As the official date for the implementation of US economic sanctions on Iran approaches, the crisis between the two countries has escalated to the extent of threats of the use of military force between the parties. Another factor further increasing the seriousness of this escalation has been the simultaneous outbreak of another wave of popular protests and unrest by Iranian citizens rejecting the government’s economic policies, which began in the capital, Tehran, and reached several major cities in various parts of Iran. The protesters have demanded that the government improve living conditions, take greater action against widespread political corruption and address the collapse of the national currency against the dollar. This turmoil is seen as a positive sign among the Iranian opposition abroad and by the United States and some regional neighbouring states, led, of course, by Israel, at a time when Iranian dissidents, as well as media and political and civil bodies in these states have increased their calls to “overthrow the regime” from within Iran by supporting more of these internal uprisings and protests amid an escalation in external pressures and sanctions.
The escalation of the crisis between Tehran and Washington was sparked by recent dramatic comments by US President Donald Trump in July 2018 concerning the US push to prevent Iran from exporting oil, part of the Trump administration’s policy of increasing US sanctions against Tehran, backed by actual US action likely to cause an oil crisis for Iran. When Fox News asked President Trump on July 1, 2018 whether he would impose sanctions on European companies trading with Iran, the answer was: “Of course. That’s what we’re doing, absolutely.”
However, the real escalation came after US statements threatening to prevent Iran from exporting its oil and preventing other countries and overseas firms from buying Iranian oil, with the US reaching an agreement with Saudi Arabia to increase the latter’s oil production by two million barrels per day to cover the expected shortage in the oil market due to the suspension of Iran’s share of oil export. Saudi Arabia agreed to a request made by the American president to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz in this regard.
The seriousness of this new American approach was confirmed by the sharp attack launched by the US President on the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for what he viewed as its lack of a suitable response to his demand for increased oil production; OPEC argued that such a step would go against its policy and the interests of member states, including Iran. The US president accused OPEC of “manipulating world oil markets”, saying that it would be better for the organisation to “stop that.” Trump’s remarks came hours after a statement by Iran’s First Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri, in which he stated that his country would “allow private companies to export crude oil in a transparent manner” as part of an Iranian strategy to thwart US efforts to stop exports of Iranian oil.
Iran, which considers oil exports a ‘life or death’ issue, with oil export revenues comprising by far the largest resource of the Iranian budget, decided to respond to the latest US moves in two ways: firstly, via containment of the US efforts at OPEC, and secondly by threatening to prevent other countries from exporting their oil through the Arabian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.
In regards to OPEC, Iran argued that President Trump’s appeal to Saudi Arabia to raise oil production by around two million barrels per day was contrary to the agreements reached within the organisation, with Iran’s representative to OPEC, Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, also stating that “Saudi Arabia does not have the potential to increase oil production”, and suggesting that President Trump’s proposal merited a demand for Riyadh to withdraw from OPEC. The Iranian official further stated that OPEC members had agreed at their meeting in Vienna on June 22, 2018 to keep the current production ceiling.
OPEC’s stance in support of Iran’s efforts and contrary to the American president’s wishes led President Trump to attack OPEC for, in his view, preventing him from finding solutions to the damage resulting from preventing the export of Iranian oil through increasing production by other countries, including Russia, for example, one of the most important non-OPEC oil exporters.
Iran’s escalatory approach, proposing the use of force to prevent other countries from exporting oil if Iran was prevented from exporting its oil, was first mooted by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a meeting with the Iranian exile community in Switzerland during a European tour on July 4, 2018, when he threatened to “prevent the transportation of oil from neighboring countries if Washington moves forward in its plans to force all countries to stop the purchase of Iranian oil.”
Following this threat, senior Iranian military officials expressed support for Rouhani’s proposal, led by Brigadier-General Ismail Kuthari, a leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who threatened to prevent oil being shipped from the (Arabian) Gulf to any part of the world if Iran was not allowed to export its oil. Brigadier-General Kuthari’s statement was followed by similar support from Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, who quickly sent an official message to Rouhani expressing his strong commendation and support for this policy; this marked a new departure for Soleimani whose relationship with President Rouhani and his administration has been strained at best.
During the same meeting in Switzerland, Rouhani issued a stark threat to the Americans, saying: “Americans allege that they are seeking to completely stop the export of Iranian oil. These people don’t understand what they’re saying; this talk is meaningless, and if Iran can’t export its oil, then export of oil will stop in the whole region,” further warning, “If you want to do so, try it and you will get the result.”
