Doing the War Dance…Again

One of the big themes of this blog is that when it comes to Iran politics and policy, everything old is new again. That’s perhaps a truism of international relations in general, except that in Iran’s case, the lifecycle for any particular trope or story is excessively short.

Take this past weekend’s attack on a Saudi oil refinery, for example. The Houthis, a Yemeni Shiite group backed by Iran, quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks. Now, however, various U.S. and Saudi intelligence sources are telling the media that the attacks originated from Iran, not Yemen, and that the weapon used was a cruise missile rather than attack drone, as the Houthis had previously claimed.

Whom to believe?

As usual, history is instructive here. Looking back, it’s worth remembering that we did a similar dance in early 2018 following a Yemeni missile attack. That attack failed, but the Saudis and Trump administration still moved quickly to place the burden of responsibility for the missile on Iran. The Saudis gathered the missile debris from the desert and sent it to the United States, where Trump officials put it on display for diplomats and media organizations. I wrote about this at the time, noting my skepticism about the entire affair.

This most recent incident also comes on the heels of this summer’s tanker wars drama, which similarly featured a sketchily defined “attack” that was quickly blamed on Iran. Somehow, the public received even less physical evidence throughout that saga, despite numerous and forceful accusations of Iranian blame. In the end, we had to settle for squinting at some grainy footage of an IRGC boat doing…something…alongside the hull of a cargo ship as “definitive” proof for the veracity of these accusations.

One would think that if either the Saudis or the Americans had conclusive evidence that the attacks had, in fact, originated in Iran, they would not be so hesitant to disclose it. So far, all we have to go on in the refinery attack is a couple of aerial pictures of serious-looking installations marked with some very Official Top Secret-looking red boxes to draw our attention to the damage. This dossier has been backed up with the usual assortment of generic quotes from unnamed intelligence officials, reports, and, at least one instance, an unnamed *Congressional* source. There is also the omnipresent promise of the existence of additional classified evidence. This dossier, presumably, contains all the juicy, convincing details, but the general public cannot see it due to national security concerns. Exactly whose national security this evidence concerns is rarely mentioned.

It’s no secret that Iran provides support to the Houthis in their ongoing war against the Saudis, so it’s entirely possible, probable even, that Iran supplied the weapons for this attack. It’s certainly remarkable how accurate and capable the technology was in targeting the Saudi facilities. The effectiveness of the damage — immediately halving Saudi oil output — should serve as a stark warning that war with Iran will not be as easy nor as low-cost as some of its advocates may claim. Far less certain, however, is the degree to which Iran exerts direct operational control over Houthi operations. One notable aspect of the Iranian intervention in Yemen is how cheap it has been in comparison to the Saudis’ war effort. The Saudis pour billions per month into the conflict, mostly on costly American-made advanced weaponry. By contrast, the Iranian expenditures on the Houthi resistance amount to only several million dollars per year.

A direct Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia would not only be an abandonment of the formula that has served Iran strategically well in this conflict, miring the Saudis in a frustrating stalemate, it would also be a significant deviation from precedent. The Islamic Republic has never, in its history, launched a direct military attack (i.e., without using a proxy) on another nation’s soil unprovoked.

When the evidence is this thin, it’s crucial to think about how the competing factions are attempting to spin their preferred narratives. As with previous incidents in and around the Persian Gulf, the Saudis and the Trump administration are going to great lengths to try to convince the world that Iran is an aggressive, reckless, and vindictive country, one that is willing and perhaps even eager to lash out militarily at their rivals and endanger the global oil supply in the process. This logic holds even when the actions go against Iran’s best interests or, in some cases, common sense. The message the Iran hawks are sending isn’t subtle: Iran cannot be contained, so it must be stopped. Despite all the talk of looming negotiations and potential “dealmaking” between the United States and Iran, a story with a villain as menacing and irrational as this one can only satisfactorily end in evil’s comprehensive defeat. In this case, that means regime change.

