Sanctions Precursor to War on Iran?
File Photograph:Iran’s Rouhani with Putin and Erdogan
As if the turbulence caused by US President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8 was not enough, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened Iran in a speech at an American think tank on May 21 that it will face “the strongest sanctions in history,” and “unprecedented financial pressure.”
Pompeo went on to say that the US will not renegotiate the JCPOA, acronym for the Iran nuclear deal. Instead, any new US deal with Iran would require that country to meet twelve demands, including halting its ballistic missile program and ending its intervention in Syria and Yemen. He said the US and its partners in the Middle East would “crush” Iranian operatives and regional allies such as Hezbollah.
Pompeo also made it clear in his speech that the US expected its regional and global allies to support the policy outlined by him.
Predictably, Pompeo’s threats did not go down well with the Iranian leadership. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said: “Who are you [viz. the US] to decide for Iran and the world?” He also told French President Macron that the EU had a “limited opportunity” to save the deal’s future. He said Iran’s nuclear program could be restarted “whenever it is needed; [Iran] will start enriching uranium more than before.”
Many observers have pointed out that Pompeo’s threats against Iran indicated that the Trump Administration had little desire for a diplomatic solution; the US was pursuing a policy of economic pressure against Iran, aimed at creating domestic political instability, which would result in “regime change.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s reaction was even stronger and more categorical. Speaking on May 23, he said that the UK, France, and Germany should accept the following conditions for Iran to stay in the nuclear deal:
1. Avoid opening negotiations over Iran’s ballistic missile program or its policies in the Middle East.
2. European banks should “safeguard trade” with Iran.
3. EU countries should continue buying Iranian oil and should, if necessary, also buy the Iranian oil which the US decides not to buy.
4. The three countries viz. the UK, France, and Germany, should “stand up against US sanctions “ on Iran.
5. They should also obtain a UN Resolution against the US for violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231 which underpins the Iran nuclear deal.
Ayatollah Khamenei also warned that Iran would resume enrichment of its uranium if the conditions mentioned above were not met.
A Reuters report published on May 24 quoted a “senior Iranian official” as saying that the European countries should present Iran with a plan to offset the US pullout from the nuclear deal and Washington’s renewed sanctions by May 31, adding that Tehran was “weeks” away from deciding whether to quit the pact.
Though Britain, France, and Germany have made statements criticising the US pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, and have promised to activate the so-called “Blocking Statute,” some major European firms such as A.P. Moller Maersk and the French oil company Total have announced their pullout from Iran, which is a much smaller market for them than the US.
Moreover, statements from some senior European leaders, such as Angela Merkel, have not inspired confidence amongst EU companies that their governments would compensate them for losses incurred if they continue to do business with Iran. Merkel said recently that compensating all businesses in a comprehensive way was not feasible.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, too, has said that Germany can’t protect its businesses from US sanctions against Iran, and that “a broader deal should be negotiated to address Iran’s problematic role in the region.” It is not difficult to guess how the Iranians would have reacted to that statement.
This analyst believes that the Iran nuclear deal is more or less dead in view of the facts detailed above. In the end, the EU countries and their companies will go along with the US for various political and economic considerations, to preserve “the wider strategic relationship with the US,” as one commentator put it.
On the other hand, Iran will not unilaterally observe the terms of the deal, because it has no incentive to do so. The deal was based on a foundation of “give and take.” If the US and the EU don’t “give” and only demand “take,” the deal will crumble; in fact, the first signs of that are already visible on the horizon, in terms of the threats from both sides.
Also, the Trump Administration’s veiled threats of regime change have only hardened the resolve of the Iranian leadership, which is reflected in the statements of Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani.
Though the renewal of US sanctions against Iran will hurt its economy, the damage may be mitigated by the fact that several large economies such as those of China, Russia, and possibly India, will continue to do business with that country. Also, some of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil, such as Japan and South Korea, may obtain exemptions from the US to continue buying Iranian crude.
The geopolitical implications of the breakdown of the nuclear deal could be more serious. Only three countries have welcomed the US pullout from the deal: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Israeli Prime Minister Netanhayu has hailed Trump’s action as a “historic move,” calling the deal “a recipe for disaster…for the peace of the world.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also praised Trump’s announcement.
Israel has been trying for many years now to coax the US to bomb Iran, allegedly because it was going to produce nuclear weapons. Obama did not do so; instead, he negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran. With Trump pulling the US out of that deal, the chances of an American attack on Iran have increased.
The world will be told by the West that Iran had resumed enrichment of uranium [even if Iran does not do so, the statements of its leaders will be cited], which needed to be stopped by military action against its facilities.
This is exactly what Israel and Saudi Arabia want. Israel has lately also been provoking the Iranians in Syria by launching direct attacks on its soldiers in that country. So far, Iran has not taken the bait. Now, Iran may be accused of enriching uranium and attacked.
On the other hand, Iran is closely watching the game going on between the US and North Korea. US Vice President Pence and NSA John Bolton have made official statements suggesting application of the “Libyan model” to North Korea, even though it has nuclear weapons. Iran is also watching the almost daily flip-flop from the American side about a Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.
It would not be surprising if the Iranians conclude that acquisition of nuclear capability is the only way to prevent the destruction of their country by Israel and the US. But when they start the process of doing so, they will invite the risk of an American-Israeli attack on Iran.
And that will set the whole region on fire. Iran is not Iraq.
[The writer is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several countries around the world, including Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the United States]