Iran has nothing to worry about in showdown with Trump

Tehran understands that negotiations are coming someday but nothing is urgent right now.
Saturday 13/07/2019
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge sail in the Arabian Sea, May 17. (US Navy via Reuters)
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge sail in the Arabian Sea, May 17. (US Navy via Reuters)

It’s Iran that is taking the initiative. It rushes to act then waits for others to react. So far, the actions have been dramatic while the reactions have been lukewarm and confused.

Nothing in Tehran’s response to Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal is surprising. In its responses, Iran is following a predictable map.

The nuclear agreement is not an Iranian affair and has never been an objective of the Islamic Republic’s regime. It was Washington that oversaw the crafting and negotiating of the deal through the backchannel of Muscat and then marketed its birth with international partners.

When Iran threatens international shipping lines in the Bab el Mandeb Strait and in Gulf waters, it represents a different tussle altogether

At the same time, when Iran decides to enrich its uranium to forbidden levels, that represents a step that whoever thought first of killing the nuclear agreement should have anticipated. So, Washington is either intentionally drawing Iran into a military and “nuclear” escalation for some sought purpose or US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal was an improvised emotional reaction that politicians in Tehran find easy to deal with.

Tehran has not felt any critical threat to its regime. The country is used to sanctions. In fact, the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council with a wide international consensus had been broader and harsher. Washington accused Tehran of being behind the May 12 bombings of cargo ships off Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, of targeting two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13 and of downing an American drone over the Gulf on May 20. And yet, Tehran has not seen any response to the level of these charges.

Worse than that, Tehran has seen, in mediation attempts, nothing more than a US desire for dialogue rather than for confrontation. Trump confirms this reading through his consistent behaviour. All messages delivered by the prime minister of Japan and by the Omani, German, British and Swiss delegations before and after him and most recently by the French emissary represent nothing more to Tehran than different versions of the same message seeking to convince it of choosing negotiations as a necessary and much-needed aspect of Trump’s election campaign for a second term.

Tehran understands that negotiations are coming someday but nothing is urgent right now. The US president has not achieved a breakthrough on the North Korean front that could serve as a model for decision-makers in Tehran.

The scene is in Iran’s favour. To produce a nuclear bomb, Iran needs to enrich its uranium to 90% purity. It has increased the rate of enrichment to 4.5% and is threatening to bring it up to 20%, which means that it has a long time ahead of it to play cat and mouse and to enjoy receiving more and new mediation delegations.

Even when the time is right to negotiate, from Tehran’s perspective, it will be done on the premise that Iran is progressing towards developing its nuclear bomb. That would put it in a position of strength rather than being subjected to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s famous 12 conditions.

Observers must conclude that the world is dealing with Iran as a major and fundamental state in the world and that, like it or not, the world must accept, deal, negotiate and compose with its regime as a definitive and final one.

Iran knows that its game with the United States has gone into extra time. There is no room for a war to be waged by the United States under the leadership of a president who will be looking at the way things could benefit or harm his chances for re-election.

Tehran knows that Trump may not launch formal surgical military strikes, as he did in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. To do so, he needs assurances that no Iranian response will drag him and his country into a major war that he has no control over its outcomes.

Trump has not been able — or, to put it more accurately, has not tried — to convince the US public that Iran poses a strategic threat to the United States. All previous US administrations had taken such a step before waging wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yugoslavia.

In the Iranian case, however, the type of showdown that Trump has picked since May 8, 2018, when the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement, has looked more like a game that Trump and his team have been playing with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his team. If Trump wishes to sit in the White House for a second term, he must resort to a populist discourse that he was good at, promising greatness again to America and speaking of lucrative deals with his country’s allies and rivals.

It does not look like Trump’s approach to the Iranian issue is going to be profitable for Trump the candidate. Tehran knows that and will do its best not to give him what might ease the pressure he’s under in his presidential campaign. In fact, it is counting on his failure and the success of one of his Democratic rivals, who, incidentally, all have agreed to return to the nuclear agreement that Trump had torn up.

Until the United States chooses a president in November 2020, Iran is unlikely to have to worry about any outside threat.