By Pouyan Kimiayjan
Last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on a diplomatic mission to mediate escalating tensions between Iran and the United States. This was the first state visit from a Japanese leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and marked a new chapter in Tokyo-Tehran relations. Conveniently, Abe enjoys friendly relations with both President Trump and the Iranian leadership. On the one hand, Japan’s economy and security is heavily dependent on its relationship with the United States. On the other hand, Japan is a major importer of oil from Iran and the Persian Gulf countries and has a strategic interest in preventing conflict in the region. Aware of Japan’s interest in US-Iran dialogue, President Trump requested of the Japanese leadership to signal to the Iranians that the United States is ready for dialogue.
On a rhetorical level, this reflected a change in approach. The escalating war of words between Tehran and Washington was detrimental to Trump’s election promise to end wars in the Middle East and threatened his re-election in 2020. After a year of exercising strategic patience toward the re-imposition of US unilateral sanctions, threats, and repeated Israeli attacks on its forces in Syria, Iran had begun pushing back against US interests in the region. Instead of forcing the Iranians to capitulate, Trump’s maximum pressure policy has only inflamed regional tensions and effectively failed to force Iran to accept Pompeo’s 12 demands. Consequently, President Trump now plans to try the US approach to North Korea: signal interest for direct talks after a period of intentionally escalating tensions and imposing sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo scaled back his 12 demands, requested talks without preconditions, and only demanded of Iran to refrain from making nuclear weapons. In addition, American news-media circulated speculations about the potential removal of John Bolton, Trump’s ultra Iran-hawk National Security Advisor, from the administration. There was also a sense of optimism in Tehran. In an interview with Iranian state TV, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign policy advisor to Iran’s powerful parliament speaker Ali Larijani, stated that Iran had expected the Trump administration to offer a 6-months sanctions waiver to kickstart direct talks.
However, prior to Abe’s arrival in Tehran, in an apparent attempt to showcase strength prior to a diplomatic opening, the US imposed sanctions on Iranian petrochemicals. These sanctions were most likely crafted by Trump’s hawkish advisors, while the US President assumed that Iran would write-off these sanctions as symbolic and accept Abe’s plea for mediation.
Thuswise, Trump’s gamble didn’t pay off. Following Abe’s arrival in Tehran, In a televised meeting between the Japanese and the Iranian leadership, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated that “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in the future.” The Supreme Leader specifically pointed to the recent sanctions on Iranian petrochemicals, hence arguing why the US cannot be trusted for any future negotiations. Although Ayatollah Khamenei signaled that he would exchange views on negotiations with Abe, and not with President Trump, one could assume that the responsibility for direct talks rests with President Rouhani and his team of diplomats. Nonetheless, President Rouhani had also informed Abe that in order to engage in constructive talks, the US had to unilaterally lift sanctions. Tehran’s message was clear: the US lost credibility when it withdrew from the JCPOA. In order to start negotiations, the sanctions have to be lifted prior to any new negotiations between the two countries.
According to the leadership in Tehran, any capitulation to talks under pressure will signal to the Americans that withdrawing from a multilateral agreement with Iran have had little consequence and sanctions can always be utilized to gain leverage over the country. Furthermore, Iran’s decision to reject talks with the Trump administration was also partly informed by recent US-North Korea negotiations. While the exchange of letters resulted in two photo-ops between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the Trump administration has yet to lift its sanctions against the North Korean regime.
The Lost Diplomatic Opportunity
Regardless of Abe’s failed attempt to mediate tensions, there still existed a narrow window for diplomacy. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent offer of prisoners-exchange and the subsequent release of US resident Nizar Zakka perhaps were designed to reflect Iran’s willingness to show goodwill in exchange for American goodwill. In Washington, in spite of Pompeo’s hawkish response to the oil tanker attacks, President Trump had urged his staff to soften their rhetoric and said that the attack was a “very minor” incident. With little appetite for direct conflict, the two countries had so far avoided dangerous miscalculations. In one cabinet meeting, President Rouhani stated that Trump has privately acknowledged the defeat of his Iran policy and blamed John Bolton for the rising tensions.
However, the shutdown of a US spy drone over the Persian Gulf brought the two countries ever closer to direct conflict and thus halted all diplomatic efforts. The US alleged that the drone was in international waters, while Iran asserted that the drone had entered Iranian territorial waters. President Trump aborted a planned military strike on three Iranian targets and instead imposed symbolic yet unprecedented sanctions against Iran’s Supreme Leader, IRGC commanders, and further threatened to sanction Iran’s top diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif.
In response, Iran announced that the path towards a diplomatic solution has been closed. These sanctions demonstrated that the US is out of options. Iran’s entire economy is already under sanctions and individual sanctions on Iranian leaders will have little impact on the country. Those who designed these latest round of sanctions understood the serious implications of this decision for US-Iran relations and intended to prevent a diplomatic opening.
New Round of Escalation
Moreover, tensions will most likely worsen as Iran has announced that it’s increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium and in the next phase will enhance its uranium enrichment levels as well. This calculated partial withdrawal has been conducted based on provisions of the nuclear deal in order to prevent the other signatories from invoking the “snapback” provisions in the UN Security Council. The Europeans have threatened to re-impose sanctions if Iran leaves the agreement, while having failed to accommodate Iran’s economic demands.
Recent reports have revealed that Europe has opened a multi-million euro credit line, in an attempt to ease trade between Iran and the EU. However, the credit-line will most likely fail to make a major impact on the Iranian economy. From Iran’s standpoint, Europe has been reluctant to pay a price in standing up to US unilateralism. Henceforth, unless such last-minute measures address the broader obstacles surrounding Iran-EU trade, Iran is expected to move forward to the next phase in its planned partial withdrawal. For Europe, time is running out and the unraveling of the JCPOA has begun.
Iran’s New Roadmap
Meanwhile, the decision to partially withdraw from the JCPOA demonstrates that Iran wants to resolve the nuclear crisis prior to the 2020 US presidential election and intends to directly confront the United States itself, viewing Europe as an obsolete player. After all, there is no guarantee that Trump will lose his presidency in 2020. To that end, in addition to increasing its enrichment capability, Iran seems to have shifted its policy from strategic patience to active resistance.
Iran’s active resistance strategy is based on precedent. Amid the Obama-led multilateral sanctions against its nuclear program, Iran responded by increasing its enrichment capacity to 20%, while increasing the number of centrifuges to approximately 19,000. The country also built a heavy water reactor, capable of producing plutonium. From an Iranian perspective, these measures compelled the Obama administration to abandon its zero-enrichment policy and reach out to Iran through the Oman backchannel. Iran now intends to apply the same strategy in confronting the Trump administration. For Iran the end goal is to force Trump to choose between constructive dialogue or direct conflict.
Given the high cost of any direct conflict and Trump’s anti-war inclinations, there still exists an off-ramp for this administration to let go of its hawkish elements, suspend the sanctions, and engage in serious negotiations. The path to diplomacy still remains open.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author.
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