Iran and the US are engaged in a strategic race with opposing objectives, but a common deadline—the US presidential election in November 2020.
For Iran, it’s a race for survival of the regime, to ensure it can hold power and withstand US attempts to precipitate regime change through economic sanctions that target both the Iranian government and the public.
The hope of the Iranian regime, comprising both conservatives and moderates, is that US President Donald Trump will lose the 2020 election and that his Democrat replacement will rejoin the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and lift Trump’s sanctions.
For Trump and his anti-Iran inner circle, it’s a pre-election race to reverse, or at least to contain, the ‘malign threat’ that Iran poses to the region and especially to US, Israeli, and Saudi and other Gulf state interests. Earlier this week, the US announced it would deploy a carrier strike group to the Middle East in response to that threat.
During this term, Trump wants, indeed needs, to achieve at least one of three strategic security goals to prove his international credentials to both domestic and foreign audiences. Iran is one goal and North Korean denuclearisation and reconciliation in Afghanistan are the others.
With both North Korea and the Taliban there is at least dialogue, which can be touted as progress, however thin that reality is, for now. But Iran is a tougher challenge. Its response so far to Trump’s pressure has been its unwillingness to consider negotiations while the US is not a JCPOA signatory. As Trump will not re-join the JCPOA or consider lifting sanctions without prior negotiated outcomes, an indefinite stalemate exists. In these circumstances, Trump has no incentive other than to play hardball with Tehran. This week, for example, Trump ratcheted up pressure through new sanctions on Iran’s base metals industry.
Can Iran survive the 18 months until the US election? US sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy, and will hurt more once the full impact of Trump’s policy of zero imports of Iranian oil, which were effective from 2 May, begins to take effect among countries that had previously been granted import waivers: China, India, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Japan and South Korea. China and India have, between them, traditionally imported more than 40% of Iran’s oil production.
Specifically, can the Iranian government contain growing domestic unrest about economic hardship? Some countries may defy Trump and continue to import Iran’s oil. China and India are the most likely to do so. Iran can continue to circumvent other US sanctions through ‘grey zone’ trading, and the new Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, established by the UK, France and Germany, that enables legitimate foreign trade to bypass the US financial system. Will these help save the day for Tehran?
Multiple sources claim this is possible for three reasons. First, Iran has a record of determined self-sustainability in highly adverse circumstances. Second, whatever changes Iranians might seek, they want an Iranian solution in collaboration with others, but not dictated by others—particularly not by the US. And third, such trade could lessen the likelihood of severe repressive measures being imposed by the Iranian government to contain widespread unrest, especially if the regime is threatened. No-one, especially Iran, wants to suffer the domestic and regional consequences of the destabilisation of a nation of some 80 million people.
One outcome of Trump’s policies has been to drive Iranian conservatives and moderates to a near common position of opposition to the US. Most outsiders, especially the Europeans and, reportedly, many former senior US civilian and military officials, are conscious that this is counter to US interests. They see the more logical and less dangerous policy as working with the moderates, within the JCPOA framework, to facilitate a progressive change of regime thinking through the economic and related benefits that the nuclear deal offered. Although a full accord is highly unlikely, the outcome would better balance regional security interests.
In this context, during my visit to the Middle East in January, I posed the question of the regional threat of Iran’s ‘arc of influence’ to officials and other representatives of a mix of nations, and political factions within them. A significant number of them claimed Iran’s activities were no different to those of nations like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and Russia. Locals felt no threat of invasion by Iran and believed the division between Shia and Sunni Muslims could be reduced if the will was there. Some neutrals in Lebanon believed forces from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia prevented Islamic State from extending its caliphate into eastern Lebanon in 2015 and 2016.
Although Trump’s policies have driven Iran’s moderates and conservatives closer together, there are strong divisions between these factions on how Iran should proceed. According to several sources, the resignation of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in February, reflected this. Although President Hassan Rouhani declined his resignation, Zarif had made strong enemies among the conservatives, including in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by strongly resisting policies and practices he saw as unnecessarily provocative.
These included threats about resuming the production of higher grade uranium, though it would have been far short of weapons-grade material. Zarif also raised concerns about the test-firing of missiles from naval vessels near US warships, the build-up of Iranian forces in southern Syria, including support for Hezbollah and the possibility of a second front against Israel, and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz if Iranian oil shipments were impeded. A lot of these threats were sabre- rattling, which the US and Israel have necessarily responded to, but any miscalculation could have quickly resulted in serious hostilities.
Zarif made his point, reiterated in a conciliatory statement he released on 1 March, which also recognised the influence of conservatives including Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who is responsible for Iranian deployments and militia support in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
While both Iran and the US manoeuvre within the boundaries of the stalemate, there’s concern among stakeholders that if the regime in Tehran survives and Trump is re-elected, that will embolden him to step up his campaign against Iran.
The second electoral deadline is Iran’s presidential poll in August 2021. In 2005, moderate president Mohammad Khatami was replaced by hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in part as a backlash against Washington’s anti-Iranian policies.
That experience could be repeated in 2021 and that would not be likely to improve regional stability.