Why Iran’s Strategy of Reversible Escalation Is Working

Javad Zarif outside the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wikimedia Commons)

by Eldar Mamedov

A year after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and instituted its “maximum pressure” campaign against the country in May 2018, Iran countered with its own escalations. It reduced its compliance with the JCPOA, shot down a U.S. drone it claimed has entered its territory, seized a British tanker (in response to Britain earlier seizing an Iranian one), and may have been behind other attacks on oil tankers traversing the Persian Gulf. Following these actions, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif was invited by the French President Emmanuel Macron to the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, to discuss ways to defuse tensions. And U.S. President Donald Trump expressed interest in negotiating directly with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

This sequence of events shows that, thus far, the Iranian strategy of calculated counter-escalation is working.

Iran did not collapse under the “maximum pressure” campaign, although economic sanctions admittedly are taking its toll on the civilian population. Nor is it showing any signs of being desperate to negotiate with the United States—in fact, it has rebuffed several American entreaties to that effect.

Instead, by escalating on its own, Iran forced a number of key players to change their cost-benefit calculus. Europe has been unable, so far, to deliver economic dividends to Iran to keep it in the JCPOA. Yet Iran’s moves to lower its compliance with the JCPOA and seize a British tanker sounded alarm bells in Europe. They showed that Tehran was not bluffing when it threatened to reduce its nuclear commitments and prevent others from shipping oil through the Persian Gulf as long as it was prevented from doing the same. The fear of further destabilization of the region and associated costs for Europe was a major factor behind Macron’s proactive Iran diplomacy. At the same time, Iran’s escalation was limited and reversible. It did not involve major violations of the JCPOA, so as not to push Europe over to the U.S. position.

Meanwhile, Iran’s perceived actions against the oil tankers in the Persian Gulf sharply raised the stakes of the potential conflict for its regional opponents. Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de-facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, concluded that the damage a war with Iran would cause was intolerable, and chose, wisely, to de-escalate tensions.

Saudi Arabia, Iran’s other regional rival, may not yet have arrived at the same conclusion, but a war would have truly devastating consequences for it as well. Saudi fears about the Yemeni Houthis’ alliance with Iran may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and given the Houthis’ demonstrated ability to strike targets in Saudi territory, this portends massive trouble for Riyadh. Iran could also reach out to the Shiites of the eastern Saudi province of Qatif. These destabilizing conditions would provide a fertile ground for a resurgence of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), mortal enemies of the Saudi monarchy who count on a great number of sympathizers in the kingdom. Without exaggeration, a war with Iran would pose an existential threat to both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Iran’s decision to strike down a U.S. drone sent a message to Washington that, even from a position of conventional inferiority, Iran is able to impose costs on the U.S. in the event of a military confrontation. Trump’s decision to back off from striking Iran was likely based on a sober assessment by his military advisers of what such a confrontation would entail. The Iranian bet that—facing reelection—Trump would rather negotiate with them than get sucked into another Middle Eastern quagmire was a risky one, but turned out to be correct.

This is the background of Zarif’s visit to Biarritz. Although some media outlets insisted on calling it “surprising”, it was anything but. The French certainly coordinated it with the Americans. The fact that Zarif traveled to France suggests that Trump may be ready to consider some concrete steps to suspend his economic siege of Iran. It is difficult to imagine that Zarif would have travelled to France were this not the case: Iran’s diplomacy is not known for seeking mere photo opportunities. The prospect of talks is also what explains the nervous reaction of those who contributed to this crisis in the first place, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, according to Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, the United States is showing “some flexibility” in easing sanctions on Iranian oil sales. This could potentially open the way for direct talks between Washington and Tehran. It also belies the notion that Tehran would back away from such talks over Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei´s ideological hostility towards the United States. In fact, Iran’s position has been consistent: it is ready to talk, but only if there is what Iranians call a “ceasefire in the U.S. economic war” against them.

This is not an unreasonable position. Trump’s desire to get a meeting with Rouhani is understandable. It would burnish his credentials as a highly unorthodox and effective deal-maker. However, Rouhani has no reason whatsoever to help him absent any real deliverables for Iran. There is naturally zero interest in Iran in being taken for a ride by an American president in need. And just as Trump, Rouhani has to think about the domestic implications of such a meeting: there are parliamentary elections in Iran in 2020, and presidential ones in 2021. Winning Kim Jong-un-esque praise from Trump won’t do Rouhani and the moderates any political favors—quite the opposite. But winning a tangible, even if imperfect, improvement in Iran’s economic situation definitely would.

