Back in Action

Oh, hello there. It’s lovely to see you all again. Apologies for my extended absence from this site. It’s been just over a year since I last posted here. I don’t want to bore you with the details about why I suddenly and without warning abandoned this project, but suffice it to say it involved personal circumstances that made continuing my extracurricular writing on these topics hard to sustain. To those of you who relied on me for periodic updates on Iran, all I can say is I’m sorry. I hope you’ll give me another chance as I once again delve into the murky and exciting world of Iranian and Middle Eastern analysis. There’s more of a need for it now than ever before, and given the current state of affairs, there isn’t time to spare.

To get back into the swing of things, let’s lay out three baseline assumptions about the current state of affairs:

  1. John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, wants war with Iran. He’s made no secret of this. It is, by now, his entire political raison d’etre. If the Islamic Republic is still standing when he leaves his post, his tenure, by his own established metrics, can only be considered a massive failure.
  2. Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, also want war with Iran, but have no interest in fighting it themselves, preferring instead that Trump do the dirty work of regime change on their behalf. Neither Israel (too small) nor Saudi Arabia (too inept) has the military resources to topple the Iranian government by themselves, and working together, despite their shared interests, is still not a realistic option for either country.
  3. President Trump, meanwhile, is conflicted. He loves a good feud, but his resolve to make important decisions with potentially serious consequences is questionable at best. One day, Trump is asking Iran’s leaders to call him, the next, he’s threatening to “end” them. It’s anybody’s guess what tomorrow will bring.

The reality that emerges from the combination of these three factors is one of uncertainty and tension. It’s a frightening situation, for sure, and a single spark could ignite a raging fire.

Given the risk, it is understandable that Iran has been in the headlines of the Western press a lot lately. Unfortunately, as is so often the case when the prospect of war appears on the American horizon, the various stories and analyses about the coming conflict are woefully unbalanced. Like Iraq in the runup to the 2003 invasion of that country, the Iranian perspective has been excised from consideration in the planning for a potential conflict. In essence, Iran has been effectively removed from the public debate that will shape its future.

The media, and particularly mainstream Western publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, highlight the urgent need for a more thorough examination of the Iranian perspective. Last week, in an article titled, “White House Reviews Military Plans Against Iran, in Echoes of Iraq War,” the New York Times appeared to take for granted the Trump administration’s claims that the intelligence surrounding a heightened risk of an attack from Iran was real and credible. The article included a litany of anonymous proclamations about the Iranian threat from omnipresent “American officials,” but presented no hard evidence to substantiate their claims. Subsequent reporting would reveal the dubious provenance of alleged Iranian attack plans, of which even our closest allies, including the British general in charge of fighting ISIS in Iraq, were highly skeptical. 

More troublingly, other than a vague reference to a statement by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to “walk away from parts of the 2015 nuclear deal,” the article did not quote a single Iranian source or official, nor did it seek additional input from regional or country experts.

With that information gap in mind, I thought it would be useful in my return to the blogosphere to attempt to clarify the Iranian perspective by answering three key questions about how they are handling their current predicament. First, what is Iran saying in response to the White House? Second, how is Iran taking action? And third, how is the situation likely to evolve (or devolve) from here?

What is Iran saying? 

Iran’s messaging during this period of crisis has been the epitome of consistency in the face of the Trump administration’s vacillation. The tone often depends on the affiliations of the speaker, running from the colorful bellicosity of IRGC officers to the more constrained diplomatic rhetoric of elected officials, but the substance is always more or less the same. The Iranian position is built on two pillars. First, in response to Bolton’s provocations, Iranian officials are steadfastly emphasizing that Iran has no interest or intention of initiating armed conflict with the United States. Second, they are categorically rejecting Trump’s offers to negotiate.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei articulated this dual-track approach in a speech last week where he said, “Negotiation is poison…even more so with the current administration,” before declaring, “No war is going to be waged.” Other Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, have made similar statements about the non-viability of negotiations with the United States under its current leadership, indicating a lack of daylight between the positions of the elected and unelected power centers in the Iranian government. Referencing the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA), Zarif and Rouhani have repeatedly emphasized that it was the United States, led by President Trump, that decided to walk away from the deal in 2018, and that any return to negotiations must be predicated on the United States’ return to its original commitments under the accord. Given how embarrassing it would be for Trump to essentially admit defeat and do a public about-face on this topic, this is not a realistic possibility, and hence, not a real point of contention within Iran.

