Iran raised the stakes in its game of chicken with the United States this week by announcing its intention for uranium enhancement beyond what is permitted under the nuclear deal concluded in 2015. At the same time, it suggested that it would change its mind about violating the agreement if the European signatories were willing to circumvent the sanctions imposed by Washington after it unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
American hypocrisy was on brazen display when it threatened dire punishment against Iran for failing to abide by the terms of the JCPOA after the US administration itself had pulled out from what Donald Trump considered “a very bad deal”. It did so only after Rex Tillerson was replaced by Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, and the national security establishment was weaponised with the return of the old warhorse John Bolton, who has long held the view that the only way of dealing with Tehran is to bomb Iran.
Washington has predictably blamed Tehran for last week’s attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman, as it did in the context of similar incidents last month. The “evidence” it has offered thus far has, however, failed to convince even some of its closest allies. This includes a fuzzy video of a purportedly Iranian boat removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the vessels, even though the ship’s Japanese owner says his crew witnessed missiles whizzing through the air.
The fact that the Japanese oil-carrier came under attack while Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was holding talks in Tehran with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran’s clerical establishment, led some observers to conclude that it was highly unlikely any wing of Iran’s military would attempt such a discourteous gesture. Besides, one can hardly overlook the fact that Bolton’s innate hostility towards Iran is shared by America’s leading allies in the Middle East, namely Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE.
What’s more, the justifiable scepticism of most Western allies is based not merely on the Trump administration’s habitual duplicity but also on a verifiable trajectory of the US tendency to mislead the world in making the case for military assaults that stretches well within living memory from the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ in 1964, which facilitated the Lyndon Johnson administration’s aggression against North Vietnam, to the plethora of false ‘evidence’ cited in pursuit of the 2003 Iraq war.
It must, however, be acknowledged that the JCPOA has never been popular with Iranian hardliners, and the domestic success of President Hassan Rouhani’s diplomatic engagement was always contingent on a steady flow of economic benefits. These never came up to Iranian expectations. The trend has lately been reversed, with US sanctions crippling Iran’s economy, not least because European and various other forums have been intimidated into ceasing to do business with Iran. The curbs on oil exports are particularly devastating — and it should come as no surprise that the Saudis have increased production in order to profit from Iran’s discomfiture.
It would then hardly be illogical for an economically ostracised Iran to demonstrate its ability to disrupt international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. But would it do so? The command structure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps presumably does not rely too much on authorisation from the elected government, and the force is believed to exercise control over regional militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria. The Houthis have lately been particularly audacious in seeking to extend the war in Yemen into Saudi territory.
Although most major parties in the brewing confrontation have said they do not want war (with the notable exception of Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu), the Middle East is poised at another dangerous juncture. The obvious alternative to war is peace, but that requires talks, and although both Trump and Pompeo have raised the prospect of unconditional negotiations, Iran will be disinclined to publicly take up the offer without at least some token concessions from the world’s biggest bully. Neither Rouhani nor Khamenei bears any resemblance to Kim Jong-un — the Iranian leaders won’t be penning any love letters to Trump.