MESOPOTAMIA NEWS : “Israel must take into consideration the possible gaps between its interests and those of the Americans, and the fact that the US administration has greater leeway than Israel and that the objectives that President Trump will seek to achieve in each scenario may differ than those of Israel”
The Dispute Between the United States and Iran – Scenarios and Implications
The dispute between the United States and Iran is taking place on two levels: The American administration is adhering to its policy of placing “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime, while Iran is adopting a new policy in place of the “tolerance” that it had demonstrated thus far, in order to show the United States, and especially the other countries that signed the Nuclear Agreement—particularly the European partners—the costs they are liable to pay for continuing the sanctions.
At the same time, in an attempt to prevent a deterioration, given the tensions that have developed recently in the Gulf, efforts are being made to find channels of dialogue between the two countries. At present, assuming that Iran is not interested in “upsetting the apple cart,” one of following three main scenarios could develop: a continuation of the gradual and cautious erosion (over time) of the Iranian commitments according to the agreement (JCPOA); Iran’s quick withdrawal from its commitments, including from fulfilling the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, and significantly reducing cooperation with the agency; or the beginning of new negotiations with the Trump administration. Despite the tension, the impression is that both the United States and Iran are not interested in a deterioration. Israel must take into consideration the possible gaps between its interests and those of the Americans, that the United States has greater leeway than Israel, and that the objectives that President Trump will aim to achieve in each scenario may be different than those that Israel would like to achieve, especially if negotiations are reopened.
In practice, the dispute between the United States and Iran is taking place on two parallel levels:
- Shows of force and attempts at deterrence — The US administration is adhering to its policy of placing “maximum pressure” on Iran; continuing to impose more and more sanctions (including recently on the petrochemical industry) and placing pressure on various countries to implement those already imposed. In addition, the administration has sent warning messages to Iran, including reinforcing naval and air forces in the Gulf region. Iran for its part announced in response that it would begin to erode its commitments according to the agreement—in the first stage accumulating low enriched uranium and heavy water, and starting at the beginning of July, also possibly enriching uranium to a higher level (20 percent?) and reducing the cooperation on converting the Arak heavy water reactor. In addition, and without taking public responsibility, Iran has directly and through its allies demonstrated its ability to cause damage by sabotaging tankers in the Fujairah port and damaging oil extraction infrastructure belonging to the oil company Aramco in Saudi Arabia. Although US national security advisor, John Bolton, has promised that the administration will present proof to the Security Council that Iran was responsible for the acts of sabotage, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Norway, whose tankers were damaged, sufficed with only implicitly pointing to Iran (without mentioning it) as being responsible for the attack, without providing proof.
- Attempts to find channels of dialogue — President Trump’s declared objective from the beginning of the actions against Iran was and remains to force Teheran to agree to negotiations on an improved agreement. The possibility of the existence of secret channels of communication with Iran and/or the exchange of messages between the two countries again has been suggested more recently in the international media. The parties mentioned as potential mediators include Switzerland, Germany (the German foreign minister recently visited Teheran), Oman (the Omani foreign minister visited Washington and Teheran), and Iraq. In this context, it is important to note the visit of the prime minister of Japan in Teheran (the first such visit by a Japanese prime minister in decades) and it is reported that he will meet with the leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, following meetings in Tokyo with President Trump, who asked him to convey messages to Iran.
Alongside efforts by various parties to create channels of communication between Iran and the United States, President Trump has continued to maintain a public tone that seeks to maintain the calm and ease the tension, clarifying that the United States is “not looking for regime change;” and “If they’d like to talk, we’d like to talk also . . . Nobody wants to see terrible things happen, especially me.” The Iranians are a “great nation” and the Iranian Republic “has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership.”
Although Iran’s leader has emphatically reiterated that Iran will not negotiate with the United States, at the same time, in a slightly more conciliatory message, the Iranian leader said that Iran is willing to speak with any other party, “including the Europeans.” President Hassan Rouhani for his part noted that Iran would agree to talks if the United States were to respect the agreement and remove the sanctions. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, said a few weeks ago that talks could take place only if the Americans “behave respectfully” toward Iran.
