It Could Mean War
President Donald Trump has systematically sought to reverse the foreign policies enacted by his predecessor, and relations with Iran are no exception. Iran’s nuclear developments have been a longstanding source of tension in U.S. politics, and Trump’s military rhetoric surrounding the Persian Gulf mark a clear reversal of Obama’s negotiations-based approach to the issue. While Trump seeks to contain Iran’s military nuclear program through intimidation, conservative leaders such as John Bolton and key allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel are eager to see the U.S. and Iran at war, and Trump’s own impulsivity might just bring it about. Iran’s increasingly confrontational attitude also suggests shows that the country is unwilling to abandon its nuclear ambitions and will respond poorly to intimidation. The possibility of war with Iran has galvanized discussions on Trump’s foreign policy: the American public should be worried about the possibility of potential consequences to this escalating tension both in the short and long term.
Generally speaking, tensions between Iran and the international community stem from Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian interest in nuclear technology dates back to the 1950s, but Tehran only began pursuing uranium-enrichment capabilities in the early 2000s, leading to a series of international sanctions and negotiations starting in 2002. After years of rising tension, the U.S., under the Obama administration, and its fellow P5 +1 members—China, France, Great Britain, Russia and Germany—conducted another round of negotiations in 2015. These negotiations led to the adoption of the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The plan stipulated that Iran’s uranium stockpile must be decreased to a maximum of 300kg, which meant a 98% reduction of the existing stockpile. Moreover, the Joint Plan required that the level of enrichment be kept at 3.67%, much lower than the 90% needed for nuclear weapons. A thorough verification protocol was also put in place, with Iran not only having to allow regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency but also implement “the Additional Protocol to their IAEA Safeguards Agreement, which allows inspectors to access any site anywhere in the country they deem suspicious.” In exchange for these concessions, the U.S., UN and EU lifted their sanctions on Iranian oil exports and banking.
The beginning of recentill-feelings between the U.S. and Iran began in May 2018 when Trump announced he was abandoning the 2015 Joint Plan, and intensified later that year in November when he reinstated sanctions on Iran. There was almost immediate international backlash, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calling the move “deeply concerning” and the other P5+1 nations reaffirming their commitment to their Joint Comprehensive Plan. While Iran also reaffirmed its commitment to the agreement, it also criticized the U.S.’s move and reportedly “asked [Iran’s] Atomic Energy Organization to prepare the necessary orders to start unlimited enrichment.” White House National Security adviser John Bolton escalated the already-tense situation on May 5th of this year, announcing that the U.S. would deploy “the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group and a bomber task force” in the Persian gulf in response to what he described as “escalatory indications” from Iran’s part, although he did not specify what these were.
In response, on May 8th, the spokesman of Iran’s nuclear agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, announced that it will also break from the 2015 agreement and enrich its uranium above the agreed 3.67% starting on July 7th, unless the other signatories of the deal provide Iran with financial relief from American sanctions. Tensions have continued to escalate since then, with Trump notably stating that continued provocations would result in the “official end” of Iran, remarks Iranian officials have condemned as “genocidal.”
War may be avoided if the other nations party to the Iran Deal work together to mitigate tensions. Namely, other P5+1 nations have already taken measures to allow companies to conduct business with Iran, circumventing U.S. sanctions. If successful, the mechanism, which will be fully functional by the end of the year, would provide economic incentive for Iran to continue abiding by the nuclear deal. Another key source of hope for peace is the rise in global oil prices, which has so far motivated companies in Beijing to ignore the U.S. sanctions and continue buying oil from Tehran. Chinese purchases of Iranian oil could provide both economic relief to Tehran and a good reason not to abandon the Joint Plan. If Iran does not renege its commitments, and the other parties to the treaty support it diplomatic and economically, international pressure could deter the U.S. from declaring war,particularly as the UK, France and Germany are key Nato allies. Another potential deterrent is that Iran has offered to sign a Nonaggression Pact with its fellow Gulf States. This could create the regional support Tehran needs to discourage U.S. military intervention.
However, the sinking of several oil tankers and a U.S. drone between May and June suggests Iran is taking an increasingly aggressive stance. This is ill-advised, as following the drone strike, Trump stated that the U.S. was “cocked & loaded to retaliate.” Although Trump later called off retaliative strikes, U.S. willingness to engage Iran militarily is evidenced by how close Trump came to striking Iran over an unmanned drone. Moreover, Iran’s aggressive rhetoric is likely to alienate international diplomatic support, ending any possibility for Iran to circumvent U.S. boycotts and making mediation by third parties more difficult. A Japanese oil tanker attacked earlier this month was one of six tankers targeted in the Strait of Hormuz since May. While Iran claims it had nothing to do with the sinking tanker, the U.S. claims it was conclusive evidence of Iranian involvement. Given Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe had flown to Tehran to attempt to mediate the U.S.-Iranian tensions a week before the attack, the incident may discourage other countries to attempt to mediate. The fact that six tankers have been sunk since May suggests Iran is attempting to hinder global oil trade in response to U.S. sanctions. Iran has also stated it will no longer abide by the treaty. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has been advocating for war with Iran since the early 2000s, and Iran’s recent threat to abandon the Iran Deal and the strikes in the Gulf would give him just that.
Iran’s fraught relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia has also exacerbated its tensions with the U.S., and may ultimately lead to war. Saudi Arabia and Iran have conflicting interests in Syria, with Iran supporting Bashar al Assad and the Saudis supporting the rebels, and the two countries also find themselves on opposing sides in Yemen, with Iran supporting the Houthis and Saudi Arabia supporting the government. This proxy fighting in Syria and Yemen provides an incentive for Saudi Arabia to press their Washington allies into war with Iran. On May 14th, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of sinking four of its oil tankers, although Iranian involvement has not yet been confirmed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel made his desire for armed conflict explicit when he tweeted that a recent meeting of U.S. allies in the Middle East was to “advance the common interest of war with Iran.” While many in Tehran and Washington might be reticent to allow the situation to turn into war, Jerusalem and Riyadh clearly do not share their qualms.
Even if war is avoided, the current tensions are liable to have detrimental effects on the Middle East’s long term stability, especially if the U.S. follows through with its promise to deploy more troops to the region. If Iran does abandon the Joint Plan, it could potentially develop military-level enriched uranium. With nuclear weapons, Tehran would pose an existential threat to Israel and heavily influence the post-ISIS Iraqi state, shifting the balance of power in the region. Moreover, when Trump unilaterally abandoned the Joint Plan, he set a very dangerous precedent, as Iran cut down its uranium reserves by 98%, only to see the U.S. refuse to honor its promise to lift economic sanctions. By reneging on American commitments to Iran, Trump has suggested that long-term international agreements with the U.S. cannot be relied upon. Consequently, Iranian leaders are less likely to trust the U.S. to honor its pledges in the future. This erosion of mutual trust may prove an insurmountable challenge for future diplomatic efforts, and for two countries as perpetually at odds as Iran and the U.S. effective diplomacy is essential to maintain stability and peace in the region.
The possibility of war with Iran should be taken seriously. Perhaps ironically, peace seems to depend almost entirely on America’s continued diplomatic isolation. To avoid war, Iran must abide by the Joint Plan, and the attacks on tankers must cease immediately. Iran’s best chance stands on appealing to diplomatic and even economic support from EU countries party to the Joint Plan, whose support could decentivize the U.S. from going to war. Moreover, Iran ought to avoid at all costs confrontation with Saudi Arabia, and sticking to the proposed Non-aggression Pact is a step in the positive direction.