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The Iran–US Crisis: Pathways to Possible Solutions

06 Jul 2019
By Ian Dudgeon
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo with President Donald J. Trump  in 2019 Source: Wikimedia Commons,

Despite Iran’s frustrating tactics and stubbornness, the nation’s leaders may well know they must renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, they are seeking a pathway that avoids simple capitulation to Trump.

US President Donald Trump’s threat last week to respond militarily if Iran attacks “anything American” is a clear warning to Iran’s leadership, and all stakeholders, that the United States has now added lethal military action to its existing warfare program. Other elements of that program include economic warfare, the reality of Trump’s severe economic sanctions, and cyber warfare: including the means to neutralise the Iranian military’s command and control systems.

And to ratchet up the tensions further, Trump’s latest round of new sanctions has specifically targeted Iranian leaders, which will certainly strengthen their resolve to resist US pressure. But if Washington’s hawks deliberately introduced the personal overlay to provoke the Iranians to attack US assets or interests, to give Trump an excuse to authorise retaliatory military action, it hasn’t worked.

The Iranians are aware that any initial US strike is likely to be substantial, and not necessarily proportional, with likely targets including Iran’s missile bases and factories, naval and air assets that could threaten regional shipping, and nuclear facilities.

Whatever the mix of US options and tactics, Trump’s end-game is widely seen as clear cut. That is to force Iran to capitulate and negotiate changes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including both its nuclear and ballistic missile development provisions, and the add-on of its non-JCPOA-related “destabilising” regional activities. Otherwise, Trump will seek to break the existing regime and force compliance on its replacement.

The current US willingness to negotiate without preconditions is effectively a hollow offer. Sources say they think that if Iran did agree to talks, the United States would immediately insist their demands be met as the price of progress. But the depth of US commitment to its demands also suggests that, in the current climate, it has lost the flexibility to consider variable solutions.

To date, Iran’s pathway has been to push back forcibly on any renegotiations, and to leverage off potential consequences if the Europeans and others dependent on oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz and adjacent waters fail to influence Trump to retract sanctions, or provide a way to resume trade that bypasses those sanctions.

Two of those threatened consequences affect Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA. The first was President Hassan Rouhani’s decision last month that, due to the US withdrawal and new sanctions, Iran would exercise its rights under sections 26 and 36 of the deal and vary its related obligations by producing a higher grade and increased stockpiles of enriched uranium. The second was Iran’s threat to consider withdrawing fully from the JCPOA given, in its view, the absence of any foreseeable prospects of delivery of the agreement’s economic benefits.

The former threat, since implemented, is largely symbolic, for now. The latter would have very significant consequences. Iran would no longer be bound by any JCPOA obligations and would lose the international credibility it has built up since 2015 through its strict, International Atomic Energy Agency–verified compliance with those obligations. Withdrawal would most likely see all pre-JCPOA UN sanctions re-imposed.

Two other consequences are conflict-related. Iran is widely, but contestably, considered responsible for the 13 June attacks on Japanese and Norwegian ships near the Strait of Hormuz. There is no known evidence these were false flag operations. Assuming Iranian responsibility, its aim appears to have been two-fold: to highlight the vulnerability for all shipping through the strait if war breaks out and to apply additional leverage on Trump from two influential nations: Japan, which is dependent on Gulf oil, and Norway, because of its unique leverage as a broker in Washington. There are no signs this leverage has worked, but the message about vulnerability did. However, sources claim that international concerns about Iran’s engagement in dangerous military adventurism overshadowed its objective.

Iran’s downing of a US spy drone, which it claimed violated its airspace, certainly impacted on the United States, but many saw it as confirming the technical sophistication of Iranian missiles.

Despite Iran’s frustrating tactics and stubbornness, my assessment is it’s aware it will have to renegotiate the JCPOA, but it’s seeking a pathway that isn’t seen to be simple capitulation on Trump’s terms. In seeking pathways to possible solutions, the following considerations are offered, any or all of which may already be on the table.

Iran must re-establish credibility both internationally, and with the other negotiating parties to the JCPOA. This demands Tehran re-commit to the agreement and its obligations not to develop a nuclear-weapons capability, and its acceptance of continuing IAEA verification.

The reality also is Iran must re-negotiate the JCPOA with existing signatories, and soon. An early agreed outcome would have significant international credibility. The United States could then be invited to re-join the revised JCPOA on condition it withdraws its sanctions.

Iran’s re-commitment not to develop a nuclear-weapons capability should also defuse concerns that its missiles are nuclear capable. Iran could commit also to not developing intercontinental ballistic missiles on the basis that it has no defensive need for them.

Iran’s regional activities, including “malign” behaviour, should not form part of a revised JCPOA. They are quite separate issues. But to rebuild credibility, Iran should consider delivering a narrative to explain its regional activities, including its parallel commitment to fight terrorism, and its different approach to other stakeholders in pursuing the common objective of stability. Part of that narrative must include a commitment to protect commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and adjacent waters.

Iran could also use the narrative to positively progress major blockages in regional security, for example the radical initiative to recognise Israel as a legitimate state by its pre-1967 borders and support for a two-state solution, with Palestine comprising Gaza, the West Bank and West Jerusalem. That recognition should include any adjustments to those borders where mutually agreed by Israeli and Palestine, and mandated by the UN.

This is a time for tough decisions, but all the above are possible if Tehran’s leaders have the will to re-fashion Iran’s image as a credible and constructive regional state.

Ian Dudgeon is a presidential associate of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This article was originally published on The Strategist website on 4 July 2019. It is republished with permission.