Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

Iran, the US and the strategy of provoking a deal

Washington and Tehran are on a collision course, yet neither really wants a war

The MV Al Marzoqah oil tanker was one of four ships attacked outside Fujairah port on May 12, 2019. EPA
The MV Al Marzoqah oil tanker was one of four ships attacked outside Fujairah port on May 12, 2019. EPA

The Iranian leadership has completed the first round of its strategy to lure the Trump administration into the “red line” and possible military action against it, believing this to be the best way to contain any internal mutiny against the regime in the light of Tehran’s economic woes resulting from US sanctions.

According to the Iranian calculus, fears of a military confrontation in the region will force Mr Trump either to back down and allow Tehran to claim victory, or accept secret negotiations that would give Iran some concessions.

According to sources familiar with the current thinking in Iran, leadership at the highest levels have decided to reject talks with the US, instead making preparations for a “defensive” military operation that would take place by the weekend or next week, as part of a “resistance” strategy involving military options in multiple locations and targeting direct and indirect US interests.

For his part, President Trump has opened a diplomatic channel via Switzerland, which represents Iranian interests in Washington. It is not clear what messages he has sent to Iran, but sources indicate that Mr Trump is coming down hard on Tehran for rejecting negotiations, while making it clear Washington is prepared to use military force in response to “Iranian provocations” and is determined not to encourage Iran’s determination to dictate its conditions.

The Americans and Iranians are thus on a collision course. Tehran does not seem willing to reconsider its reckless strategy, or modify its behaviour in the region and its ballistic missile programme. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does not expect war with the US, despite his refusal to change his regime’s conduct. The US president does not want a war, and is content with economic strangulation to coerce Iran into changing its behaviour. However, he may not be able to ignore another round of Iranian provocations.

The first round saw four ships coming under sabotage attacks off the UAE coast, prompting Abu Dhabi to file a complaint with the UN Security Council. The provocation also included an attack on Saudi oil pumping stations, also prompting a UN complaint, with both attacks blamed on Iran.

As quoted in this column last week, sources close to senior Iranian leaders said Iran’s retaliation would include targeting Saudi and Emirati oil pipelines and other installations. Sources said this would be a first step, followed by actions that strike at direct US interests, especially in Iraq, where US troops are deployed.

The US has now decided to evacuate diplomats from Iraq due to an “imminent threat”, linked to Iran and IRGC-backed Iraqi militias, according to US officials, although they declined to reveal the nature of the intelligence that led to the partial closure of the US embassy in Baghdad. In Beirut, the US embassy also called on its citizens in the country to be vigilant.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in Moscow that his country does not want a war with Iran. But he also told the Russians the US will not backtrack from its demands and is willing to use military force in response to Iranian provocations. He also told the Russians Moscow would not be able to influence Iran to compromise on its ballistic missile programme and regional expansion in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen via its proxies. According to the same sources, Mr Pompeo said Tehran would soon learn a heavy lesson.

The Kremlin said Washington was provoking Tehran, and expressed concerns over the escalating tensions. President Putin said, however, that he was willing to intervene with Iran and Israel to prevent a direct military confrontation or a war in Lebanon. Russia enjoys good relations with both Tel Aviv and Tehran, and Russian diplomacy can help defuse the situation as well as avert a US-Iranian confrontation, but the task, which will be highly rewarding for Russian diplomacy, will not be easy.

The Iranian-Israeli component of the current crisis seems more vague at this time, compared to the open quarrel on the Iranian-American front. This relationship has its own dynamics, and has often been characterised by undeclared mutual understandings. So far, Israeli actions against Iranian assets have been confined to Syria, yet this has marked a departure from past dynamics, where the two sides avoided direct confrontation, and it is not clear, whether this is an exceptional event or a new Israeli strategy against Iran. Either way, the contained confrontation between the two sides has often allowed Russian diplomacy to defuse a major component of the confrontation in the region.

Russia believes that US measures against Iran, especially the end of the oil waivers and the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist entity, have provoked Iran and pushed it towards inflexibility and refusal to negotiate or countenance any of the US’s 12 demands listed by Mr Pompeo as conditions for negotiations. However, Russia also understands that the main problem is not those measures or demands, but the insistence of Iran’s leaders on maintaining their theocratic regime and expanding Iran’s influence through proxies, as well as developing long-range missile capabilities and refusing to reform the nuclear deal.

For this reason, it is difficult to find room for US-Iranian dialogue, as long as the demands of both sides are almost mutually exclusive. This could necessitate a secret channel, if the two sides step back from the brink of war, because public negotiations will, by their very nature, leave no leeway for either side to make the necessary concessions.

The Iranian leadership is certain that Mr Trump, like his predecessor, will accept the regime’s demands of recognising its legitimacy and regional role, in return for bilateral agreements and slight modifications to the nuclear agreement and the ballistic missile programme. This is not far-fetched, and the US’s previous record speaks for itself. However, on the other hand, Mr Trump is not a conventional president, and it is very hard to predict his decisions. He has made it clear that he wants a deal, not a war. Mr Khamenei also wants a deal. Yet both are taking their countries to the brink of war for the sake of such a deal.

The Iranian priority is to preserve the regime domestically and its role regionally, including via the creation of paramilitaries in Arab countries, following the Lebanese Hezbollah model. Iran is not only betting on the Democrats and Congress to restrain Mr Trump, but also the American mainstream media, which has sided with Iran and fully exonerated its leaders from responsibility for the current crisis.

The American public is not concerned about Iran’s regional wars, while the media is focused on Saudi Arabia, ignoring Tehran’s expansion in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Americans have a selective memory dictated often by the priorities of the media, which is crusading to topple President Trump. Americans want to avoid being involved in the wars of others, and do not want war with Iran for any reason. Tehran will capitalise on this.

Iran wants the first reward for its inflexibility to be the downfall of National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has been portrayed by the US media as the man spearheading the effort to remove the regime in Tehran. In Iran’s view, Mr Bolton is a major obstacle to any deal and a catalyst of confrontation.

Iran wants Mr Trump to back away from his demands for behavioural change in Tehran, and wants to place the burden on his shoulders when it comes to making a decision about going to a war that will be catastrophic for the US and the world.

Mr Trump’s current strategy may be to escalate the diplomatic confrontation to expose Iran’s strategy of trying to lure the US into a military confrontation. But it all depends on the second round of Iran’s strategy of retaliation and provocation.

Updated: May 18, 2019 06:09 PM

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