Tensions are mounting in the Middle East. It’s not just about Syria; there are risks of a major conflict brewing and the main characters involved on the stage are Iran, Israel and the United States. US President Donald Trump’s fresh sanctions against Tehran, the first of which were enforced on August 7, will escalate a situation that has become ever more problematic in the region.
Washington has decided to apply, along with Israel and with the support of the Gulf monarchies, a veritable siege of Iran. The war in Syria and the war in Yemen have shown the world that Iran has much greater strategic capabilities than anyone would dare believe.It has become too powerful for its own good.
But, the sanctions could force Iran in a position to make big mistakes, undermining the current government’s efforts to adopt reforms to improve citizens’ lives as well as the Ayatollah’s regional goals.
Observers would be forgiven for seeing limited chances of a resolution. The best that can be expected is a stalemate. The alternatives are either an intensification of the current conditions and a capitulation of the Islamic Republic or the U.S. and its allies. The other is a war, which would then lead to the same scenario.
In January 2018, Western media reported that Iranians staged many protests and demonstrations in various cities against the government’s economic policies. They accused Tehran of failing to ensure a decent life for the majority of the Iranian people.
In particular, riots erupted due to rising prices, mass unemployment and a general economic collapse. The demonstrations, which continued for several weeks, left 20 people dead, including protesters and law enforcement officers.Washington, for its part, has intensified ideological and economic pressure on Iran, urging its allies in Europe to cut trade ties with the Iranian government. As for Iran itself, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even launched a 24 hr. anti-government propaganda channel, in Farsi, designed to encourage the Iranian people to rise up against the Islamic Republic. For now Washington and Tehran are, apart from sanctions, still only engaged in a war of words. Iran could respond to Trump’s tweets and sanctions against the sale of Iranian oil with action. Rohani threatened that Iran would block the Hormuz Strait if the United States will, in fact, block exports of its crude oil to create tensions not unlike those that characterized the Persian Gulf in the 1980’s at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.
Predictably, Trump’s threats against Iran enjoy the full backing – if not the orchestration – of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And, there’s little doubt that the U.S. and Israel have been working on a plan to challenge Iran using covert action – in the hopes of achieving regime change goals without war.
The U.S. administration, through characters such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others (Rudolph Giuliani, now Trump’s personal attorney) has led a media campaign to mobilize support from certain American-Iranians nostalgic of the Pahlavi dynasty community. The U.S. administration has even invoked the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a radical Islamic-Marxist organization (until not long ago, included in the list of terror organizations), which has challenged the Islamic Republic since its foundation in 1979. The basic theme is to present the Iranian leadership and those close to it as financially corrupt.
There can be little doubt that the U.S. administration wants to see nothing less than the termination of the Islamic Republic in Iran. To achieve it, based on Rudolph Giuliani’s words before the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in Paris in July, Trump would be prepared to back the MEK’s leader, Maryam Rajavi. Giuliani, who is also a special IT security advisor for the White House, echoes the opinions of the so-called ‘Hawks’ of U.S. foreign policy, those who – inevitably – see the world as the good guys vs. whomever happens to be in the Axis of Evil (i.e. Iran, Russia, Syria and North Korea). John Bolton, now Trump’s National Security advisor, addressed the NCRI in 2017. On that occasion, he stated that US policy would ensure that the Islamic Republic “will not last until its 40th birthday”.
But, since then, the U.S. has added more bite
In May, Trump made the US withdraw from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran and ordered a campaign of intense economic pressure, threatening sanctions against any foreign company that had commercial relations with Iran, also demanding the end of the Iranian oil trade by November. Could the Islamic Republic’s suggestions about trading its oil in Euros rather than dollars have influenced this?
Perhaps, but the rhetoric, official or rumored has been relentless. Australian media reported that the United States was supposedly “ready” to attack Iranian nuclear research sites. US Defense Secretary James Mattis, rejected it, but there’s no doubting the fact that’s what the White House is thinking.
Washington’s bellicose rhetoric is perhaps an attempt to intimidate Tehran and force it to enter into other agreements, as has happened with Kim Jong-un.
Perhaps. There’s one major difference however. When it comes to North Korea, Washington can act more independently. It has pressure from Seoul and Tokyo, but remains much freer to hold talks and even establish guidelines toward an agreement as happened last June during the face to face meeting between Trump and Kim-Jong Un.
In contrast, when it comes to Iran, Trump – or any other U.S. president for that matter (the 5+1 nuclear deal under Obama being the only notable exception) – must deal with Israel and the Israeli lobby, i.e. AIPAC. U.S. relations with Iran and the Islamic Republic and its options must always succumb to that relationship. North Korea, unlike Iran, has led its nuclear missile program to completion. More than Trump, it was Kim Jong-Un possessed the right cards to force a negotiation. The Iran Nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA) was the best way to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons capability. Now, it appears that the only way out of debilitating sanctions and a possible, if not probable, military conflict is for Tehran to accelerate the development of a nuclear warhead. Still, even Trump, and especially his trigger happy advisors, understand that launching a war against Iran presents far greater challenges than attacking a weakened dictatorship such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was in 2003.