The problem for the Saudis, and, by the same measure, the Israelis, is that they cannot achieve this result alone. They need the United States to do the heavy lifting. Donald Trump has been a godsend for both nations in financial and materiel terms, but his reluctance to take the plunge into kinetic action has clearly been both surprising and frustrating. At a press conference yesterday, Trump responded to a question asking whether diplomacy with Iran is now exhausted. Trump said no, it’s never exhausted until the “final twelve seconds.” At this point, Saudi and Israeli leaders have to be asking themselves, “How do we get to eleven?”

Uh oh, Macron’s at it again

I thought we were done with this nonsense.

At the conclusion of the G7 conference on Monday in Biarritz, France, French President Emmanuel Macron held a joint press conference with best bro U.S. President Donald Trump. In his prepared remarks, the French president hinted at a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sometime in the coming weeks. This announcement came after a whirlwind of a week in which Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a surprise appearance on the sidelines of the conference at Macron’s invitation.

Despite the drama surrounding the question of whether or not Trump knew about Macron’s invitation ahead of time (Trump claims he did, but I’m team skeptical) nothing substantive came as a result of Zarif’s brief appearance in Biarritz. He did not meet with any American officials, nor did he stick around long enough to do more than shake a few hands and take a few pictures before jetting off to China.

That didn’t stop Macron from hyping the possibility that his diplomatic maneuvering signified the first step on a path toward direct talks between the Trump administration and Iran. Macron, apparently after a prior conversation with Rouhani, said he believed that if Rouhani and Trump were to meet, “my conviction was that an agreement can be met.” Trump quickly latched on to the French President’s optimism. “If the circumstances were correct or right, I would certainly agree to that,” Trump responded. (Trump followed up that line by threatening Iran with “really violent force,” but for the sake of argument, let’s not dwell on that detail.)

If this Macron-Trump Iran discussion feels vaguely familiar, it should. We’ve done this dance before. Back in April 2018, Macron used a state visit to the United States to try to persuade Trump not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). During that visit, Macron tried to sell Trump on a vision of an enhanced agreement that would address some of what Trump had identified as the original deal’s “weaknesses” (these weren’t really weaknesses as much as they were items that went beyond the scope of the original framework, but that’s another discussion). It appeared as if Macron thought that if he could convince Trump to take ownership of the deal by allowing him to tack his name onto more robust enforcement mechanisms and a broader scope, this might be sufficient to maintain American participation and save the deal. Of course, that didn’t happen. Less than two weeks later, Trump torpedoed the whole thing when he formally announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the deal after all.

We watched a similar sequence of events play out again this week with the same predictable result. As before, Trump’s spur-of-the-moment statement sent the media into a frenzy. Headlines and push notifications gushed about a possible Truhani Summit. Reporters cited a semi-cryptic speech delivered by Rouhani the same day as firm evidence of his openness to talks. Here’s how the Washington Post framed his comments in an article entitled “Trump and Rouhani say they are willing to meet“:

Rouhani, in a televised speech in Iran, said he was open to talks. “If I knew that going to a meeting and visiting a person would help my country’s development and resolve the problems of the people, I would not miss it,” he said, in an apparent reference to Trump.

“We have to negotiate, we have to find a solution, and we have to solve the problem,” Rouhani said.

A day later, Rouhani issued a more definitive statement on potential U.S.-Iran negotiations, reiterating for what seems like the hundredth time Tehran’s stated position that no talks can take place until the United States lifts the economic sanctions it reimposed on Iran after Trump withdrew from the deal.

Naturally, the media flooded the zone with the latest update, with many of them framing the story as Rouhani backtracking from his initial commitment. NPR headlined their article “Rouhani Backs Off Meeting With Trump, Saying U.S. Must First Left Sanctions.” While it’s possible that Rouhani, facing blowback from hardliners and conservatives in Iran, had second thoughts, I think it’s more likely that Rouhani never intended to meet with Trump in the first place.

I’m speculating a bit here, but I don’t think that anyone at the Post, NPR, or any other major outlet that took the Macron-Trump press conference at face value bothered to check the Iranian President’s website for a more detailed report of what Rouhani said on Monday. The broader context of Rouhani’s speech reveals that he was talking more generically about the value of negotiations in the past tense, seemingly in an attempt to defend his decision to engage diplomatically with the P5+1 ahead of the original JCPOA: 

Power and diplomacy must work together; none can achieve results,” he added, saying, “After negotiations with the 5+1, we pushed 30-year resolutions aside, an immense amount of assets was unfrozen and oil exports returned to its previous state”.

