The US-Iran Tension is Mounting
On the 2nd of May, the US discontinued exemptions it had granted to major oil customers of Iran, including Turkey. Subsequently, on the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the Iranian President proclaimed that he ceased two procedures that Iran was in voluntary compliance with under the JCPOA. Furthermore, in the same statement, Iran declared that it would resume uranium enrichment activities within two months if its economic demands were not met, which would mean an absolute renunciation of the agreement. These statements aggrandized the tension between Iran and the US. However, the developments went beyond this scope. The arms shipment and mobility of Iranian affiliated militia forces in the field generated enough angst within the US Secretary of State to interrupt his trip to Europe; hence, Mike Pompeo proceeded to Iraq and apprised Iraqi officials. Moreover, the sabotage attacks on oil tankers in the Fujairah Port of the UAE were orchestrated in such a manner that reverberated the threats that the Iranian officials repeatedly emphasized, which were “if they could not sell, nobody could.” While the Emiratis initially denied the early morning reports of the attacks by the press close to Iran, the news was confirmed towards evening. Furthermore, the conservative Iranian press such as Kayhan newspaper ostensibly used a language that embraced the attacks. While in the midst of the controversy over this incident, there were reported attacks on oil facilities and pipelines on the Red Sea coast in western Saudi Arabia allegedly conducted by armed drones from the pro-Iran Ansarullah Movement.
The magnitude of tension that occurred in one week, which is even long for summarizing, has been gradually accumulating since last year. Unsurprisingly, the rift between the countries went beyond diplomatic and economic dimensions as the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018 and put the Iran file in the hands of his National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Trump’s statement about Bolton that “he is nice but needs to be tempered” indicates that Trump is aware of the intentions of his team, which he formed, regarding Iran. Moreover, the press has already asserted that Trump included Bolton among his team and brought him into the White House on the condition that “he would not wage war with Iran.” Since Bolton’s role in the crisis was well known on the Iranian side, Hesamoddin Ashena, a senior advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, shared a message in English on social media for Trump, stating “You wanted a better deal with Iran. Looks like you are going to get a war instead. That’s what happens when you listen to the mustache. Good luck in 2020!”
Controversies inside Iran
The rapidly growing tension with the US and its regional partners is prompting sundry reactions. For instance, despite that Khamenei was incessantly declaring that “there would be no war,” a periodical that used the headline “war-peace crossroads” was shut down. The Rouhani government seemed optimistic about Trump’s announcement that “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons; it is not too much to ask,” which publicly vilified Bolton. In fact, despite Khamenei’s statement “No honorable and conscious Iranian official wants to negotiate with the United States under these circumstances,” President Rouhani’s remark that he received 19 meeting suggestions during Obama’s term, although he was not authorized to respond to them, is regarded as concomitant with the current situation. Actually, Rouhani and his team desire to maintain the strategic patience policy that Iran has been pursuing since the last year and utilize the small windows of opportunity without escalating tension. However, he also emphasized that his hands are tied in such fundamental issues. Therefore, those regarded as the masterminds of the reformist circles, such as Saeed Hajjarian, suggest that he resign. Indeed, contingent upon if direct confrontation becomes inevitable for Iran, many high-level bureaucrats, particularly the President, may resign in order to evade the liability of potential sizeable destruction. For instance, upon the unaccepted resignation of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, it is clear that the climate is desirable for this situation.
As with many issues, Iranian ruling elites have been divided regarding the response to the US in the new period of severed sanctions. The hawks led by Khamenei presume that the US will not concede unless it receives an effective response “from the language it speaks,” moreover, they claim that every passing day is disadvantageous for Iran. Therefore, according to this point of view, the US officials’ statements that they are not seeking war with Iran is only a tactic to buy time. Furthermore, after a maximum of two years under current sanctions, Iran's power to contend will be substantially diminished, and a deep economic crisis will largely eliminate public legitimacy. For this reason, Khamenei and his team endeavor to encircle US troops on the ground and by arranging limited attacks force the United States to decide between a comprehensive war or an agreement. Again, according to this group, the Trump administration, which will favorably enter into the 2020 US elections and repetitively talks about drawing troops out of the region, will agree to compromise on Iran in order to circumvent a new and comprehensive war. From this point of view, the response from the field of Iraq to the military operation threats that Iran was exposed to from 2005-2007 forced the US to back down. In fact, this point constitutes one of the fundamental dissensions between Khamenei and Rouhani. Moreover, when Rouhani announced that the nuclear deal, initiated by the Ahmadinejad government and finalized by his government, extricated Iran from the danger of war, he was faced with a callous reaction from Khamenei and was accused of being mendacious. According to this group, the number of the US losses in Iraq that amounts to thousands and Israel’s failure to render Hezbollah impuissant in 2006 caused Iran's occupation to be unreservedly out of the neocons' agenda.
According to those who advocate strategic patience and the need to abandon the war option by making considerable concessions if necessary, the hawkish wing’s plan contains enormous risks. Moreover, according to Rouhani and prominent moderates, even if Trump’s claim of not desiring war is veracious, the anti-Iranian ideological team surrounding him, including his son-in-law, can manifest a relentless response to Iran's policies of “controlled escalation of tension” and this situation can intensify and evolve into a full-size war. As a matter of fact, the description of the attacks, which were claimed by Ansarullah and celebrated by the Iranian conservative press as skeptical or insidious by Foreign Minister Zarif and other senior diplomats and even their blaming Israel for this incident stems from this thought. Another point needing emphasis is that the proposals for directly coming to the table with the US are not only brought forward by the moderate-reformist circles as previously but also from the members of parliament who are spokespeople of the security elite such as Heshmatollah Falahat Pishe. It has been remarkable in terms of the political balances in the country that a conservative member of parliament attested that the taboo of not meeting with the US caused Iranian interests to be forfeited in the hands of weak states such as the European states. Accordingly, it’s a futile effort to negotiate with the European states or allow time for economic returns, and Iran must meet with the US conditionally. As seen earlier during the 2009 elections, state elites’ responses in the face of deep crisis are generally outside of factional relations and bear more consentaneous characteristics.
Despite that the news regarding Bolton’s agenda to deploy as many as 120 thousand troops to the region was repudiated, statements by both Trump and Pompeo that they would not hesitate to send significantly more troops than that to the region if necessary, again Trump’s pose wearing a military outfit, and the US’ partial evacuation of diplomatic missions in Iraq by ordering the departure of non-emergency personnel are the indicators pointing to a credible prospect of military conflict despite Iranian leader Khamenei’s statement that “There will not be war because neither we nor they want war.” In the wake of the attacks targeting Saudi Arabian and Emirati assets and to sustain increasing oil prices, the US must issue a clear message of determination. As stated by an Arab observer, the attacks organized by Iran either directly or through its proxy forces were finely thought as if devised by an international jurist and realized in a way leaving no trace of evidence. However, the group that Zarif calls “Team B” does not need legal evidence to act against Iran. As a matter of fact, messages of “tooth for a tooth” given by those close to the Saudi administration after the tank attacks show that igniting the hot conflict is highly conceivable in a way by those who envisage benefiting from the US-Iran conflict. Therefore, the active presence of those who prefer the option of armed conflict on both sides seems to present a new and grievous challenge for the entire region.
This article was first published at Anadolu Agency (AA) on May 16, 2019