With the Iran Deal Dead, is War Inevitable?
In foreign policy, there’s a fine line between diplomacy and arrogance. The former champions compromise through dialogue. The latter is about placing unrealistic demands and failing to understand the other side’s red lines and interests. The Trump administration’s so-called ‘maximum pressure campaign’ towards Iran is pushing the region to war. By pulling out of the nuclear accord last year and jeopardizing the sanctions relief regime, the Trump administration has effectively removed Iran’s incentive to comply with the deal. Iran’s recent ultimatum to the world is therefore unsurprising. The current impasse has left Iran with little choice but to consider pressing on with its nuclear program — essentially tearing the deal to shreds. Even if the deal’s collapse may yet be avoided, the same cannot be said about the disastrous consequences its failure would bring about. More regional instability, proxy conflicts, a potential nuclear arms race and most alarming of all: war.
The Iran nuclear accord, signed after years of painful negotiations, was nothing less than a triumph of diplomacy. Admittedly, however, the deal negotiated in 2015 was far from perfect, leaving many valid question marks. Concern about expiry dates regarding certain provisions of the deal are well-grounded and deserving of attention. Obliging Iran to reduce its uranium and centrifuge stockpile, the deal simultaneously banned Iran from crossing the 3,67% threshold of enrichment. 90% is needed for a weapon, mind you. But these provisions would only last for 15 years. So critics rightly asked: what happens afterwards? What if Iran was just buying time, playing it smart and negotiating sanctions relief to bolster its economy, prop up the regime and revive its nuclear ambitions in due time? A valid point. But even if the deal only managed to postpone Iran’s desire of getting the bomb, it also bought world leaders time to devise alternative policies and plans by putting Iran’s development on hold. Before the deal was signed, experts estimated that Iran was 2 months away from developing a weapon if it made that crucial decision. The deal’s provisions stretched this period, known as “breakout time”, to one year. This essentially provided the US and its allies 10 additional months of either negotiation or military planning to counter the threat of Iran acquiring the bomb had that decision been made.
If anyone was popping champagne to the news of Trump pulling out of this massively important deal last year, it was Mr. Netanyahu. Israel has long been distrustful of Tehran’s motivations, repeatedly calling the nuclear agreement a ‘historic mistake’, while pressuring the US to pull out. Trump even cited Israeli intelligence allegedly proving Iran’s secret pursuit of the bomb in the early 2000s as a reason for withdrawal. Although it would be naive to presume Iran never wanted or attempted to covertly pursue the bomb, no evidence was provided by Netanyahu that Iran was currently violating the terms of the deal. Furthermore, the deal was never about having to trust the Iranians about their intentions in the first place. Instead, a rigorous UN inspection regime was charged with monitoring the nuclear program and Iran’s compliance with the deal’s terms. This regime by definition made it more difficult for Iran to deceive and cheat. And it appears to have been working: The International Atomic Energy Agency — the UN’s nuclear watchdog and inspection body — has repeatedly confirmed in its quarterly reports, most recently in February, that Iran’s conduct was in full compliance with the deal’s limits on its nuclear stockpile and program.
But the deal’s central criticism from Trump’s perspective centers around a separate issue, one that was never covered by the agreement’s terms: Iran’s regional ambitions, its increasingly aggressive foreign policy and support for networks branded as terrorist organizations by America and its allies. We’re talking about Iran providing financial support and training to networks like Hamas and Hezbollah, groups long considered to be among Israel’s top enemies and existential threats.Groups that have carried out deadly attacks on innocent civilians. We’re talking about supporting an Assad regime in Syria which uses chemical weapons against its own people. Though these acts by Iran should be condemned and countered in the strongest possible terms, they must be dealt with separately from the nuclear issue. Nor is it helpful diplomatically for the US to label Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps — a branch of its military — as a terrorist organization, as the US administration has done last month. Would it help if Iran labelled the Pentagon as such?
