In recent weeks, Iran has escalated its confrontation with the United States as well as its malign activities in the Middle East.
Earlier this month Iranian operatives attacked two tankers in the Gulf Oman.
Last week Iran shot down an American drone, apparently flying in international airspace, leading to an aborted strike on Iranian targets by the United States.
But though he called back the air strikes, President Donald Trump and his administration have been ramping up the pressure on Iran.
The question is why Iran escalating its hostility toward the United States and why is it doing it now?
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote a long essay at Mosaic Magazine outlining the likely parameters of Iran’s strategy. (Ray Takeyh, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a parallel analysis, though not quite as detailed, for Politico.)
Doran explains that Iran’s actions all go back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran is known.
Why was and is the JCPOA so important to Iran?
The answer Doran gives is: waivers.
There are seven waivers that accompanied the JCPOA allowing other nations to continue activities with Iran outlined in the JCPOA. While Trump has shortened the timeline for renewing the waivers from 180 days to 90 days, he has still maintained most of them.
On May 3, Pompeo announced the revocation of waivers allowing Iran to ship heavy water to Oman and low enriched uranium to Russia. When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would stop observing the JCPOA limits on uranium and heavy water a few days later, it was in response to those actions.
However, other waivers, including allowing international cooperation at Iran’s underground Fordow enrichment facility are still being renewed.
The reason that five waivers remain in place is that they are subject to a debate within the administration. The waivers that remain in place, all are activities that the Europeans are invested in.
Khamenei understands that the Europeans are fighting hard to save the nuclear deal, that their support is an asset to Iran, and that the debate over the waivers has been creating in the transatlantic alliance a fissure that benefits Iran. He also understands that the fight is by no means over.
But he also points out that the nuclear archive that Israel captured from a Tehran warehouse shows that Iran has not abandoned its nuclear weapons program. The JCPOA, generally, and the waivers serve to ensure that the program can remain intact.
For Khamenei, then, the waivers constitute the cornerstones of the JCPOA, the structure that provides international cover for Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Historically, Khamenei has always valued the preservation of this program over any practical economic considerations.
The goal of Khamenei then is to paint the Trump administration — or at least National Security Adviser John Bolton — as the real threats to peace. Furthermore, he knows he can count on numerous past political figures and media experts to explain that Iran’s belligerence is the result of the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reimposition of sanctions.
As Doran put it:
Blow holes in a few tankers, threaten American soldiers, and legions of influential personalities in Europe and America come forward of their own free will to demand that Trump sack whomever Iran has identified as a threat. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing easier than mobilizing a coalition of open minds.
Doran pointed out that when Rouhani announced that Iran would cease complying with the terms of the JCPOA, he gave the world 60 days before Iran would enter the second stage of its non-compliance.
Doran believes that this will ensure that preserving the JCPOA will be on the agenda of the G20 summit scheduled to start in Osaka, Japan later this week. And that there will be pressure from most of the participants on the United States to at least soften its pressure on Iran.
There is a lot more to Doran’s essay, but this is the central thread of his article. Iran is escalating carefully to bring the United States back into compliance with the deal, and to ensure that Iran’s nuclear weapons program remains protected.
At the beginning of the article, Doran cited a statement made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in response to a question whether any future administration would be bound by the nuclear deal.
“I believe,” Zarif answered, “the United States will risk isolating itself in the world if there is an agreement and it decides to break it.”
I’ve long felt that this was a primary reason for the deal. The goal of the deal was to tie future administrations hands, hamstringing their ability to act unilaterally against Iran.
What does the future hold?
Doran sketches out a number of possible scenarios.
One would be if Trump would revoke all the waivers, effectively ending the JCPOA and announce the imposition of “snapback” sanctions. In such a case Doran predicts, “The Iranians would likely dash to produce weapons-grade uranium at the fastest rate possible, while carrying out greater acts of violence—targeting more tankers and oil facilities in the Gulf, conducting terrorist attacks around the globe, and setting their proxies in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon against Israel.”
Even then, he believes that Iran might be constrained by fear of alienating their European (and American) allies and provoking a devastating American military response.
Another possibility is that looking forward to reelection and not wanting to get invovled in a war in the Middle East that Trump engages in negotiations with Iran. Even then he doesn’t expect any sort of permanent negotiated accommodation.
Regardless, Doran insists that the only way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is “if the United States wrests it from the talons of the regime.” This doesn’t necessarily mean war but it does mean “it will require a prolonged coercive strategy, one element of which, but only one, is the threat of war.”
The reckless nuclear deal has left the United States and the world with few good options.
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