Before, considering a military strike – most likely against Iran’s top nuclear research facilities – Trump will play the oil and energy card. Its goal will be to enforce the sanctions against oil exports to the letter. These will become effective in November 2018.
The new set of sanctions will be imposed by Washington against Teheran concerns oil, gas, banks and shipbuilding. The ones imposed starting last August 7 prohibit Iran’s purchase of US dollars and trade in gold and precious metals (part of a larger attempt to cut Tehran out of the international financial system). The sanctions also target important raw materials such as graphite, aluminum, steel, coal, industrial software and even carpets. The plan is to hit Iranians of all classes and economic sectors, modern and traditional. The most controversial aspect of the sanctions is their ‘global scope’. The U.S. will also enforce secondary sanctions against any non-US subjects, which entertain economic and trade relations with Iran.
Iran’s hopes to protect itself are, admittedly, frail. The European Union, which has encouraged European companies to continue doing business with Iran are pulling out already, having heeded Washington’s warnings that any company, which continues to operate in Iran will be forced to give up business in the United States.
France’s Total S.A. is one of the biggest names to have relinquished a major oil project in the South Pars field, the world’s biggest natural gas field in Iran to comply with the warning. Nevertheless, given the list of countries under U.S. sanctions, or threats thereof, there are plenty of potential partners that could cause Trump’s anti-Iran sanctions to ‘leak’. For instance, Total’s share of the South Pars project will most likely end up being taken over by its Chinese partner CNCP, strengthening Beijing’s role in sustaining the survival if the Islamic Republic.
None of Iran’s allies, from Russia – and especially – China seem in any way interested in complying. After all, if Washington is not threatening Moscow with more sanctions, it’s imposing new tariffs against Chinese goods. In addition, Turkey, under American and U.S. Dollar pressure, has already announced it would reject U.S. sanctions against Iranian oil and gas. The question remains, how long will Iran sustain the pressure, even with the aid of its allies?
New sanctions against Iran passed by the Obama administration in 2012 put sufficient pressure against Iran as to favor the ascendance of the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 elections. But, Trump, and the hawks, including those in Israel and Saudi Arabia, who are advising him on Iran, has no interest in reformists or pragmatists.
They want regime change
Before any military strike, U.S. policy will move to use sanctions to increase internal socio-political pressure against the Islamic Republic. More than the risk of war, Iran faces the risk of a ‘color-coded’ revolt, maneuvered from the outside in the style of those in Georgia, Ukraine and possibly even those of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
Will the sanctions work? Judging by the success rate of sanctions in the Middle East to achieve any kind of political change, the answer is a flat No. Sanctions tend to constrain citizens’ self-reliance. They are blocked from the outside world, and are increasingly forced to rely on government resources. Meanwhile, the government gains more ‘hegemony’ and can legitimately blame outsiders for its citizens’ problems. Debilitating sanctions against Iraq from 1991 to 2003 failed to topple the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Likewise, sanctions against the Libyan government from 1992-1999 (U.S. sanctions lasted until 2004) failed to encourage a viable opposition to Qadhafi.
Nonetheless, where the American sanctions could be effective is in strengthening the position of the Conservatives in the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) vis-a-vis the Pragmatists, led by current President Rohani. In short, sanctions and any external measures aimed at weakening the Iranian economy encourage hardliners such as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, at the expense of ‘moderates’ such as Rohani. At that point, any chance of negotiation with the United States, or the West for that matter, becomes much harder. The hardliners would gain even more strength should the economic threats turn to military ones. So long as Iran fails to achieve nuclear capability, Washington will be tempted to launch a military strike and embark on a dangerous campaign any occupant of the White House would rather avoid.
Indeed, any ground invasion of Iran, would amount to pure folly, while attacks from the air, whether using missiles or aircraft, would rally most Iranian citizens around the government as happened during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s after all.
Would Israel start a war if the U.S. should decide getting involved against Tehran would be too dangerous? From a purely military aspect, both the U.S. and Israel could endure low-intensity conflict (air strikes and proxy fighting in Lebanon or Syria) of a short duration. But, evidently, such options involve a series of risks that nobody wants to take on.
Then there’s always Syria. The Americans and their allies – UK, France – have not yet let go the idea of regime change in Damascus, even if there’s but one opposition enclave left for the Russian and Iranian backed Asad loyalists to take back: Idlib. September could prove a ‘hot’ month. Whenever, Syrian government forces are close to achieving a major strategic victory, western media and military rhetoric intensifies. American sanctions against Iran have a better chance of working, if Tehran and Moscow remain bogged down in Syria.
Therefore, the next few weeks could see alleged chemical attacks or other atrocities, which the West will inevitably blame on the Syrian armed forces and their allies with the aim of establishing a ‘casus belli’ for a more intense intervention.
Iran might also play its Hormuz card, but that would damage Chinese interests and that would be catastrophic. Of course, Russia would be involved directly as well, even if reluctantly. Russia would risk wasting all the diplomatic efforts with Israel to contain Tel Aviv’s raids in Syria and, more significantly, to recognize Bashar al Assad’s victory in the Syrian war. A war, meanwhile, would threaten China and Russia and their plans to establish the new Silk Road not to mention its plans to continue importing Iranian oil.
Middle East Analyst