In any case, it seems that the new policy that Iran has adopted instead of the “tolerance” that it had demonstrated thus far aims primarily to show the United States, and especially the other countries that signed the agreement, particularly the European partners—Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—the costs they are liable to pay for continuing the sanctions and/or to try to accumulate leverage that Iran can use if and when the negotiations begin. To this end, Iran is taking gradual steps over time to strengthen the message that violating the agreement could lead to its collapse, without yet having to adopt more drastic steps, such as restricting inspections.
At the current time, based on the assessment that Iran is not interested in “upsetting the apple cart,” one of the following three main scenarios could develop. Each of them could also lead to escalating tensions in the Gulf region:
- The continued gradual and cautious erosion (over time) of Iranian commitments according to the agreement, with an emphasis on returning to enriching uranium (including to a level of 20 percent); the American administration’s ensuring of the implementation of the sanctions and likely even their intensification, based on the assessment or the hope that they will in the end bring Iran to the negotiating table. It is likely that the European partners, having no choice, will seek to send messages to Iran that they too will have to join the efforts of pressuring Iran.
Iran’s quick withdrawal from its commitments, including from fulfilling the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, and significantly reducing cooperation with the agency, even if it does so while continuing to fulfill its commitments according to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In such a scenario, an uneven respond from the international community would be expected. It is likely that the European countries would perceive the new situation as a risk, and it seems that their only choice would be to join the United States and impose sanctions on Iran. However, at the same time, Russia and China especially would express understanding of Iran’s “motives,” and as long as Iran remains under the supervision of the IAEA and within the framework of the NPT, they would prefer to continue their relations with it.
- Entering new negotiations with the Trump administration. This scenario could also occur as a development in one of the previous two scenarios. This is the United States’ preferred path, and we can assume that in the (secret) messages that the United States is sending to Iran, it does not specify its final objectives for negotiations. The announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the administration is not placing preconditions on renewing the negotiations does not obviate the twelve demands that he himself specified as a condition for removing the sanctions, but it certainly does not ensure that the administration will adhere to them in order to achieve a renewed agreement. In his public statements, President Trump, for his part, has mainly emphasized the need to ensure that Iran cannot acquire nuclear weapons.
Despite the tension between them, it seems that the United States and Iran are not interested in a deterioration of the situation and that fears of miscalculation have led them to exercise caution and go to great efforts to ensure that the steps taken do not degenerate into a wider confrontation between them. The American administration, and especially President Trump, have already demonstrated a certain level of frustration at their inability to leverage the sanctions for a diplomatic track that would achieve results. Iran’s decision to return to its nuclear activities will therefore place the US administration in a dilemma regarding its responses. In any case, the reasoning that the administration has acted upon thus far seems not to have included the need to resort to military responses. Even though from time to time this is stated, it seems—at least from President Trump’s perspective—that this is just a matter of going through the motions, with no actual interest in military action. Toward the end of 2019, the United States will enter a presidential election year, which most likely will not allow the administration to choose such an extreme and controversial option.
This leads to the impression that, alongside the pressures being placed by Iran and the United States on one another, at the same time there is a process of exchanging messages regarding the conditions for negotiations. It is possible to identify slight hints that Iran might agree to initial negotiations—if the United States allows it to sell oil. Beginning negotiations will enable Iran to buy time in the hope that President Trump will be a one-term president; the existence of negotiations could reduce the pressure on Iran; all of the international players who oppose American sanctions would be happy to return to some type of “business as usual” with Iran; and this would strengthen the Trump administration’s interest in achieving a better agreement than the one attained by Obama and proving that the accusations that Obama was too soft and thereby brought about “the worst deal ever” were right.
Israel must take into consideration the possible gaps between its interests and those of the Americans, and the fact that the US administration has greater leeway than Israel and that the objectives that President Trump will seek to achieve in each scenario may differ than those of Israel, especially if negotiations between Washington and Iran are reopened. Against this backdrop, it is important to maintain a strategic shared discourse with the United States on all levels, where the central challenge for Israel is to ensure that the administration speaks with one voice and that the policy that it formulates and advances vis-à-vis Iran addresses the interests of both countries.