Iran's tactical successes against the U.S.

Print edition : September 27, 2019

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Vahid Salemi/AP

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France. Photo: Bertrand GUAY / AFP

China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin at a Russian-Chinese energy forum during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Saint Petersburg on June 7. Photo: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami: “Negotiation under pressure is surrender, and the Iranian nation will never tolerate such disgrace.” Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP

Iran’s recent moves have shown that it stands firm against unilateral United States sanctions, even as it continues to exert pressure on the European Union to act against the Donald Trump administration.

On August 30, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, the senior cleric in Tehran, delivered a fiery sermon, in which he said Iran’s government was in no mood to negotiate with the “oath-breaking” government of the United States. “Negotiation under pressure,” Khatami said, “is surrender, and the Iranian nation will never tolerate such disgrace.” Khatami’s sermon mirrored the views of President Hassan Rouhani—who said there would be no talks until the U.S.’ unilateral sanctions were lifted—and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khatami and Khamenei are of the hard-line view that believes that negotiations are futile until the U.S. returns to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by the European Union (E.U.), the U.S. and Iran and ratified by the United Nations. President Rouhani does not disagree, but he holds out the possibility of talks if the U.S. lifts its unilateral sanctions.

The gap between Khatami and Khamenei, on one side, and Rouhani, on the other, should not be exaggerated. Both “camps”, as it were, are in agreement that the U.S. is an unreliable negotiator and that Iran must stand firm against unilateral U.S. pressure. It is this unity and a sharp use of tactics that has earned Iran breathing space from more U.S.-driven pressure, including the threat of a military strike.

The JCPOA was negotiated by the E.U, which was eager to end the hybrid war against Iran. Most of Europe would like to see Iran’s energy reserves drawn into European markets, which remain without reliable and reasonable suppliers. U.S.-driven sanctions against Russia and the NATO war against Libya hurt Europe’s two main exporters of energy. There is little hope that either Russia or Libya will be able to supply Europe quickly enough. Iran, on the other hand, has the facility to get Europe oil and natural gas rapidly. That was the main spur for Europe’s eagerness for a treaty in 2015.

At many points in the decade before the deal, it appeared as if the U.S., either with or without Israel and Saudi Arabia, was prepared to strike against Iran in a replay of the illegal U.S. war on Iraq. Indications of such a war had disturbed Europe’s governments, which do not think—in the light of the credit crisis and the complexities of the eurozone (with Brexit on the horizon)—that a war against Iran would be good for the world order. Europe’s chief negotiator, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, has on numerous occasions made it clear that war is not to be an option here.

When the U.S. walked out of the JCPOA in 2018, European diplomats were worried that war would loom on the horizon. Many felt, however, that Iran would not risk war and could be cowered into submission. On the one hand, one European diplomat told this writer, there was the JCPOA with its own regulations and the commitments that Iran had to meet for it to remain in effect. “Iran,” the diplomat said, “has no motivation for breaking the deal.” On the other hand, the U.S. would put more pressure on Iran and indeed force it to remain within the JCPOA and at the same time hurt it by the new sanctions. “Any Iranian belligerence,” the diplomat said, “would be squelched.”

Iran’s tactics in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, however, was quite different from the expectations of the Europeans. Iran quickly said that unless the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to the JCPOA, Iran would gradually depart from it. First Iran invoked Articles 26 and 36, both of which allow parties to notify the U.N. Security Council of non-performance by any party. This was the more legalistic side of the Iranian move. Then, on the basis of this, Iran began to enrich uranium above accepted levels (but still far from nuclear weapons grade). Iran said it would continue to violate the terms of the JCPOA as long as Europe failed to create a corrective mechanism against U.S. sanctions. Iran violated the terms twice, as two 60-day deadlines for European action passed.

On the other end, Iran acted with strength when it came to the overflight by a U.S. drone over Iranian territory (it was shot down) and the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker by the United Kingdom at Gibraltar (the Iranians retaliated by holding a U.K. tanker at the Strait of Hormuz). These moves showed that Iran was not willing to be a passive player as the U.S. set the terms of what Iran sees as an attempt to humiliate the country. It actively put pressure on Europe, in particular, to move against the belligerence of the Donald Trump administration.

After the G7 meeting in France in late August, the three European powers, or the E3—France, Germany and the U.K.—met to discuss the Iran file. After the meeting, Federica Mogherini, on behalf of the E.U, said the E3 would continue to work closely with China, Russia and Iran to ensure full compliance with the JCPOA. Europe does not want Iran to revoke the entire framework of the JCPOA, which Iran could do—based on Article 37—by ceasing to perform all its commitments to the agreement in retaliation for the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. Europe is keen to maintain the agreement, which is why it is now under pressure to break with U.S. policy against Iran. Given Iran’s tactical moves over these last two months, the Europeans are no longer in a position to be passive regarding the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.

The Europeans have also seen that Asian countries are not interested in either a full-scale war against Iran or the continued sanctions regime against Iran. This attitude in Asia is not restricted to China, which has continued to trade with Iran despite U.S. pressure, but also includes firm U.S. allies such as India, Japan and South Korea. None of these countries is willing to follow Trump into war or into a tighter sanctions regime. They would like to have access to Iranian energy. It is here that the Europeans worry since they see the Asians fixing up long-term energy deals that would cut Europe off from Iranian oil supplies. If not for the commitment of the Asians to continue to purchase Iranian oil, the Europeans might have been quite lax about what could have been a short-term U.S. agenda. If the Asians sign long-term deals with Iran, Europe will lose Iranian oil for a generation or more. That is why Federica Mogherini said that Europe’s INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) mechanism to trade with Iran will be ready shortly.

Even the U.S. seems to behave as if its garrote against Iran will soon slip. At the G7 meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron asked Trump about the U.S.’ unilateral sanctions against Iran. Trump suggested to Macron that the U.S. might be willing to be flexible about Iranian oil sales. Macron’s decision to invite Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his phone conversation with Rouhani in late August both sent signals that Europe would like to lean towards Iran and against the U.S. on this standoff. Macron said, “We must look for solutions to secure our mutual interests”, an indication that France is not willing to go either towards war or allow the U.S. to further tighten its unilateral sanctions. The Iranians have said that they respect the moves by the French but that they will only be motivated by concrete actions and not by words.

The U.S. government has said that it is prepared for talks, but the Iranians say that talks can only occur after the sanctions have been removed. This seriousness of purpose startled the U.S., which had expected the Iranians to be willing to renegotiate the JCPOA. Iran said that that agreement was the basis for future discussions.

Beneath this disagreement lies the most fundamental issue of them all—the U.S. believes that Iran is not entitled to a peaceful nuclear programme, a view that is against international law (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and that puts the U.S. in an isolated position. Until the U.S. agrees that Iran has the right to enrich uranium at levels necessary for the production of nuclear power, there will be no finality to this tension.

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