Another episode in the US-Iran showdown
Learning from experience in the long saga with Tehran, the Trump administration is determined to bring about concrete change in Iran under the proclaimed objective of changing the regime’s behaviour.
For US policy planners and decision makers, the real American strategy should aim at a regime change in Iran by causing an economic meltdown there. Both sides are poised for a serious duel, much more serious than previous US efforts to bring Iran to heel.
US President Donald Trump’s strategy aims at crippling the Iranian regime by “oil zeroing” — reducing Iranian oil exports to zero. The effort is meant to place greater economic pressure on the regime, which is facing internal unrest, and paralyse Iran’s ability to generate revenues from oil exports to financing its external expansion policies.
Some US circles, however, admit that unilateral sanctions will have a relatively limited effect on the Iranian economy. If India, China and Turkey continue to buy Iranian oil and if Europe, Russia, Turkey and Iraq find innovative ways to facilitate other Iranian business operations, the effects of the new sanctions will be less severe than broader sanctions imposed on Iran before the signing of the nuclear agreement in 2015.
Knowing this, Iran will work through its plan on containing escalation of sanctions to ensure enough oil is exported to finance “vital expenditures” and ensure the availability of foreign currency to set off the decline of the local currency.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani is counting on this step to regain the initiative and perhaps return to negotiations later. Such a scenario is crucial for him because he is being blamed for “implicating Iran in a failed nuclear agreement” by circles close to the Iranian supreme leader and especially by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It would be difficult for the Trump administration to change Tehran’s behaviour under pressure from economic sanctions. From 2011-15, US sanctions were comprehensive and reinforced by international ones and Iran’s economy was in a severe recession. However, that was not enough to stop the Iranian regime from its interventionistic policies in the region, especially in Syria on the side of the Assad regime. Even after the lifting of the sanctions through the nuclear agreement in 2015, Iran maintained its expansion project and its regional interventions.
So there is a strong possibility that the reintroduction of US sanctions without adequate international support will not reduce Iran’s “malicious” regional influence, to borrow Washington’s terminology.
One could also say that the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the Trump administration’s policies have reduced Iran’s regional gains. In Syria, the Iranian presence has shrunk in comparison to the large Russian influence there. The best proof of that is the exclusion of Tehran from international forums on the Syrian issue, most recently from the Istanbul summit.
In Iraq, Tehran has won a draw with Washington and its influence is practically diminishing.
From Yemen to Lebanon, the Iranian imperialistic project is suffering from the repercussions of the confrontations and economic siege.
On a broader level, and in the absence of a significant shift in the regional balance of power, the US goals will turn out to be too broad, allowing Tehran to refuse to return to the negotiation table and to play for more time for manoeuvring. It might turn out that the lack of incentives for Iran to negotiate can be linked to Rohani’s team being apprehensive of paying a very high political price for negotiating with Washington.
Let’s not forget that the smallest serious concession to Washington represents, in the eyes of the Iranian regime, a dangerous departure from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s last will and a virtual coup inside the revolutionary system, something the inner circles of the supreme leader will not tolerate.
French observers say Tehran had accepted to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for economic concessions. However, the Iranian regime said that Iran’s security and defence justify its acquisition and development of ballistic missiles and its regional expansion, something Iran learnt from the Iran-Iraq war.
European circles, therefore, do not rule out the possibility that Tehran might experiment with new provocations if internal pressures are exacerbated, instead of opting for a change in its regional policies or returning to negotiations. Recent attempts, allegedly by Iranian intelligence, to cause attacks in France and Denmark could be understood in this context.
At the regional level, the impasse over Iran could lead to an escalation in its extremist policies, perhaps through provocations in international waters or by supplying up-to-date weapons to the parties of the Iranian axis in Lebanon and Iraq.
By contrast, Trump does not seem to have many alternatives in store. The Middle East Strategic Alliance is still in the making and the lack of coordination with Europe deprives Washington of a tight pressuring mechanism.
These factors are shrouding this new episode in the 40-year saga between Washington and Tehran in mystery. There is a real risk that the saga will be turned into another endless series.