The US-Iran showdown after Mecca summits

Resorting to pointless manoeuvring, hollow language, double discourse, twisted tactics, subversive messages and threats, will intensify Iran's conflict with Washington and neighbouring countries.
Sunday 09/06/2019
A MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter transports cargo from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during a replenishment-at-sea, May 19. (AFP)
Dead end. A MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter transports cargo from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) to the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during a replenishment-at-sea, May 19. (AFP)

The Gulf, Arab and Islamic summits in Mecca were a last-chance call to protect peace and security in the Gulf and the Middle East.

Amid the escalation between Washington and Tehran, the Gulf and Arab leaders rejected Iran's interference and its threats to stability in the region.

Indeed, the entire region is affected by the muscle flexing illustrated by US President Donald Trump's strategy of "extreme pressure" on Iran and by Iran’s reactions wavering between military posturing and ambiguous, vague and non-constructive diplomatic proposals.

With mounting tensions, the summer promises to be hot. It is unlikely the escalation will reach the level of military confrontation but the growing likelihood of a dead end on the diplomatic level could lead to a limited military conflict because it is difficult for Trump, despite his sometimes conciliatory tweets and statements, to back down after two years of harsh measures against Iran.

The case of the Iranian regime is more complex. Its problem has become chronic because, for four decades, Iran has not been behaving as a nation-state. It has been driven by ideological revolution instead.

Therefore, the conflict cannot be considered a traditional struggle between two states because the ideological dimension also exists in Washington's calculations. The intensification of the US pressure campaign is pushing Iran into a tight corner and could lead to a conflict that carries great risks in a region that is vital for the production and transit of the world’s energy resources.

It seems that the United States believes that its harsh sanctions and the noisy political and military campaigns will either convince or force Iran to return to the negotiating table.

The escalation of US sanctions resulted in tangible results in their first month. Iran's oil exports fell to 400,000 barrels per day in May. Before the sanctions exports of Iranian oil totalled 2.5 million barrels per day. The situation stands to worsen for Iran when China switches to Russian oil by the end of its exemption period.

Contrary to Iran's desire to rely on the European troika -- Germany, France, the United Kingdom -- to complete the financial mechanism to circumvent US sanctions, the private sector in Europe is reluctant to go along and European decision makers hesitate, not only because of the US threat of sanctions against specific individuals and entities but also because Tehran has not shown flexibility concerning its ballistic missile programme and its role in regional crises.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's announcement of a tripartite security meeting between the United States, Russia and Israel in June hints at Russia distancing itself from Iran and working to develop regional understandings with Washington, all with Israeli encouragement.

This American effort in economic and political pressure and military intimidation does not necessarily mean that Trump's success is imminent because Iran reads the situation differently.

Tehran does not trust the US administration enough to return to negotiations. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the country’s top decision maker, openly refused to negotiate under the pressure of sanctions.

Khamenei’s position does not make the mission of Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif easier. On the contrary, their manoeuvres of openness and suggestions of a non-aggression treaty with Gulf countries -- a suggestion that came too late -- is a reminder of negative precedents in the region and the world and have lost their credibility.

So, the threats by the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps can be considered a reflection of Tehran’s real position, especially when they are linked with sabotage operations in Saudi Arabia and off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and with rattling the Iranian sabres in Iraq.

At the beginning of the escalation between the two sides, observers agreed that war was not inevitable because Trump understands that wars are bad for business and seldom go as planned.

Iran's rulers may prefer to wait for the end of Trump's first term and the prospect of a more lenient Democrat president in his stead. This may be wishful thinking but Iran knows the heavy price of war and that resorting to war by proxy may provoke a US military retaliation, exactly the outcome it wants to achieve.

However, it seems these indicators were gone after the attack on international shipping off the UAE coast. After May 12, the reading of the situation changed and the degree of danger went up.

Therefore, it won’t be possible to curb the escalation without an Iranian concession. Perhaps the inner circles of velayat-e faqih in Tehran can remind Khamenei of the truce strategy of Imam al-Hasan Ibn Ali with his rival Caliph Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan to find a precedent justifying flexibility and return to the negotiation table for a new deal with the Trump administration.

However, the rhetoric from Tehran about the defeat awaiting the United States from now until 2050 shows that calculations based on wishful thinking can lead to adopting the worst choice and that resorting to pointless manoeuvring, hollow language, double discourse, twisted tactics, subversive messages and threats, will intensify Iran's conflict with Washington and neighbouring countries.

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Khattar Abou Diab is a professor of geopolitical sciences at the Paris Centre for Geopolitics.