Can America roll back Iran?
On the presidential campaign trail last year, Donald Trump vowed more than once to “rip up” the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 by the other UN Security Council permanent members — Britain, China, France and Russia — and Germany.
Six months into office and despite Trump’s personal misgivings, his administration told Congress for a second time that Iran complied with the nuclear deal — it must certify this to Congress every 90 days — and can keep enjoying sanctions relief. The Trump administration, however, insists that Tehran could face consequences for breaching “the spirit” of the deal.
This announcement is a pattern emerging in its treatment of Iran. Even when it acknowledges that Iran is doing something that it wants, the White House looks for other ways to increase pressure on the Islamic Republic.
This latest recertification was reluctantly agreed by the president, whose foreign policy team — US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford and national security adviser H. R. McMaster — was against it. Pessimists in Washington say the president is unlikely to certify the deal in October. It looks very much as if the ground is being laid for a more aggressive policy.
This apparently cautious behaviour does not affect the organising principle of the US administration that Iran remains at the root of all evil in the Middle East.
Before looking at where the notion of rollback originates, it is worth appreciating what the implications of a more aggressive policy are. The first message it would send is that the world cannot count on the United States being committed to its international undertakings. The signal this sends to Iran, Russia, Europe, let alone China and India, would be disastrous in terms of international stability. It would also set the United States and Europe on divergent paths on Iran.
The very notion of rollback harps back to Cold War days when apocalyptic views of the threat represented by the Soviet Union in Europe were defeated in favour of containment. After 1945, the Soviet Union had an asymmetrical greater interest in holding on to Eastern Europe — a vital buffer after the German assault that had killed tens of millions of its soldiers and civilians. The policy of containment devised by George Kennan and which became the basis of the Truman administration’s foreign policy in 1946-47 avoided an uncontrollable escalation between the United States and the Soviet Union in Europe.
The Saudi view of Iran, which Trump and some of his key security advisers share, is equally apocalyptic. Iran, in this view, wants land corridors to strengthen Hezbollah and launch a second front against Israel.
In broader strategic terms, the Shia threat to the Middle East is equivalent to the fascist threat to Europe in the 1930s. How much the Americans, the Israelis and the Saudis believe Iran is an existential threat is anyone’s guess. What is not is the sense of urgency this kind of vocabulary conveys.
Iran’s behaviour in the region has been constant since the Islamic Revolution. In the 1980s, the Israeli assault on Palestinian militants in Lebanon encouraged the rise of Hezbollah and opened the door to Iranian influence in Lebanon. Syria’s confrontation with Israel forged an alliance of convenience between Tehran and Damascus. The collapse of Iraq after the US-led invasion opened the door to the idea of a corridor between Iran and Lebanon.
The Obama administration toughened multilateral sanctions, cyberwar and sabotage against Iran but decided to give diplomacy another try after Hassan Rohani was elected president. Assertiveness follows anxiety in a repeated cyclical pattern of assertiveness and anxiety. The 10-year nuclear deal with Iran encouraged the Israelis and Saudis to move the goalposts and link Iran’s behaviour in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen but their repeated calls for a rollback beg the question of where this policy ends. Do all these Iranian threats outweigh that of a nuclear-armed Iran?
Arguing that Tehran is “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the deal because of its interference in neighbouring countries allows the United States to impose non-nuclear related sanctions on Iran but carries the risk that Tehran could allege that Washington is the one violating the spirit of the deal and prompt its ultimate unravelling.
Hawkish attitudes in Washington did not stop the French company Total from signing a major deal to develop gas in the Pars field a few weeks ago. Germany, Russia and China have pressed the United States not to tear up the deal and do not share apocalyptic views of Iran.
Washington is faced with a deepening crisis in the Gulf that pits Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Tillerson’s shuttle diplomacy suggests that US capacity to bring its weight to bear in favour of a diplomatic solution to the crisis goes unheeded. The virtual evisceration of the State Department in Washington hardly argues for an American role; too few senior posts are occupied.
This stand-off is all the more dangerous as Turkey has troops based in Qatar and says it will back its ally, which hosts the biggest US military base in the Gulf. Qatar has working relations with Iran with whom it shares the huge offshore Pars gas field.
Both in Iraq and Syria, there is little the United States can do to counter Iran whose Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and proxy fighters, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, are well-armed and well-trained.
Turkey, a key player in the region is going through a very unsettling time, one year after the coup that attempted to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A major crisis with Iran is not in the United States’ best interest, which may explain why officials in Washington no longer speak of regime change but of “looking for a change in the regime’s behaviour.”
Whatever internal divisions there may be in Iran, strong US rhetoric against the Islamic Republic can only unify its people. The same applies in Russia. Both these countries have clear strategic and tactical aims across the Middle East, which is not the case with this US administration.
Barring a major upset, we can expect the White House to certify that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal when it next has to do so – in October. No major upset in US policy towards Iran need be feared — at least for the next few months.