The ongoing escalatory environment is unlikely to be a prelude to a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and her allies. Among the many factors in this situation is the fact that neither Tehran nor Washington is interested in entering a state of open military conflict. In fact, President Donald J. Trump reportedly got upset with some of his top aides for engaging in warlike planning that he thinks is getting way ahead of his own strategy for dealing with Iran, which he believes is likely to come to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has also said that there won’t be war but he also insists there won’t be any negotiations, which the top cleric described as “poisonous.”
Last week the Islamic Republic announced that it will partially withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal. President Hassan Rouhani gave Europe, Russia and China 60 days to give Iran what it wants for it to stay in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). What Iran wants, above all, is for the Europeans to buy its crude oil and for the international community to overcome secondary U.S. sanctions and keep banking channels with Iran open. If Tehran’s demands are not met, Iran has vowed to restart some of its suspended nuclear activities. The Europeans have already rejected this Iranian ultimatum.
Shifting Iranian Assessments
It took Iran exactly one year to respond to Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal; in fact, one of the reasons for Iran’s action is that its earlier policy of waiting for Trump’s first four-year term to end was too risky. Trump has a real chance of winning re-election in 2020, and the Iranians woke up to that possibility. Iran had genuinely believed the rest of world would stand by the provisions of the nuclear agreement and lift principal sanctions in return for Tehran’s suspending parts of its nuclear program until 2030. The world did abide by the agreement, but only in words and not in action — at least not from Tehran’s perspective.
Iran is suffering unprecedented economic pain. It is losing around $105 million per day in oil export income due to U.S. sanctions, based on a comparison of its present oil exports and pre-sanctions oil sales. And no other country has really come to its aid. The Europeans have taken some extremely slow measures, such as touting the yet-to-be-operational INSTEX (The Instrument of Support for Trade Exchanges) designed to bypass U.S. sanctions. The Iranians believe that even if it is made operational, INSTEX will be limited to facilitating European exports of food and medicine to Iran — two areas that are supposedly exempt from U.S. sanctions.
The news is not that much better among Iran’s purported partners. The Russians are actually happy to see Iran isolated as the current crisis keeps energy prices up, which benefits Moscow. Russia is a major natural gas exporter; approximately 60 percent of natural gas used by the European Union is sourced from Russia. A weaker Iran will also give Russia more opportunities in Syria when the scramble for reconstruction projects heats up in the next few months. China, meanwhile, is using Iran as a bargaining chip in its trade talks with the United States; its commitment to Tehran is only of secondary importance to Beijing.
What Iran Hopes to Accomplish
What does Iran want to achieve by partially suspending the JCPOA? First, it wants the world — particularly Europe — to trade with it. Second, Iran wants to avoid war. It sees trade as not only an economic boon but also as an obstacle to military engagement. Tehran believes that maximizing the diplomatic power of the JCPOA minimizes the chances of U.S. unilateral military action against Iran. This is why Iran has remained — and will, for now, remain — in the nuclear deal and in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but is using a partial suspension to gain leverage against Washington and the West.
Regarding the three countries that Iran believes are interested in pushing America to go to war with it — Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — Tehran’s calculations are far more muscular. For example, during the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza, Tehran signaled clearly that it could give Islamic Jihad militants even more advanced missiles to hit Israel. In a rare step, Iranian media openly hailed Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s missile arsenal and openly celebrated the link between Tehran and the militant group. Previously, Iran only declared its political ties to Palestinian militants and did not advertise its military ties to them. This explicit “celebration” of Palestinian Islamic Jihad is clearly linked to Tehran’s desire to put pressure on Israel.
The Iranians do not see Trump as someone who cares that much about Iran. They believe the Israelis essentially decide Trump’s Middle East policy. Hence, missiles aimed at Israel can push the Israelis to ask Trump to back off Iran. At least that is how Tehran thinks it can shape U.S. actions by pressuring Israel.
The Challenge of De-escalation
The same hard approach is becoming more evident in Iran’s policies toward the Saudis and the UAE. An increasing number of Iranian officials have been openly mentioning the need for Iran to target Saudi and Emirati oil and other critical facilities in retaliation for their policies against Tehran. Such posturing is obviously meant to intimidate Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Iran is likely to keep up the pressure on a psychological level for now.
The May 12 attack on a number of tankers off the coast of Fujairah in the Emirates is an example of such a psychological campaign. Separately, the May 14 drone strike by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on an oil facility deep inside Saudi Arabia was also part of this Iranian strategy. The aim is to undermine confidence in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and telegraph to both that a war with Iran will not be limited to Iranian soil. If the U.S.-Iranian tensions continue, Iran’s psychological campaign likely will intensify.
It is evident that Tehran wants to avoid an outright war. But it has apparently opted to look for ways to flex both its political and military muscle to shape the calculations of its key adversaries. This is uncharted territory for Iran and its rivals. Therefore, even though all sides are signalling that war is unlikely, the risks of miscalculations in an escalatory environment remain high.
The Trump Administration must therefore approach the current crisis with the utmost caution. In the current highly charged and fluid regional environment where multiple actors are engaged in perception-shaping, misperceptions are easily created. Washington’s biggest challenge is how to get Tehran to the negotiating table without the policy of maximum pressure leading to an unintended outbreak of hostilities. Making matters even more complicated is that both sides suffer from internal disagreements on how to deal with the crisis.
Alex Vatanka is Senior Fellow, specializing in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran, at the Middle East Institute. Mr. Vatanka is also a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the US Air Force Special Operations School (USAFSOS) and teaches as an adjunct professor at Defense Institute of Security Cooperation Studies (DISCS).. He is the author of “Iran-Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy, and American Influence” (2015) and is presently working on his second book, “The Making of Iranian Foreign Policy: Contested Ideology, Personal Rivalries and the Domestic Struggle to Define Iran’s Place in the World.” The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.