“Some keep asking that what was the result of negotiation with major powers? After the negotiations, we were exporting over 2.8 million barrels of oil, and billions of dollars of our assets came back toe [sic] the country,” said Rouhani.

The fundamental flaw of Macron’s stunted attempts at Iran-U.S. diplomacy, besides the fact that they rely primarily on bravado rather than mutual understanding, is that he effectively ignores any considerations of Iranian interests when floating his plans publicly. In 2018, this meant offering the Trump a vision of an expanded nuclear deal that included issues such as Iran’s missile development program, which Iranian officials have repeatedly declared off-limits for negotiations. In 2019, it means heavy-handedly suggesting that he’s obtained Rouhani’s commitment to effectively break with a consistently stated Iranian bargaining position, then turning around and offering it up to Trump as an easy diplomatic win.

We don’t have any way of knowing what Macron actually said to Rouhani, nor is it possible to see inside Macron’s thought process. What we do know is that in both of his efforts to jumpstart Iran-U.S. diplomacy, the French President’s plan was dead on arrival. Until Macron can prove he fully comprehends the Iranian position, I suggest everyone — and most especially the international media — should disregard his half-baked gambits.

This Doesn’t Help

INSTEX was already dead in the water, but this week it took another blow when the German ambassador tapped to oversee its implementation suddenly resigned. INSTEX, which stands for Instrument Supporting Trade Exchanges, is the financial special purpose vehicle the European Union set up to help facilitate trade with Iran outside the scope of U.S. sanctions.

Bernd Erbel, Germany’s former ambassador to Iran, resigned from his position following the publication of an explosive report from the German tabloid Bild. The article quoted past statements Erbel made about Iran while appearing on an internet radio show hosted by a Holocaust denier.

Erbel’s statements consisted mostly of boilerplate leftist critiques of Israel’s origins. For example, Erbel observed that the Jewish State was founded “at the expense of another people,” i.e., the Palestinians, and that those people lost their homes as a result of Israel’s creation. He went on to say that the Palestinians “are the victims of our [Germany’s] victims.”

Erbel dipped into slightly more troubled waters with other statements, including one in which he called Israel a “foreign body” in the Middle East. He also made several comments about Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, observing that Hezbollah’s ability to resist the Israeli invasion was an important psychological development for the region because it demonstrated that there are forces capable of opposing Israel militarily. Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organization in Germany, and its political wing operates openly there.

It’s likely that most of the outrage surrounding Erbel’s interview stems from the show’s host, Ken Jebsen. Bild describes Jebsen as an anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist, which, judging by some of his past comments, is a fair characterization. In 2011, the Jerusalem Post reported on a long, rambling email authored by Jebsen in which he questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, writing, “I know who invented the Holocaust as PR.” He also made comments alluding to a conspiracy theory that posits the September 11, 2001 attack was an inside job, calling the destruction of the Twin Towers a “warm demolition.” Jebsen was fired from his position in public broadcasting shortly after these comments came to light.

The purpose of this post is not to debate whether or not Erbel deserved to lose his job. Both his words and his choices indicate at the very least a strong anti-Israel bias. He’s clearly anti-Zionist, although whether or not he has crossed the line into anti-Semitism would likely depend on one’s interpretations of the term. We’ll never know whether his views would have affected his ability to run INSTEX, but this is a question that ultimately doesn’t require an answer. Erbel is out, and he won’t be coming back.

More interesting than the scandal itself is how certain factions in Israel and Iran have reacted to it, or, more accurately in this case, how they haven’t.

On the surface, the details of this story seem to fit neatly within the paranoid molds of the Israeli right-wing and Iranian hardliner worldviews. Despite their opposing views on virtually every subject, there are two things on which these groups can agree: First, they both despise the Iran Deal. And second, there is always some sort of international conspiracy or cabal working clandestinely to undermine their agenda.

I’ll come back to the first point in a minute, but first, let’s consider how hypothetically each could have exploited the Erbel resignation to score a few cheap political points.

