Strategic chaos has taken Iran to the brink of disaster
The country has been wagering on European panic but recent events could force EU powers to get tough on Tehran
We are entering a very dangerous week for the US-Iran relationship.
The coming days carry grave risks, because the Iranian leadership will continue inflaming military tensions as long as US President Donald Trump maintains his strategy of strangling Iran economically. Both sides want to cut a deal but their demands are mutually exclusive.
Sources familiar with Tehran's logic say the regime intends to exacerbate tensions to invite a US military strike. They argue Iran’s recent decision to increase uranium enrichment levels and threats to start up a nuclear reactor if European nations fail to give economic guarantees by Sunday aim to induce panic in Europe and force a decisive split within Nato, forcing the US to radically alter its policy on Iran.
Some observers believe Tehran might win this bet, with some EU powers complying with measures that could damage transatlantic ties. But others think the Europeans cannot bypass sanctions on Iran, resume oil purchases and establish a financial vessel as Tehran desires, preventing Iran from forcing an about-face in Washington.
Mr Trump does not want to fire the first shot against Iran. But Tehran's leaders want to lure him into it, to trap him on the eve of the US presidential election campaign and because they believe he would back down. Sources familiar with Washington's thinking are adamant that the Americans are not "terrified", as the Iranian intelligence minister Mahmoud Alavi has suggested. Mr Alavi said his country would only agree to dialogue with the US if Mr Trump lifts sanctions and if Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, agrees.
If Tehran pushes Mr Trump too far by withdrawing from the nuclear deal altogether, the White House is ready to respond. Despite Mr Trump's reluctance, it might have no choice but to respond militarily. The US military has already taken pre-emptive measures, including deploying 12 Stealth F-22 planes to US bases in the Gulf region. The decision whether or not to embark on a world-altering war is now in the hands of Mr Khamenei. In truth, the next few days could prove decisive in this regard.
Some Gulf states believe this is a psychological or propaganda war. This view holds that Iran’s regime is not suicidal but survivalist and thus will stop short of provoking war.
Some believe an Iranian-Israeli war is unlikely because the two are "frenemies" who have avoided direct war and limited their confrontation to other battlefields, chiefly Lebanon. On the other hand, some suggest Israel could be central in any potential military confrontation between the US and Iran. Based on interviews with military and intelligence sources, there are two main scenarios for how this could play out.
One source noted: “Iran is not afraid of military confrontation and its determination to destroy Israel is very serious.” The source added: “The Iranians have drafted military plans that include striking Israel to directly neutralise its capabilities [while] leveraging the capabilities of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.”
Another source painted a different scenario, where the US would provide air cover for a strike on Iranian radars and missile sites while Israel takes out the nuclear reactors in Arak and Bushehr. In this scenario, the ensuing war would be devastating if Iran decided to strike back.
Iran has formidable military capabilities and can immediately activate Hezbollah in Lebanon to attack Israel. This would embroil Lebanon in a war with Israel, against its will, especially since Washington has told the Lebanese government it would be held responsible for Hezbollah’s actions. Lebanon has also been informed that this time, Hezbollah would be battling both the US and Israel.
But both sources agree that any conflict would be relatively short. Still, the level of destruction would be significant.
The Russian leadership is watching closely and its attempts to defuse tensions have so far failed. The future of a major arms deal between Russia and Iran hangs in the balance and it is likely Moscow will not deliver heavy weapons in the event of US-Iranian war. According to Russian sources, such a war “would destroy Russian-American relations”.
Moscow is holding the US responsible for imposing an economic embargo on Iran and sees it as a provocation that amounts to a declaration of war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to persuade Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to stop inviting military strikes. He has failed primarily because the final decision rests with Mr Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hossein Salami, who said his forces were ready to “vanquish” their enemies.
Europe is divided into firm powers and panicked ones. A few days go, the British Royal Marines seized Grace 1, an Iranian oil tanker, in Gibraltar. The super tanker was carrying a massive shipment of crude oil heading for the Banyas refinery in Syria, in violation of EU sanctions on the Assad regime. France is desperately trying to save the nuclear deal that Mr Trump withdrew from – an impossible mission given the US insistence on compelling all sides to abide by sanctions on Tehran.
For example, German firms, due in no small part to the strict lobbying of the US ambassador to Berlin, are concerned they might be hit by US sanctions if they participate in the Instex financial vessel for EU trade with Iran. Judging by this, EU powers will not be able to meet their obligations to Iran, despite EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini's claims that Instex has been activated. Indeed, the US position has been that Instex is a way to circumvent sanctions and has issued warnings to firms, banks and even governments that the sanctions could apply to them if they use it.
The UK interception of the Iranian super tanker could force Europe to implement the embargo on Iranian oil. It sends an important message to Tehran, which has been wagering on European panic and for the purpose, adopted "strategic recklessness" to exploit the fear of war.
Ultimately, it seems this recklessness is pushing Iran and its people to the brink. But Tehran has the option of adjusting and reinventing itself to serve its interests and to pursue natural relations with its neighbours. The spectre of regional war will continue to loom large unless wisdom quickly prevails.
Updated: July 6, 2019 04:49 PM