As Iran’s leadership contemplate the next steps in their developing confrontation with the United States, they must wonder whether they should have dismissed so quickly the negotiating path followed by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
The situations are similar: two countries with decades-long histories of American hostility, facing threats because of their nuclear programmes and suffering because of American economic sanctions. Yet somehow Kim has won a place in Donald Trump’s heart. On 30 June the president went out of his way to meet the North Korean dictator on his home territory, disregarding his country’s supposed distaste for communist tyrannies. The meeting only produced an agreement to resume US-North Korean working groups: North Korea is no closer to “denuclearisation”, and the Americans may need to scale back their demands to put a “freeze” on its nuclear capabilities. It was not only Kim with whom Trump exchanged warm words. In order to row back from his trade war with China, Trump told Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, that US companies can now work with the Chinese tech giant Huawei, despite warnings about the security dangers.
Thus far the Iranians have reacted with scorn to Trump’s claim that he is ready to talk. Doubt has been cast on Trump’s mental state as well as his trustworthiness. A nuclear deal was already in place, better than the US could expect from North Korea, and Trump walked away. But perhaps, they might think, Trump’s main objection to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was merely that his predecessor Barack Obama had claimed credit for it. Maybe, the Iranians might conclude, Trump’s only aspiration is for something that will rebound to his credit. On the basis of events in North Korea, he could be a bit of a soft touch, ready to abandon his “red lines” in return for the spectacle of a great diplomatic breakthrough.
As with North Korea, the Iranian objective is to get the Americans to ease economic sanctions. The current crisis began in early May as Washington tightened the screw by ending the waivers that had allowed some countries to continue to buy oil from Iran. Soon thereafter, attacks on oil tankers began. Most seriously, a US surveillance drone was shot down on 20 June over the Strait of Hormuz.
Although the Pentagon prepared for a retaliatory strike, Trump held back, adding to evidence that his belligerent rhetoric tends not to be matched by deeds. As he once threatened “fire and fury” on the Koreans he now threatens Iran with “obliteration”, but in practice his options are limited – invasion and occupation of Iran would be a huge and fraught undertaking. Trump has promised not to put “boots on the ground”; that leaves him with symbolic punitive strikes, against such targets as air defences and command points, which can be undertaken for a short-term show but have little long-term impact. For the moment, Iran does not need to attack American assets to keep the crisis simmering. It can continue to focus on the oil traffic that passes through the Strait of Hormuz – some 30 per cent of the world’s seaborne oil – pushing up the price of oil and insurance premiums. As the bulk of this oil goes to Asia, Tehran might also calculate that Trump will wonder what risks he should take for other people’s supplies.
While many of the US’s allies in the region applauded Trump’s move against Iran, they are exceedingly nervous about an actual war, as it could be them who bear the brunt of Iranian retaliation. The United Arab Emirates saw four tankers attacked close to its coast in May but remains coy about blaming Iran directly. The Houthis, whom the Saudis are fighting in Yemen, were assumed to be responsible for recent raids on targets in Saudi Arabia, including an oil pipeline and Abha airport. There are now suggestions that some of the raids might have been mounted from Iraq, which has strong Iranian links. There have been reports of attacks directed against US military personnel in Iraq; “non-critical” civilian US personnel have been told to leave.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has long taken an aggressive stance against Iran, but he is focused on the forward Iranian positions in Syria, and has no desire for a wider war, especially in the run-up to elections in September. As far as the US’s European allies are concerned this crisis is entirely of Trump’s making and is following a quite predictable path.
Trump abandoned an adequate if imperfect deal that inhibited Iran’s nuclear programme, with which the Islamic Republic was complying. In response, it has just moved above the agreed limits for stockpiling enriched uranium, but the position is not irrevocable, as might be the case if it appeared to be rushing to a serious nuclear option or made a formal move to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For now a diplomatic breakthrough seems unlikely. The Iranians see no reason to trust the US to honour a new agreement. Any concessions, for example a nuclear deal of much longer duration, would likely encourage the US to demand that Iran stop supporting its clients and diminish itself as a regional power. At any rate, if the Americans really want to talk, why have they restricted the travel of Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif?
Trump, of course, would have no interest in a photo opportunity with Zarif: only the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would offer the requisite drama, but Khamenei is frail and unwilling to leave Iran. Unlike Kim he has no need of extra status and a lot to lose by sitting down with the “Great Satan”. Moreover, he might ask, what has Kim gained? Despite all the talk, economic sanctions on North Korea remain in force.
First published in The New Statesman. Cartoon by Kevin Siers.
Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at Kings College, London