On the Israeli side, right-wing politicians and Iran hawks could have portrayed Erbel-Gate as yet another example of a European politician harboring virulently anti-Israel views. On the Iranian side, hardliners might have interpreted Erbel’s dismissal as a validation of their long-held belief that Israel secretly controls Western Iran policy.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, this is not what happened. This story hasn’t made much of an impact in either Iranian or Israeli media. Other than a few smaller matter-of-fact news items (several different outlets published the same short dispatch in the Persian papers), there hasn’t been much discussion or debate about the incident. It has not produced the levels of scandalous outrage and hysteria-inducing headlines that one might have expected, and prominent politicians have mostly been silent on the matter.

Which brings us back to the Iran Deal. One way to interpret the relative quiet is that both the Israeli right and the Iranian hardliners no longer feel politically threatened by INSTEX as a mechanism for producing the types of economic benefits promised to Iran under the JCPOA. If they did, there would likely be have been a much more vociferous outcry in response to last week’s events. Instead, Europe’s continuous failure to live up to its lofty promises to neutralize American sanctions and provide meaningful sanctions relief has gone on for so long now that the Iranian and Israeli factions that oppose the deal no longer see the value in continuing to highlight its setbacks.

INSTEX will surely receive a new figurehead in the coming weeks who will take up the banner of its implementation. This micro-scandal probably won’t even register as a footnote when the final history of the JCPOA gets written, but it’s precisely this apathy, rather than anger, that signals the JCPOA’s demise may be near.

Sanctions Incoherence

The Trump Administration continued its sanctions campaign against senior Iranian officials last week. This time, the target was Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Personally sanctioning the chief diplomat of a foreign country might seem like a drastic and shocking step, but this wasn’t a surprise. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin signaled the administration’s intent to sanction Zarif before the Foreign Minister’s highly-restricted trip to New York for UN meetings in mid-July. Even as the administration was making overtures to the Foreign Minister to visit the White House for what everyone, including Zarif, understood would be a cheap photo-op, the decision to levy sanctions against him had already been made.

It’s worth noting at the outset that individualized sanctions against another nation’s Foreign Minister are entirely pointless from a technical standpoint. It’s unclear whether or not the administration understands this. Virtually no serious Iran or sanctions expert thinks that these measures will have any meaningful impact on Zarif’s finances or behavior. The same was true when the administration placed sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Given that, we can skip the part of the discussion where we discuss the financial impact of these sanctions and instead focus on the symbolism.

From the administration’s point of view, these sanctions are primarily about humiliation. By directly and publicly insulting Iran’s top diplomat, the administration is broadcasting its uninterest in any kind of negotiations process with Iran’s diplomatic corps. This isn’t a guess. As an unnamed official told journalists in a background call in the wake of the sanctions announcement last week, “If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with somebody who is a significant decision-maker.”

This idea that the foreign minister doesn’t play a meaningful role in Iranian decision making has a long history in U.S.-Iran diplomacy (or lack thereof). Opponents of engagement with Iran often make vague references to power distribution within the Islamic Republic as the reason negotiations with its officials — and particularly those serving within the elected branch of government — can’t be trusted. These critics point to the Supreme Leader’s ultimate authority as justification for doubting any Iranian commitments that do not come directly from him.

To some extent, this is a valid concern, but it’s also a gross oversimplification of a complex and multifaceted Iranian political structure. This isn’t the time or place for an Iranian civics lesson, but dismissing an entire faction of the Iranian government because it doesn’t fit some preconceived notion of Iranian authority is willfully ignorant at best, and deliberately so at worst. And herein lies the pure incoherence of the Trump approach to Iran: If the reason for sanctioning the Foreign Minister stems from his lack of real authority on any matters of value, then why did the administration also sanction Ayatollah Khamenei back June?

An exasperated Zarif pointed out the absurdity of the American position in a speech earlier this week. “America cannot claim it wants to negotiate [with Iran],” Zarif said. “It is America who has left the negotiation table. It is America who has sanctioned the foreign minister of the country it wants to negotiate with. It is America who has sanctioned the highest figure in the Islamic Republic, meaning the Supreme Leader. Who does it want to negotiate with?”

