|Rising Crisis Between the United States and Iran: Amos Yadlin, INSS Insight No. 1166, May 14, 2019
The Tensions Between the US and Iran: Dr. Raphel Ofek, BESA, June 3, 2019
The Rising Crisis Between the United States and Iran
May 2019 marks the end of a difficult year for Iran, which saw the United States withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the JCPOA, and the imposition of American sanctions. The sanctions, which have hit primarily the oil and financial sectors, have inflicted severe damage on the Iranian economy. Furthermore, Iran’s attempt to entrench and build up an advanced military capability against Israel in Syria appears to have failed.
After a year in which Iran opted for “strategic patience,” in the hope that European nations would compensate for American sanctions and that President Donald Trump will stand little chance of reelection in 2020, the US administration has succeeded in ramping up the sanctions and applying pressure beyond Tehran’s expectations. Over the last month, Iran has experienced intensification of the US policy of “maximum pressure”: waivers that President Trump had granted China, India, Japan, and other countries, whereby these countries were able to import oil from Iran, were canceled; sanctions were imposed on the export of iron, steel, aluminum, and copper products from Iran; and in the nuclear realm, the United States revoked two waivers that had allowed Iran to abide by its JCPOA obligation to export excess enriched uranium and heavy water that it produces. The American designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization was meant to denigrate the Iranian economy and raise the stakes of doing business with shadowy elements of the Iranian economy, from potential fines to the threat of prison time. The regime in Iran has thus concluded that it must devise a new strategy – or at least, update its strategy – to one that is more proactive, albeit measured and cautious.
Iran now seeks to present a price tag for the US measures against it and has thus embarked on a response comprising action in three realms. Regarding the nuclear realm, Iran is trying to compel European nations to formulate and implement the promised mechanism to provide compensation for the sanctions. In the military realm, Iran seeks to exact a price from the United States (and Israel) with the goal of creating deterrence and preserving national pride. Finally, when it comes to energy supply, Iran has threatened Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that if it is unable to export oil, they too will be unable to do so.
The Nuclear Realm
The Tensions Between the U.S. and Iran
The current crisis between the US and Iran is the most severe since the Iranian 1979 revolution and the attendant establishment of the Islamic Republic. The revolution ended the close relations that had existed between the two countries up to that point. The regime of the ayatollahs remains in place, and the relationship between the countries has never recovered.
It should be noted that even the Shah had a desire to turn Iran into a nuclear power. He had a grandiose plan in mind that involved both power reactors and a nuclear weapons development effort. The military aspect of the nuclear program was thwarted by the US. Moreover, when the ayatollahs came to power, the nuclear program was cut off entirely, because Ayatollah Khomeini considered nuclear technology to be “devilish.”
But during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, when it became clear that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons, the regime changed its mind, concluding that nuclear weapons development was an unavoidable necessity. Within a few years, by which point the regime had reaffirmed its determination to turn Iran into a regional superpower and to export the Islamic revolution throughout the world, the effort to develop nuclear weapons had been fully legitimized by the ayatollahs and become Tehran’s flagship project.
A significant shift in US policy toward Iran took place during the Barack Obama presidency, which, like Jimmy Carter’s, had a utopian perception of the Middle East. According to his senior adviser, Ben Rhodes, Obama was already aspiring to improve relations with Iran at the start of his first presidency in 2009, did not take practical steps toward that end until his second term. John Kerry, who was a senator at the time, was sent to Oman to meet with Iranian representatives. He carried a letter in which Obama promised that he was ready to recognize Iran’s uranium enrichment project as legitimate. This contradicts Obama’s later claim that his willingness to improve relations with Tehran began after Hassan Rouhani, who was considered relatively moderate, was elected president of Iran.
The July 2015 nuclear agreement appears to have been rigged from the start. According to media reports, during talks in Geneva in November 2013 that paved the road to the nuclear agreement, Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian FM Muhammad Javad Zarif rode bicycles side by side in the streets of the city. In addition, the parties’ representatives at the Lausanne talks in March 2015 – Ali Akbar Salehi, the president of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, and Ernest Muniz, the US Energy Secretary – appear to have known each other in the distant past. Salehi received his PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT in 1977, where he had been sent along with other Iranian students during the time of the Shah. Muniz spent over 20 years lecturing in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at MIT. According to press reports from Vienna on the eve of the signing of the nuclear agreement, the US delegation was perceived not as a party to the discussions but as an attorney for the Iranian delegation. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
President Trump’s Iran policy has so far been effective at keeping the regime off balance. He especially distinguished himself by defying conventional opinion and withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and imposing painful economic sanctions, which have undercut Tehran’s finances and exacerbated internal pressures.
Third, Iran followed up with defiant rhetoric. Mr. Trump warned, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the end of Iran”—but eight days later he played down any chance of conflict, clarifying that “we’re not looking for regime change.” Tehran acted as if it had succeeded in calling the president’s bluff. “The Americans are unwilling and unable to carry out military action against us,” a military aide to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asserted.
