil, no one else in the Persian Gulf will either.

Just like with the nuclear issue, however, this escalation is reversible if the United States takes steps to stop its economic war against Iran. That, and not more sanctions, could even open the door for the talks Trump claims to seek.  Ayatollah Khamenei made it clear that Iran would not negotiate “under pressure”—not that it would not do so under any circumstances. Potentially, that could even lead to broader talks on regional issues and ballistic missiles. But then all other issues will have to be brought to the table too, such as region-wide non-proliferation, covering Israel´s nuclear arsenal, Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the war in Yemen, and so on.

Although Iran’s strategy of reversible escalation enjoys a consensus among the elite, it is a risky one. Reducing commitments under the JCPOA may push Europeans closer to Trump, instead of stimulating them to deliver on their commitments to Iran, and increase Iran´s diplomatic isolation.

When it comes to United States, Iranians, particularly in the conservative camp, seem to be too sanguine about Trump not willing to start a war in order not to harm his re-election prospects in 2020. Despite the restraining influence of such figures on the American right as Senator Rand Paul and Fox TV anchor Tucker Carlson, Trump may still be painted into a corner by his hawkish advisers and lash out militarily at Iran.

When confronted with these doubts, Iranian officials seem to concede that their strategy is a gamble. However, a strong sense of being a wronged party, Iranian nationalism, and the regime´s revolutionary resistance ideology are preventing them from blinking first in their confrontation with the Americans. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of such a posture given the existing balance of power, if the standoff ends up in a war, it will be America’s fault, not Iran’s.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.




    Iranian desire to be free from the imperial yoke – they do not wish to be servants/proletarians to the Americans.

    This has nothing to do with theocracy.

    Perhaps your country and your countrymen as a whole agreed to be servants in this world, beholden to what their superiors tell them in US or in Northern Europe.

    Iran is not defecated, those who wish to take her sovereignty away should have the decency and courage to go to war.

    As Americans say: “Freedom is not Free.”


    What I find fascinating is that your “robotic” REALPOLITIK positions (both seemingly free of ANY morality, humanity) mirror one another: One desires (on behalf of Trumpo-Zionism) “regime change” in Iran AT ANY COST, while the other seeks “preservation of the regime” (as horribly as it is) again AT ANY COST, and both of you seem to want to kill nonviolent reforms, that would make Iran democratic, i.e., sovereign.

    Indeed Dr. Mossadegh was correct when he said (after the CIA 1953 Coup) that “internal despotism” and “external colonialism” are (co-dependent) “two sides of the same coin.”

    Presently, for example, Khamenei (internal despotism) is dependent on Netanyahu (external colonialism), and vice versa.


    Which part of “Freedom is not Free!” do you not understand?

    Americans want to subjugate the world into some sort of Neo-Liberal Soft Despotism of Protestant Christians.

    They have failed.

    Now they are working on retreat but are projecting an image of strength and aggression.

  4. Dear Eldar, you made some fact-based and realistic discussion but some remains to be added;
    There would be no war at all. If the US administration needed the pretext to start it’s war it found more than one but realizing that it would be a hard one convinced them to avoid it. They don’t even think about it. “Capitalists never enter a war unless they are more than 100 percent sure that they would win it”!
    However, they are trying to lure Arabs to do it themselves by a “Coalition” but really disappointing that they are such dumb not to have realized that if they were to do it themselves they didn’t wait for the US so long! They are stuck in their backyard by the US encouragement already and are not that much idiot to enter to a fire while their hand is already burnt by a matchstick!
    Their trick was to encourage the US to do the job and the administration can’t use the same trick for them!
    The sanctions are forcing the Iranian government to look toward its citizens and internal abilities and to start a two-way interaction with the commercial actors! The inflation passed the peak and now it is decreasing. The economy is going to stabilize with the current situation and will start to flourish in 6 months. Look at the economic signals from the stock market for instance. So if European actors think about their traditional colonialism era gestures and treats they are fully delusional. The fact is that Europe is not an indispensable source of technology as 50 years ago and the Iranians struggling to keep the old relationship is only a matter of ‘mental addiction” with no a proportional real benefit. So if they want they can go to the end like the US did and get the enlightenment by the reality if they want. However, this would be in benefits of Iranian people at the long run because the government will try re-approaching the people instead of the oil money which is only a source of corruption and support for governments that depend on it instead of the people. So to make Iran stronger the best way is to continue in the traditional way!


    I agree with you that not “Americans” (but the “military industrial complex” — per the colonizing “Doctrine of Discover”) “want to subjugate the world into some sort of Neo-Liberal Soft Despotism of Protestant Christian [Zionists].”

    I am puzzled that you have (purposefully avoided?) mentioning Israeli partnership in such subjugation???

    My question to you is:

    What part of my basic point–per my comment, above, and in the other comment thread–that Khamenei’s (anti-Islamic) “internal despotism” is SERVING (as supposed “enemy”) the savagery of “external colonialism” (and vice versa) do you not understand?

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