Whatever the justification, the result is the same. The United States has, by now, systematically eliminated all potential Iranian negotiating partners. In the process, they’ve also eradicated any remaining hope of rebuilding trust or goodwill. Of course, that has not stopped administration officials, as well as the President himself, from continuing to profess a commitment to the diplomatic process. But if they think they’re deceiving anyone as to their real intentions, they’re only fooling themselves.

These contradictions reside comfortably in the administration psyche, but that’s only because the consequences of cognitive dissonance are relatively benign. Meanwhile, the effects of the actual U.S. sanctions — the ones targeting the economy — are wreaking havoc on the lives of everyday Iranians.

The only way any of this makes sense is if you accept the fact that the Trump administration’s strategy — to the extent there is one — was never to engage in good faith. It’s better to think of it as a hodgepodge of conflicting actions and demands, all vaguely based around the abstract ideas of pain and humiliation until they finally bend the knee.

Capitulation remains the point.

Capitulation is the Point

Brace yourself for the next few weeks of headlines asking variants of the question: “Can Donald Trump Strike a Deal with Iran?”

Here’s your short answer: No.

I could probably end this post here, but the renewed discussion of the possibility of U.S.-Iran negotiations provides an opportune moment to remind everyone of the actual intent of Trump’s Iran strategy, as well as offer a refresher on some of the past dynamics of U.S.-Iran negotiations.

Speculation about what negotiations between Trump and Iran could produce is nothing new. Ever since Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) back in May 2018, there has been a steady stream of articles, blog posts, and Tweets from the expert commentariat pontificating about the potential for a Trump Iran Deal.

Here’s Politico’s Nahal Toosi writing about how “Trump has been attempting to start negotiations with Iran for months,” noting his “letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an attempt to use Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an emissary to Tehran, and public comments expressing his desire to talk.”

Here’s Sina Toosi, a National Iranian American Council (NIAC) research associate, hinting at a Trump policy shift toward Iran opening up the possibility of negotiations.

Here’s Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment, recommending that Trump should “[keep] the door of diplomacy open.”

Here’s Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, writing credulously about Trump’s alleged willingness to reenter into negotiations with Iran, even after he withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions.

Here’s Suzanne Maloney, Brookings’ Iran point person, declaring back in August 2018 that the “barrage of threats and appeals” Trump levels at Iran merely “betray his exasperation that Iranian leaders have yet to take him up on the offer [to negotiate].”

Here’s Sanam Vakil, a research fellow at Chatham House, who took the time to conduct a poll of 75 diplomats to assess their views on a hypothetical “Art of a New Iran Deal,” some of whom, shockingly, think it’s a realistic possibility.

The list goes on.

Don’t be fooled by recent reports that Trump is looking to open a backchannel for negotiations with Iranian officials. The actual goal of this administration’s Iran strategy has never been about achieving some kind of grand bargain or strategic endgame. It is and has been about one thing: capitulation.

It’s important to note that capitulation is not the same thing as regime change, nor is it regime collapse, though many in the administration would welcome either outcome. Instead, capitulation is better understood as a specific type of narrative development, the next plot point in a long-running story of conflict between the United States and Iran. Capitulation, in this context, represents a public admission of defeat, a concession of one’s weakness in the face of the opponent’s strength. Following capitulation, subsequent interactions between the two parties are no longer negotiations between equals, but rather the defeated supplicating to the victor.

This desire to achieve dominance over one’s opponent motivates nearly all of Trump’s actions toward Iran (perhaps toward everyone). From the punitive sanctions to the threats of military action, Trump’s goal is to get the Iranian regime to admit the reality of its situation and come crawling back to the negotiating table from a position of declared weakness. The collapse or destruction of the regime would be an acceptable byproduct of this process, but it’s not necessarily a requirement. Far more important in this administration’s eyes is the appearance that they have somehow “won” something from the Iranians and humbled them in the process.

Compare this mindset with the previous administration’s approach to Iran. A lot was made of the Obama administration’s attempts at narrative spin in 2013, which suggested that the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran in June of that year had created a diplomatic opening for talks. This allegedly helped convince Iran skeptics at home that diplomacy might achieve results.* But this narrative was also useful for the Iranians, who were able to portray their decision to pursue negotiations with the Americans as a positive result of Rouhani’s “charm offensive” instead of a desperate response to the building pressure of economic sanctions. Similarly, once knowledge of the talks became public, the personal relationship that developed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over multiple rounds of negotiations helped resolve differences through a dialogue of mutual respect and laid a foundation for future developments.

