Rising US-Iran tensions could lead to clashes

Sunday 23/07/2017
Thinly-veiled threats. Technicians of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation in a control room supervise resumption of activities at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan. (Reuters)

Boston- A reluctant US Presi­dent Donald Trump certified to the US Congress that Iran was complying with the 2015 nuclear deal but soon after slapped additional sanctions on Ira­nian individuals and entities. Iran is­sued harsh warnings to Washington in response. These moves increase the possibility of clashes between the United States and Iran but nei­ther side seems interested in a full-scale war.
Trump is legally required to report to Congress every 90 days on wheth­er Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement between Tehran and the P5+1 countries — the United States, Britain, France, China, Rus­sia and Germany — meant to limit Iran’s development of a nuclear pro­gramme.
During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Trump denounced the agreement and promised to scuttle it if elected. Since becoming presi­dent, however, he has certified twice that Iran was in compliance, imply­ing that the United States will stick with the deal — at least for now.
Trump has not had a change of heart towards the Iranian regime. Reports indicated that Trump re­mains deeply distrustful of Iran and had to be persuaded by US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secre­tary of State Rex Tillerson to sign the recent certification.
These two moderate voices in his administration, while harbouring misgivings themselves about Iran, said that non-certification would have isolated the United States in the international community and put the country on a slippery slope towards confrontation with Tehran.
There was no hard evidence, oth­er than a few minor violations that were corrected by Iran, that Tehran was not in compliance with the deal.
That said, some Trump aides ac­cused Iran of not complying with the “spirit” of the deal, a reference to Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its activities in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other areas. One Trump of­ficial told the Washington Post that the nuclear deal is a “symptom, not the disease” of Iran’s behaviour, which he characterised as one of “broader aggression” and said the administration would be conduct­ing a “strategic review” of the Iran portfolio.
As a sign of a tougher stance to­wards Tehran, the administration added 18 entities and individuals to its sanctions list. These include two Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) organisations for engaging in proliferation activities, five com­panies that support Iran’s military procurement and three individuals allegedly associated with an “Iran-based transnational criminal organi­sation.”
There is bipartisan support in Congress for a tougher stand against Iran. The US Senate voted nearly unanimously on June 15 to impose new sanctions on Iran over its mis­sile programme, human rights violations and support for terrorist groups. In July, both the US House and Senate passed amendments to the defence authorisation bill that call on the Pentagon to investigate Iran’s use of commercial airliners to transport weapons to other coun­tries.

These amendments are likely to block a proposed sale of Boeing planes to Iran, a deal that the Obama administration had encouraged.
Predictably, Washington’s harsh words and the additional sanc­tions against Iran have elicited a tough stance from Tehran. Moham­med Bagheri, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, warned Washington against putting the IRGC on the list of terrorist groups, threatening it would be a “big risk” for US forces and bases in the region. IRGC com­mander Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari warned the United States to disassemble its bases within 1,000km of Iran, which happens to be the range of the country’s mis­siles.
Even the relatively moderate Ira­nian President Hassan Rohani, who championed the nuclear deal, stated that Iran would “resist these plans and actions” of the United States. Rohani, whose brother was arrested under orders from Iran’s judiciary, is under pressure from hardliners to act tough against Washington. The recent sentencing of an Ameri­can graduate student to ten years in prison on seemingly bogus espio­nage charges is symptomatic of the hardliners’ power.
Does this mean a war between the United States and Iran is likely? Trump does not want to get bogged down in another Middle Eastern conflict and the Iranians, for all their tough talk, know their forces are no match for the US military.
That said, a more aggressive pos­ture by both sides in the Gulf, where naval vessels are in close proximity, could lead to clashes. Trump could use such incidents to refuse compli­ance certification to Congress the next time around.
Given Trump’s unpredictabil­ity and the failures of his domestic agenda, he may relish clashes with Iran to boost his sagging poll num­bers, especially since he knows that the US public holds anti-Iran views.