The notoriously hawkish hardliner Soleimani was so delighted by this blunt and unprecedented language from President Rouhani, who’s known as the Iranian regime’s most prominent moderate, that his message to Rouhani was effusive in its praise; after confirming that the IRGC is “ready to implement a policy that blocks regional oil if America blocks Iranian oil exports,” the usually taciturn Quds Force leader told Rouhani, “I kiss your hands for those wise and timely statements, and I’m at your service to carry out any policy serving the Islamic Republic.”
In contrast, the new president of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee at the Iranian Shura Council (Parliament), Hashmatullah Flahat Bisha, tried to soften the blow of Rouhani’s statement, stating that the Hormuz Strait, one of the most important waterways in the world, cannot be closed, and asserting that the Iranian president had not intended to suggest that oil exports from the region would be stopped and that Iran does not intend to violate international treaties. The American response to Rouhani’s speech was more forceful, however, with US officials warning that the US Navy in the region is capable of protecting oil exports, meaning that US forces are capable of preventing Iranian forces from carrying out any action that would disrupt oil exports.
Does the escalating rhetoric in the US-Iranian standoff lead to war?
Can the overthrow of the Iranian regime be turned from a protest slogan into a strategic goal?
These questions are important and their answers will be decided by four determining factors that govern the course of the crisis between Iran and the USA, and between escalation and de-escalation. These factors are, respectively: the reality of the American position on Iran and whether this is confined to merely forcing Iran to accept the American package of demands or could evolve into Washington’s adopting a goal of ‘toppling the regime’; the stance of international powers, especially the European Union and China, over the American escalation, whether this stance is supportive or hostile; the possible outcome of the upcoming US-Russian summit in Helsinki between presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and whether this could lead to a closer alliance or a rivalry that could spill into conflict; and finally, the Iranian leadership’s ability to ensure domestic unity and remain steadfast and not to disintegrate in the face of renewed unrest and protests that could develop into a strong internal opposition movement threatening the regime’s survival.
- The reality of the American position on Iran
American and Israeli research centers also differ in their reading of the US position towards the regime in Iran, not only in regard to the crisis over the nuclear deal. Most analysts suggest that there is likely a split within the US administration over what should be the primary goal of the escalation against Iran, with one faction pushing Trump and his administration to adopt the goal of toppling the regime, and another group which would be content with a ‘new improved deal’ by pressing Iran to reach a revised nuclear agreement.
The official line of the American administration, as interpreted by Amos Harel and Amir Tibon in a report published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, states that, according to American research and studies centres and interviews with important figures in the Trump administration, “regime change is not on the administration’s agenda now”. Harel and Tibon’s report asserts that Trump is solely interested in “getting Iran back to the negotiating table in order to sign a comprehensive agreement”, adding that Trump is seeking a deal which will not only include agreement on Iran’s nuclear project, but also on a number of regional issues of concern to the United States and its allies in the Middle East, such as the Iranian presence in Syria and Yemen. US Defense Minister James Mattis, who is considered to be one of the key supporters of this approach, believes that any attempt to topple the regime would drag the United States and Iran into a full-scale war. According to Mattis, such a war would damage Iran’s economy and endanger the United States’ important allies in the Middle East. Mattis supports increasing pressure on Iran, but believes that America’s goal must be bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table, this time to seek a comprehensive agreement which isn’t solely concerned with the nuclear project.
The alternative approach is adopted by national security adviser, John Bolton, and a number of high-ranking officials who work under his command, as well as by many close personal advisers to the President. This bloc’s objectives are directly linked to the Palestinian issue; they specifically represent the right-wing Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who views Israel’s relations with the current Iranian regime as an ‘existential conflict’. Bolton and this group of officials are pushing the Trump administration to adopt ‘regime change’ in Iran as an official policy. Bolton has reiterated his strong support for regime change in Iran for some years, asserting that a military attack on Iran can’t be avoided. After becoming a national security adviser, Bolton, who has stated that the waves of protests inside Iran rejecting the government’s economic and social policies reflect the weakness of the regime, is attempting to convince Trump and other senior administration officials that Iran’s regime will collapse if the United States continues pressurising it, and that a number of minor blows would bring about the regime’s collapse.
Between Mattis and Bolton is Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo; despite his principal priority being the issue of the North Korean regime, he is one of the most hawkish administration figures on Iran. As a congressman, he was one of the most prominent critics of the 2015 nuclear agreement by President Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. Whilst Pompeo formerly seemed closer to Mattis, he has grown closer to Bolton in recent months. Only three of the 12 conditions imposed on Iran in May 2018 by Pompeo focused on Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, with the others being concerned with Iran’s regional policy. Announcing the 12 conditions, Pompeo pointedly remarked of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that he “will not live forever, nor will the Iranian people abide the rigid rule of tyrants forever.”