It is simply unrealistic for the Trump administration to expect Iran to drop its strategic alliances, abandon its foreign policy targets and neutralize its own position and power in an increasingly volatile region that includes a hostile, hard line government in Jerusalem and an emerging geopolitical rival in Saudi Arabia. How exactly would the US administration react if Iran made similarly unrealistic demands? That America, for instance, end its relationship with the Saudis — a country often labeled as the ideological birthplace of radical, jihadi Islam, and a regime that murders journalists in foreign embassies while making a mockery of human rights at home.
With the American withdrawal last year, and Iran’s recent announcement that it will resume enriching uranium within 60 days if the remaining signatories of the deal don’t come up with a plan to shield it from US-led financial and energy sanctions, the nuclear is all but dead. The key question: Can the Trump administration be trusted to properly resolve this delicate but hugely significant matter? The stakes couldn’t be higher:
If the current impasse isn’t managed carefully, the stage could be set for another war in the Middle East. Perhaps it already has been.
The U.S has already sent an aircraft carrier with bombers to the region in response to a perceived imminent attack on U.S land and sea forces in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, a senior advisor to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani just tweeted the following:
The U.S foreign policy establishment isn’t exactly working overtime to avoid military escalation. In fact, Trump’s closest advisors on foreign policy — national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — are considered hawkish hardliners pushing for military involvement and regime change in Iran. Bolton in particular is known to have disdain towards the Iranian regime and wants to see it toppled, a sentiment that dates back to his time in George W. Bush’s administration. The New York Times reports on a White House national security meeting in which a plan brokered by Bolton proposed sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter Iran’s recent threats. Statements by Rudy Giuliani about overthrowing the Iranian regime “in a few days, months, a couple of years, but it’s going to happen…” don’t exactly provide the Iranians reassurance or reason to back down from the recent dispute. Perhaps Giuliani and Bolton forgot how a US-planned coup planted the seeds for the 1979 Iranian revolution in the first place, producing a regime which despises America as a matter of ideological principle. Or how removing Saddam worked out in Iraq. Regime change is partially why this decades -old conflict started in the first place. Can it really be a long term solution this time?
Then of course, there’s Israel, and with it another question: How much of Trump’s Iran policy is influenced by Israel? It is not completely out of question that Israel would decide on a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities should it gather credible intelligence about Tehran seeking the bomb. Dubious Israeli intelligence could convince Netanyahu to pursue what has long been a foreign policy goal: Destroying any chance of Iran becoming a nuclear power. Backed by a US administration whose interests converge with Israel’s on Iran, Israel may well calculate that the 2020 US presidential elections could produce a Democratic president and administration not as sympathetic to a military standoff with Tehran. Netanyahu may well see the current fragile scenario in which any provocative act could lead to military escalation as Israel’s opportunity. Iran has already been accused by the US to be behind an attack on four oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
All of that goes without mentioning the proxy wars currently taking place with Israel’s, America’s, Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s indirect involvement: In Syria, Iran backs Assad, while the Saudis back the rebels. in Yemen, Houthi rebels backed by Iran attack Saudi oil infrastructure through drone attacks. In what is already dubbed “The Cold War In the Middle East”, the Iranians and Saudis find ways to undermine each other’s influence and regional power. Would the Saudis allow Iran to ascend from big regional player to nuclear hegemon? And if Iran does acquire the bomb, can Riyadh resist the strategic need to build its own weapon, plunging the region into a dangerous arms race?
The potential is certainly there for miscalculation and a breakdown in diplomacy boiling into aggression. History teaches a pessimistic lesson: If one or more sides want war, finding a reason or an excuse is rarely if ever a problem. Will it be another naval incident in the Persian Gulf? Will it be an outrageous statement or threat by an Iranian official? Or a new Israeli intelligence report? Perhaps war can, and will be avoided altogether, but if it isn’t, future historians will likely point to a failed nuclear agreement with Iran as a key reason. Arguably a deal which Trump and his team knowingly and deliberately sabotaged.