So, Iran’s strategy, adroitly executed by Zarif and his team of diplomats, is responsible for getting the country to the threshold of direct talks with the United States, and on relatively even terms at that. For talks to take place and succeed, it is now up to the U.S. side to play ball. Trump needs to keep spoilers, both in Washington and the Middle East, at bay, and offer Iran some sort of economic relief before the talks can commence.

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.



  1. I trust Trump’s gut more than I trust Bolton’s brain which continues to pursue all possible angles in the total economic warfare against Iran to force regime change.
    ISIS and related Sunni jihadist terrorist groupings are the existential threat to the region and the world. A war with Iran or a coup attempt by MeK related opposition could create the vacuum of state institutions as happened in Syria that created the opportunity for ISIS to become a territorial entity in Iraq and Syria. As the author points out reversible escalation is having its impact on Macron and the EU, and war has been prevented. But Bolton and Pompeo do not seek negotiations with the present regime and will do their utmost to prevent Trump from seriously considering negotiations.
    Macron seeks to broaden the dialogue to consider missiles and Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other groups in the region that Saudi Arabia and Israel see as security threats. What is not discussed enough are Iran’s national security interests because those are directly tied to Iran’s missile development and to its support for the Popular Mobilization Forces and other groupings operating in Syria. Where Israel claims an existential threat from Iran, Iran itself faced the existential threat of ISIS at its doorstep. It was first to respond against this threat. Without Iran’s support ISIS may still be a territorial power in the region.
    Rather than trying to engineer a meeting between Trump and Rouhani, that Bolton will attempt to derail, perhaps more could be achieved if Macron struck at the heart of the problem which is the mutual security of the key players in the region. A summit on this problem could help to start productive discussions. Unlike the Anti-Iran Summit in Poland earlier this year such a Summit would invite Iran as a key player.

  2. Thank you Eldar Mamedov for the balanced piece!
    No opening of a window for negotiations with the US until December of 2020!

  3. In this past forty years, nation of Iran in her credit, to secure her non-aligned independence, have had to confront and defend herself against various US administrations in three types of warfares which US imposed on them. So far they have succeeded and defeated US in two, and on the third type Iranians have become much stronger to shield themselves.
    The first of three is a hot military warfare with or without proxies. Iran and her allies have decisively won on this front, one needs just to look at Iran Iraq war and its aftermath for US in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and her close allied client states in the Persian gulf and Levant. US helped and instigated the Iran Iraq war not knowing at the end she becomes Iran’ proxy to win Iraq for Iran. This much has been admitted by US military as well as majority of analysts.

    Second kind of warfare, that US had imposed on Iran, which evidently now is been completely defeated was the propaganda war for the moral high ground and global hearts and minds support, as well as global approval of US state actions against people of Iran. Unfortunately for the US, her defeat on this front is caused by two newer strategic points that Iran has taken. One is JCPOA which as Trump called is the worst deal ever since it had shout the US’ fat mouth up and made US seen as a villain and a rogue for her non compliance to UNSC resolution. It is because of this reason that US policy makers like Hook, Pompeo and Bolton no longer care to save US’ international face as a responsible and principled state, they know that has long been lost. No longer US is afraid to conduct the state affairs as a mob or a mafia family business. We just saw that after failure in open sea piracy they offered gold to the captain of merchant ship to swing his cargo their way. A rogue state which doesn’t care for international laws only act with arm twisting like a mafia family, instead of going to a legal international body. And the second point that facilitated US defeat on this propaganda war is her loos of monopoly and control on spreading information. Internet has made it possible smaller and poorer nations to obtain a level on spreading information, understandably US is not happy with that.

    The third on going war is on the economic front, which since the rogue US state is targeting Iran’ customers and her vendors, Iran doesn’t have much choice to protect them but Iran has done the right thing, by making herself economically stronger internally like she did with her military supply line. All indications are, Iran has faired much better under these latest sanctions than anytime before. Plus, US due to her internal hi greed economic system, will never understand that Iranian did not need too, or do, their revolution for economy. Iranian revolution was first for independence second for justice and their values and not economy.
    Since Iranians will not rise up to overthrow their government because of economic reasons, as has been demonstrated in this past few years, US will eventually loose her economic war of terror to Iran.

  4. This is an excellent, realistic and balanced comment by Elder Mamedov.

  5. This report ignores a key element: The People of Iran. In a recent academic research, it was found that over 60% do not support and want JPCOA. Most of them are having enough from the regime and its conflicts. The Iranian economy is collapsing by the way. 80% cannot afford a vacation. The middle class cannot even pay for tunafish. The regime has not money to pay the salaries of its army and it will soon have no money to inject its religious bodies and militia with money. This is good and signals an end to the brutal regime. The best solution would be a fundamental change of the regime.

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