Pompeo was also quick to seize on the recent demonstrations by traders at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar to call for further escalation against Iran as part of a US strategy of expressing support for Iranian demonstrators. He stated in a Tweet, “#Iran’s corrupt regime is wasting the country’s resources on Assad, Hizbollah, Hamas & Houthis, while Iranians struggle. It should surprise no one #IranProtests continue. People are tired of the corruption, injustice & incompetence of their leaders. The world hears their voice.”
The important question in this regard is: Who will Trump align himself with?
Some analysts argue that Trump is more likely to be affected by hawkish advisers outside the administration, including former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and Sheldon Adelson, one of the biggest funders of the Trump campaign and a close friend of Benjamin Netanyahu. Last year, Giuliani attended a conference in Paris of the Iranian opposition in exile, the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI), announcing in his speech at the event that the Iranian regime was nearing its end. Giuliani also attended another PMOI conference in Paris, along with fellow prominent Republican Newt Gingrich, in July 2018. In a speech delivered at the conference on July 5 in the presence of the leader of this opposition and of the PMOI, Maryam Rajavi, Giuliani called for boycotting companies that continue to deal with the Iranian regime, telling the assembled opposition members and supporters: “Freedom is right around the corner.” Gingrich demanded increased pressure on those European countries still seeking to deal with Iran despite the re-imposition of US sanctions as the only way to ensure stability for the Middle East, saying: “The only way to safety in the region is to replace the dictatorship with a democracy and that has to be our goal.”
Amid this division within the US administration over Iran, the final position of the US president has yet to be determined, with President Trump’s choice determining Washington’s strategy against Iran’s regime. Whether the administration pursues a policy of containment or supports the overthrow of the regime will form the basis on which the parameters for the outcome of the crisis between Washington and Tehran will be decided.
- The outcome of the conflict of interest between the EU and China and the United States
There is currently a conflict of interests that has not yet reached the level of a crisis between the European Union and China on one hand and the USA on the other; this follows President Trump’s imposition of tariffs on goods imported from abroad, particularly with major US trading partners, especially the European Union, Canada and China. This policy will inevitably favour American industry and the American economy in general, regardless of the rules governing international trade, which depend on freedom of trade and the rejection of national protectionist policies, according to the long-established legal rules of the World Trade Organisation.
President Trump did not hesitate to spark a crisis at the G7 summit in Quebec, Canada, on June 8-9, 2018 when he insisted on imposing tariffs on US imports from the European Union and Canada, especially steel and aluminum, and when he decided to withdraw his country’s signature on the final communique of the summit after he left early for Singapore in preparation for his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. A month before this, on May 8, 2018, President Trump had announced the USA’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal on Iran’s nuclear program without regard to the rejection of this move by the other P5+1 signatory States in Europe, Russia and China. Trump also issued harsh warnings for European companies of an American boycott if they continued to deal with Iran, which has already led to the withdrawal of a number of major European companies from Iran, despite their governments’ continuing support for the deal, in fear of US sanctions.
This growing tension in European-American relations certainly serves the Iranian regime’s position well. Realisation is growing daily among EU member states that the United States, under Donald Trump’s administration, does not consider the interests of its allies and partners, placing US interests above all other factors. Whilst European governments are clearly more motivated by their wish to protect their own interests with Iran, they must also balance their unease at Trump’s policy against their reluctance to become embroiled in a crisis with the United States over this.
Resolving this question became more critical when the Trump administration took the decision to prevent Iran from exporting its oil, and took measures to protect the international oil market to deal with the predicted negative fallout from that, particularly the higher oil prices due to the possible absence of Iran’s export share of oil, offset by some of Washington’s allies increasing their oil output.
If the European Union countries agree to Washington’s instructions to stop importing Iranian oil and prevent companies in their nations from buying this oil, helping the US to impose an international blockade to prevent the export of Iranian oil, then Washington would be able to escalate its crisis with Iran, and use shortages or disruption of revenues from the sale of Iranian oil to aggravate economic and social crisis in Iran in preparation for a revolution there that could overthrow the ruling regime, according to the calculations of the hardline wing in the US administration, which supports this option. If Europe opposes this American policy due to the divergence between European and American interests and supports the Iranian regime’s stance, however, this American attempt to impose the option of overthrowing the regime might falter and Washington would return to consensus with Europe to work on a new deal with Iran on its nuclear program that would achieve the interests of all parties. This was resolved during a meeting on July 6 in Vienna between Iran and the representatives of the remaining P5+1 signatory countries to the nuclear deal (Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France), with the statement read by EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini explaining that the group had jointly undertaken guarantee Iran’s right to export oil and decided to protect European companies dealing with Iran from US sanctions. The statement included 11 goals, most notably securing Iran’s right to continue exporting oil and gas, maintaining effective financial channels with Iran, continuing exchanges with them by sea, land and air, developing export credit coverage and encouraging new investments in Iran.