The Trump administration, by contrast, has no interest in developing a sense of goodwill or mutual respect, nor do any of its officials — many of whom are still eager for war — have the personality or temperament to build rapport with their Iranian counterparts. (This is probably the reason they’ve outsourced this task to Rand Paul, which shows just how unserious an effort this is.) In the unlikely event that any talks do take place between the Trump administration and Iran, they will almost certainly fail. Iran has stuck to its position that the United States must first drop sanctions and return to the JCPOA as a precondition for resuming negotiations. They have been similarly steadfast in their rejections of the possibility of a more comprehensive deal that includes limitations on its strategic interests, including its ballistic missile program. Any suggestions to the contrary have been met with forceful rebukes from Iranian officials.

Trump is likely hoping that the pain of sanctions along with the constant threat of war might force Iran to concede, but Iran’s history of resilience in the face of international pressure suggests this may be in vain. In its relatively short history, the Islamic Republic has already endured a brutal eight-year war with Iraq, as well as multiple rounds of punishing economic sanctions without acknowledging defeat. It seems unlikely that they’ll suddenly do so in the face of Trump’s bullying. As long as Trump needs to win and Iran refuses to lose, the prospect of substantive negotiations between Washington and Tehran will remain purely hypothetical fodder the expert and pundit cohort.

The only scenario in which I could see this dynamic shifting would be if war were to break out, in which case all bets are off. Given some of the people in this administration, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It’s terrifying to think that the only thing holding Trump back at the moment might be Tucker Carlson.

For now, at least, this story is at an impasse.

————

*In truth, Obama’s efforts to open negotiations with the Iranians began months earlier while the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still in office. A small “crisis” resulted from the disclosure of this fact. Many members of the DC foreign policy establishment, which Obama and his advisors dismissively referred to as “the blob,” interpreted the administration’s portrayal of events as duplicitous. In hindsight, however, there may have been more truth to this argument than contemporaneous media accounts suggested. I went to a talk in DC a few weeks back featuring an Obama administration official who had participated in both the Ahmadinejad and Rouhani-era talks. I asked him about his experience with the Ahmadinejad officials versus the Rouhani contingent, and whether he believed that they could have successfully negotiated the same deal with the former group. He said that he did not think that the discussions with the Ahmadinejad group would have progressed much beyond the initial phases, and noted that there was a significant difference in tone between the two groups. I suspect many of the accusations that Obama officials had been “misleading” in their portrayal of the narrative was a result of the antipathy many in the DC foreign policy establishment held for the administration.

Iran is Done Waiting on Europe

On Wednesday, Iranian officials announced plans to begin enriching uranium beyond levels specified by the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This move is the latest in a series of decisions by Iran to reduce its commitments to the agreement it had been voluntarily following since Donald Trump’s decision withdraw the United States from it back in May 2018.

Until recently, Tehran had signaled a willingness to continue to abide by its commitments to the agreement as long as Europe was able to provide Iran with the tangible economic benefits it had sought in exchange for scaling back its nuclear program. Shortly after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, the EU tried to quell Iranian anger by announcing that it would begin building a “Special Purpose Vehicle” (SPV) that would enable European companies to conduct trade with Iran by bypassing the U.S. financial system.

Instead of swift action, however, months of delays ensued. Iran waited anxiously for details of how this financial mechanism would guarantee the economic rewards it sought for its continued compliance with the JCPOA. At the same time, ordinary Iranians continued to bear the brunt of intensifying American economic sanctions increasingly aimed more at fomenting unrest via broad societal degradation than exerting targeted influence over Iranian leaders and decision makers. Critical medicine imports have dried up, while unemployment and inflation have skyrocketed. European officials’ meek reassurances about their continued commitment to the principles of the JCPOA did little to quell mounting Iranian skepticism that the EU took seriously its pledge to undermine the United States’ determination to strangle the Iranian economy to death.

By the time the SPV finally debuted this past week, it was already too late. To say that there was a lack of excitement surrounding the debut of INSTEX — which stands for “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges” — would be an understatement. Its appearance had already been overshadowed by the rising tensions between Iran and the United States, which, in addition to an ongoing war of words, has recently begun dipping into the realm of military action. What was likely initially envisioned as a moment of triumph came and went as a sidenote news item; merely an opportunity to publish a photo of besuited officials sitting around a large wooden table, all of them pledging their commitment to helping one another in the most sterile of diplomatic language.

 

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 4.19.00 PM
The European External Action Service (EEAS) website announcement for the INSTEX debut, replete with the requisite picture.

 

Inside Iran, the mood was more pessimistic, perhaps even openly hostile. To many, the timing of the announcement seemed like a desperation play, a hastily arranged photo-op meant to quell rising Iranian anger. This ultimately proved counterproductive and only added to a growing sense of distrust surrounding the Europeans’ intentions. The hardline paper Kayhan published several op-eds denouncing INSTEX. One characterized it as a “void” package, while another called it the “latest European deception.”

Nor was it only the hardliners who are wary about INSTEX’s potential. Seyyed Abas Mousavi, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman, wrote in a tweet last week, “No one in the government has hope for INSTEX.” President Hassan Rouhani, likewise, dismissed INSTEX as merely a “symbolic” gesture and an “empty” mechanism.

Taken as a whole, Iran’s lackluster response to INSTEX’s debut demonstrates the degree to which Iranian foreign policy is solidifying around a path of active resistance. Gone are the days of Iran politely fulfilling its JCPOA obligations while waiting for Europe to fulfill its promises. Now, Iran is taking matters into its own hands. In addition to the gradual extension of its nuclear capabilities beyond the limits defined by the JCPOA, Iran also appears to be attempting to clandestinely sell its oil in defiance of a United States embargo. Meanwhile, Iran’s support for foreign military, resistance, and terrorist organizations continues unabated.

Europe has squandered its supply of Iranian goodwill and will need more than words to win it back. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mousavi summed up Iranian sentiment last week when, in response to a French warning not to violate the terms of the JCPOA, he said, “As long as you [France] remain committed to implementing your JCPOA undertakings, we will remain committed as well, and will carry out our commitments exactly like you.” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif followed up this statement with a snippy tweet, reaffirming that Iran is committed to the JCPOA “as long as E3/EU implement THEIR economic commitments.”

European leaders now face a difficult choice: do they want to risk defying the United States in the hopes of placating the Iranians, or do they want to roll the dice and force Iran to continue down the path of mutual escalation with the United States?

The British seizure of an oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar may be an early indication which way at least one [for now] member state is leaning. The only question is where the rest stand.

Welcome to the War

What does a war with Iran look like? Is it American boots storming through the streets of Isfahan? Is it bombs dropping over Tehran? Maybe it’s a murky proxy war fought on the fringes of Iranian territory? Or perhaps Tanker War Part 2: Electic Boogaloo? These are questions worth asking after last week’s events.

But first, in case you’ve been living in media-free bliss, on Thursday of last week, two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman suffered mysterious explosions in their hulls. Not long after, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a news conference in which he accused Iran of attacking the ships. Pompeo presented no hard evidence during the news conference, although he did reference a video that he said confirmed the Iranians’ responsibility. Several hours later, seemingly in response to a public uproar over the absence of said evidence, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) released the video. The grainy footage showed an IRGC boat pulling up alongside one of the damaged tankers to remove what Pompeo and the U.S. military claimed was an unexploded mine. In the administration’s view, this was clearly intended as smoking-gun proof of Iran’s responsibility for the attacks.

Iranian officials immediately and vociferously denied responsibility and denounced the accusations. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote in a tweet, “Suspicious doesn’t even begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” highlighting the fact that one of the attacks was against a Japan-owned tanker at the same time that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. The Japanese operator of one of the victimized ships, citing testimony from the crewmembers, said that the boat had been struck by a “flying object,” which further cast doubt on the theory that a sea mine had been the cause of the explosion.

The United Kingdom and, predictably, Saudi Arabia and Israel backed the American claims of Iranian responsibility. In a statement, the UK Foreign Office wrote, “It is almost certain that a branch of the Iranian military — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — attacked the two tankers on 13 June. No other state or non-state actor could plausibly have been responsible.” The rest of the world, meanwhile, remains unconvinced. Several EU member states have publicly questioned the American narrative, requesting more evidence and urging all involved to exercise “maximum restraint.” 

As ever, it’s difficult to sort fact from fiction at this point. Neither the U.S. nor Iran has presented any definitive proof of guilt or innocence. In fairness, the burden of proof should reasonably fall more on the accuser than the accused, but that’s rarely how things work in practice in the realm of international relations. The CENTCOM video is ambiguous, at best. Bellingcat offered analysis that suggested that the boat was, in fact, Iranian, but stopped short of affirming that the activity portrayed the blurry footage was a mine removal operation. Pointing out what should have already been obvious, they noted that a video showing Iran removing a mine is not proof that Iran put it there in the first place. Setting aside the tragic history of the United States’ record in making the case for war the Middle East, the idiosyncrasies of more recent American accusations of Iranian guilt offer more than enough reason to be skeptical now. It’s probably safe to assume at this point that the only thing this video has and will accomplish is to reaffirm preexisting biases.

But make no mistake: the Iran-U.S. war is already underway, and it’s only likely to get worse from here. At this stage, however, progress cannot be measured in blood, treasure, or territory. The real war, right now, is for control of the narrative.

It’s this battle within a battle that will ultimately define this conflict and shape its future course. The Trump Administration — and, more specifically, the hawk contingent led by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Mike Pompeo — is attempting to paint Iran as a saboteur crippling the world oil market more out of spite than strategic necessity. It’s a simple enough story to understand, and it reinforces many of the biases everyday Americans — that is, people who don’t pay close attention to Iranian or Middle Eastern politics — harbor about the Islamic Republic: duplicitous, vengeful, and ideologically driven to the point of self-harm. In this telling, Iran, furious at the United States’ efforts to curtail its regional influence by eliminating its oil trade revenues, lashes out at international tankers off its coastline, thereby disrupting shipping lanes and, by extension, the global oil supply. It’s a “If I can’t get mine, you can’t have yours” mentality adopted as a guiding military philosophy.

The Iranian version of events is more reactive but still entirely in-character. Per usual, Tehran is indulging its instinct toward conspiracy theorizing, albeit slightly more subtly than in crises past. Foreign Minister Zarif’s Twitter statement in the wake of the attacks is a perfect encapsulation of this mentality. It suggests, without expressly stating anything, that the attack against a Japanese tanker at the same time that Iran’s Supreme Leader is meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister in the highest-profile diplomatic visit to Tehran in years is a bit too convenient to be taken at face value. To be fair, he has a point: of all the boats in the water, why take a pot shot at the Japanese one just to add an extra dose of insult to a guest? It’s not particularly Iranian behavior.

What makes this scenario more difficult to accept is that Iran already has a plan in motion to retaliate against U.S. sanctions by gradually suspending its commitments to the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). Today, the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, announced that Iran will be taking additional steps to restart its uranium enrichment program and that it will surpass the limits set on its stockpiles by the JCPOA within ten days. This follows Iran’s announcement from the first week of May — several days before the first set of tanker attacks — that it would be reducing its commitments under the JCPOA in response to U.S. actions.

Kamalvandi also warned that starting from July 7 Iran could resume enriching uranium up to the 20% level, placing it a step closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels. These actions are designed to put pressure on Europe to provide Iran with tangible benefits to remaining in compliance with the JCPOA. Moreover, this strategy allows the Iranians to maintain the moral high ground with the United States while also denying them a pretext for war by highlighting that it was the Trump administration and not Tehran that first violated the agreement. It also has no ostensibly offensive component beyond the implied threat of future development of nuclear weapons, which remains a distant and, at least for now, unlikely possibility.

Even so, the nuclear program provides the Iranians with far more leverage than a few randomized tanker explosions ever could, so it’s difficult to understand what strategic value Iran would see in the latter. Realistically, the only thing the tanker attacks seem to be accomplishing is escalating the calls for military action against Iran. In that way, those who are making the case for war may already be winning it.