Deterrence requires Mr. Trump to maintain U.S. credibility. Otherwise, Iran will intensify its aggressive behavior and ratchet up its nuclear effort, making conflict likelier. Most immediately, the U.S. must retaliate with precise military action against critical Iranian assets.
More fundamentally, the Trump administration should make “regime collapse” its overarching strategic objective. That was the original goal of containment against the Soviet Union, and it would bring much-needed coherence to U.S. policy against Iran. It does not entail an Iraq-style war of “regime change,” but involves efforts to roll back Iran’s regional expansion.
At a minimum, this means increasing support for regional allies on the front lines, including Israel, Jordan and the Syrian Kurds. For Israel, that should include front-loading the remaining nine years of America’s defense-assistance agreement, giving the Jewish state better tools in advance of potential major conflict in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. It could include homeporting two missile-defense destroyers in Haifa (provided Israel addresses U.S. concerns about China’s role there). A more robust policy would also involve enforcing United Nations Security Council resolutions by interdicting Iranian missiles and drones headed to Yemen, and intercepting weapons headed for Hezbollah and Iranian proxies in Syria.
Mr. Trump was dealt a very bad hand on Iran. President Obama undermined U.S. credibility by failing to uphold his Syria red line and agreeing to the JCPOA. Yet Mr. Trump has managed to put Tehran on the defensive. Now his policy is being tested. How he responds will have a significant impact on U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond.
I don’t see much mystery in the recent ratcheting up of tensions between the United States and Iran. U.S. sanctions are crushing the Iranian economy. The ever-tightening vice has proved increasingly threatening to Iran’s leaders. In response, they have been scrambling for ways to push back and force the United States to relent without triggering a potentially suicidal conflict with the U.S. military. The U.S. intelligence community detected the spike in Iranian preparations to target American interests, resulting in the decision to augment U.S. forces in the region as well as a flurry of public warnings meant to deter any challenge.
Iran’s decision to escalate was no surprise. I wrote about it for Foreign Policy seven months ago—just before President Donald Trump reimposed U.S. sanctions against Iran’s oil exports. At the time, I said that in the coming months the Iranian regime was likely to come under greater stress than at any time since the 1979 revolution, and that as the United States cranked up its campaign of economic warfare and the walls gradually closed in on Iran, the Trump administration should be ready for Tehran to lash out—not via a conventional confrontation with the U.S. military but through hard-to-attribute, asymmetric attacks, most likely using proxies and targeting Washington’s weaker regional allies as much as U.S. personnel and assets. For example: the sabotage Saudi Arabia accused Iran of perpetrating against commercial oil tankers just outside the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month, the drone attacks by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels against critical Saudi oil infrastructure, and the rocket launched near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, presumably by a pro-Iranian militia.
With Tehran facing the prospect of a catastrophic collapse in oil exports, the regime’s economic lifeline, it’s obvious that the United States and Iran have entered a new, more perilous phase in their four-decade-old struggle. It’s rapidly dawning on Iran’s leaders that Plan A, their preferred strategy of waiting out the Trump administration, may not be viable. The risks of simply sitting back and absorbing ever more powerful blows from a relentless U.S. sanctions machine for another 18 to 20 months, or even longer should Trump be reelected, have grown unacceptably high.
I’ll admit that it took a bit longer than I expected for the Iranian regime to start unleashing Qassem Suleimani—the head of the paramilitary branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps known as the Quds Force. Even after the oil sanctions came back into full force last November and Iran’s exports were rapidly cut in half, the regime largely sat on its hands for six months. It appeared to have initially calculated that wiser move was to be patient, hunkering down and riding out the sanctions until after the 2020 election, when Trump might be replaced by a more accommodating U.S. president—if not impeached and removed from office sooner. Until then, Iran’s leaders seemed to bet that a combination of factors would allow them to continue scraping by economically. Two were paramount. First, that the Europeans, desperate to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, would come up with a credible payment mechanism for financing continued trade with Iran. Second, and even more important, that the United States would keep issuing periodic waivers (as it did last November) to a handful of countries (most importantly China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey) allowing them to continue buying significant quantities of Iranian oil.
Alas, both those bets have failed. As much as the Europeans have bemoaned Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions, they’ve been powerless to do much of anything about it. No matter how good the mechanism that European bureaucrats may have built on paper for circumventing sanctions, major European companies, banks, and business leaders are having none of it, refusing to take the risk of being caught on the wrong side of a U.S. Treasury designation.
Even more consequential was the United States’ announcement in late April that it would no longer extend sanctions waivers to countries that had continued importing Iranian crude oil. The decision represented a dramatic ratcheting up of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. The U.S. goal was now to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero, shutting down completely the regime’s most important source of revenue and hard currency. It quickly became apparent that the threat was very real. Japanese and South Korean companies ceased imports immediately. India and Turkey followed suit. By early May, evidence indicated that even major Chinese energy firms had suspended purchases from Iran. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]