In the Iranian press, both reformist and hardline publications have been championing Iranian resistance to American pressure while highlighting the failure of the Trump administration, and John Bolton in particular, to provoke a war with Iran. Last week, following Trump’s intimation that he’s not fully committed to going to war with Iran, several Iranian dailies, including reformist Arman-e Emrooz and hardline Javan, ran headlines speculating that Bolton’s failure to convince Trump might be an indication of Bolton’s imminent departure. This is probably wishful thinking on their part, but it demonstrates the degree to which the Iranian press, and, by extension, the Iranian people, are aware of the present discord within the White House.

How is Iran taking action? 

Militarily, Iran has not made any obvious move toward increased aggression. While it continues to fund and supply proxy groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and a number of Shiite militias in Iraq, Iran has so far made no effort to mobilize its conventional forces in preparation for an attack on U.S. forces. Notably, Iran is also expanding its effort to strengthen military ties with Russia, with whom it continues to support the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad. Iran and Russia recently announced plans to hold a major military exercise in the Caspian Sea in the coming year.

Economically, Iran has been seeking ways to subvert the United States’ “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign while ramping up what it calls its “resistance economy.” The Iranian economy is clearly under duress as a result of these sanctions. The Iranian toman has dropped significantly against the dollar, and unemployment has risen since the resumption of sanctions. Medicine and other vital goods are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. At the same time, Iran has been busy taking steps to insulate itself from further effects of U.S. pressure. They have begun reinforcing political and trade relationships with neighbors and regional partners. Iran has also been reaching out diplomatically to major global economic players, including China and India, in an effort to buck newly imposed U.S. oil sanctions. According to Bourse & Bazaar, this effort may already have yielded dividends from the Chinese. A few days ago, a Chinese oil tanker loaded with Iranian oil departed from an Iranian port on the same day as the Iranian Foreign Minister was in Beijing for diplomatic talks.

Iran’s most aggressive and direct response to the United States has been in the nuclear realm, where it has taken initial steps toward suspending some of its commitments to the JCPOA. In a fact sheet released on May 8, the Iranian government cited the U.S. abandonment of the deal as the motivation for its actions, as well as Europe’s failure to provide Iran with any tangible economic benefits of the deal due to their inability to effectively counter U.S. economic sanctions. In its ultimatum, the Iranian government gave the Europeans sixty days to demonstrate their commitment to the deal before taking further action, specifying the need for progress on both oil exports and banking transactions. This includes the much-hyped but not-yet-fully-implemented special purpose vehicle designed to facilitate trade with Iran by circumventing the American financial system. If Europe fails, Iran has already announced that in the first phase of its response, it will suspend its voluntary compliance with restrictions on the maintenance of enriched uranium and heavy water stockpiles. In the second phase, Iran plans to remove limitations on uranium enrichment levels and resume its modernization program at the Arak heavy water reactor.

What could happen next? 

Prefacing my comments here with a cautionary note that nothing when it comes to Iran is ever guaranteed, I suspect that Iran will stay the course for the next few weeks as it attempts to solidify its oil trade relationships with its biggest purchasers. They will welcome the reduction in tensions that comes from Trump’s waffling on the threats made by Bolton since it will give them time to solidify trade relationships with key partners. Meanwhile, Iran will be extra sensitive to the consequences of its military pursuits in the region, including the operations of proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. They will continue to support these organizations but will be sure to distance themselves from anything that could be construed as an Iranian attack on U.S. forces and thus, a justification for American intervention.

The Iranians, like everyone else in the world, can read a calendar. They are undoubtedly aware of the upcoming Presidential election in 2020 and what that means for Trump. Similarly, they are also likely attuned to the American public’s present distaste for Middle Eastern wars of adventure. They know that the prospect of flag-draped coffins returning from Iran will not play well with Trump’s supporters, many of whom cheered his isolationist rhetoric during the 2016 campaign, and may be banking on Trump’s desire to secure reelection over Bolton’s desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of war with Iran.

I expect that if a conflict does break out, any American action will be limited in scope. To prevent casualties, Trump will likely avoid a boots-on-the-ground-style invasion, instead opting for airstrikes against specific Iranian targets, probably related to the military or nuclear program. In response, Iran might try to increase its attacks on American targets in Syria and Iraq through its proxy forces, which will allow them to exact a degree of retaliation while maintaining a claim to the moral high ground on the international stage. The risk, of course, is once violence enters the equation, the situation could quickly spiral out of control, eventually escalating to a full-blown regional, or even global, conflict.

At the moment, no one, save for Bolton and his acolytes, wants this, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. No matter how careful the Iranians are in the coming weeks and months, they may not be able to control for an impulsive President with an ultra-hawk national security advisor continually whispering the sweet nothings of war in his ear. If Trump finally decides that war is what he wants, war will find its way to Iran.