After this meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that the five countries had pledged to enable Iran to export its oil.
“I felt a political will at the Vienna meeting to counter US policy and resisting it,” Zari stated, but added that “all the commitments made at this meeting must be implemented before the August 6 deadline (when Washington was due to impose its sanctions on Iran), and then it will be up to the Iranian leadership to decide whether to stay in the nuclear agreement or not.” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed the European “medial” position between Washington and Tehran, saying: “They (Iran) must stop permanently threatening to break their commitments to the nuclear deal.” He added: “We are trying to do it [implement a European economic package / commitments and compensations package] before sanctions are imposed at the start of August and then another set of sanctions in November … For the start in August it seems a bit soon, but we are trying to do it by November.”
In this sense, it is possible to say that the Europeans are still halfway between their American ally and Iran. Whilst they support Iran’s regime being able to export Iranian oil and to be compensated for the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal, they also support a policy that will prevent Iran from withdrawing from this deal; that is to say, they stand with the continuation of the nuclear deal between Iran and the other five signatory countries despite the US withdrawal, and will try to provide whatever might persuade Iran to continue with the deal and not to withdraw from it.
The Chinese position is different to that of Europe. China and India, the top importers of Iran’s oil and gas, may now find themselves in a direct clash with the United States after the US president’s decision to impose tariffs on US imports of US$34 billion, leading China to retaliate with similar tariffs against US goods.
This intensification of the clash of interests between China and the United States is in the interest of Iran, as with the tensions between the US and the European Union;
It seems, therefore, that we can expect a European-Chinese stance supporting Iran’s position in the face of US sanctions.
- Outcomes of the Helsinki Summit between Putin and Trump
Russo-Iranian relations have also entered a stage of questioning the intentions of both as a result of the differences between Moscow and Washington that have begun to become apparent on two major issues; the first of these is the Iranian presence in Syria, and the second is the increase in production of Russian oil, which Tehran considers to be a ‘deal’ against Iran’s interests. Any large increase in Russian oil production could result in Iran losing an important political bargaining chip, which is the risk of ‘high oil prices’ if Iran is subjected to sanctions for exporting its oil. Iranian skepticism towards Russia is becoming increasingly sensitive, particularly after the Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. Any agreement between the two leaders on a stance towards Iran, whether on the Iranian presence in Syria, or the entire Syrian file in line with the Israeli demands, or on the imposition of US sanctions, would increase the danger to Iran. If the US and Russian leaders differed on Iran, however, this could serve Iran’ interests, meaning that Iranians watched the summit and continue to monitor subsequent related interaction between Presidents Trump and Putin with close interest.
- The Iranian regime’s ability to withstand the risk of being toppled domestically
The aforementioned participation of American officials close to President Trump in the annual PMOI conference in Paris in June confirmed that Trump’s administration is fully supportive of any domestic movement in Iran to oust the regime. The participation of both Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich in this event and the adversarial speeches by both against the Iranian regime confirmed the seriousness of the US approach in cooperation with the Iranian opposition in exile in support of ousting the regime. While the calls to topple the regime by PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi in her opening speech at the event may have sounded like wishful thinking, along with her assertions that the Iranian people have begun to rise up in readiness to overthrow the dictatorship and that revolution is at the doorstep, they may well become reality if the regime can’t find the means to deal with the spiraling economic crises, endemic corruption and deteriorating living conditions angering most Iranians; the regime also needs to work to achieve a degree of national unity and to introduce policies that serve to protect and advance the Iranian people’s interests, as well as to resolve escalating crises with regional neighbours.
All the above factors demonstrate that Iran is facing an exceptionally difficult and complex test, with events inside Iran being the key to the regime’s fall or rise, and the centre of the real challenges to confront all forms of external intervention. These four determining factors confirm that Iran faces a herculean task, with challenges rapidly escalating and multiplying; now is the time for review and accountability on domestic policies and external relations.
Dr. Mohamed El-Said Idris
Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS)