By Shireen Hunter, Lobe Log: After the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the reimposition of even harsher sanctions on Tehran, coupled with Europe’s inability or unwillingness to provide Iran with relief from the rigors of U.S. sanctions, Tehran adopted a strategy based on demonstrating the dangers of the U.S. policy of maximum pressure on Iran.
In response to sanctions on Iranian oil sales, Iran has shown that it can make the Persian Gulf, and specifically the Strait of Hormuz, unsafe for all users, which in effect demonstrates how it can inflict heavy damage on the global economy. This aspect of Iran’s strategy lines up with statements by Iranian officials that if Iran cannot export its oil, no other country can either. The capture of a British-owned tanker, plus attacks on UAE-owned ships and on Saudi oil installations, which were blamed on Tehran, also served this purpose.
Another tactic of Iran’s counter-maximum pressure strategy has been the gradual reduction of Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA, which recently included the injection of gas into centrifuges in Fordow, a move that is prohibited under the JCPOA. However, all the nuclear-related actions have been performed under IAEA supervision. Moreover, Iran has insisted that these actions do not signal its desire to exit the JCPOA. Rather they are aimed at convincing the Europeans to do more to ease Iran’s economic burdens and to pressure the United States to lift the economic sanctions on Iran and thus save the nuclear agreement.
Iranian authorities have also repeatedly stated that all these actions are reversible and that the door to diplomacy is still open. All that is needed, Iran’s leaders say, is the U.S. willingness to lift, or at least ease, the most crippling aspects of the sanctions regime. Some Iranian commentators have even hinted that, without sanctions relief, Iran might leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Failure of Iran’s Strategy and Future Risks
So far, however, Iran’s strategy of scaring the United States and Europe into ending economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for its return to the full implementation of its commitments under the JCPOA has failed. The reasons for this failure are fairly obvious. None of Iran’s actions so far pose a serious threat to the United States or Europe. By contrast, it could entail heavy losses for Iran. For instance, although Iran can in theory block the Strait of Hormuz for a short period of time, such action would expose it to military retaliation by the U.S. and possibly even Europe. Such an action would also alienate Iran’s few remaining international interlocutors, including China and Russia.
Nor are Iran’s backpedaling on its nuclear commitments worrying enough to produce a change of heart on the part of the United States and Europe. Despite all the hype in the last two decades about Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear device in a relatively short time, Tehran is no position to do so. If such fears had been real, some kind of pre-emptive military strike on its nuclear facilities would have taken place long before. Should Iran continue to reduce its commitments, it would only embolden hawkish politicians in America and Europe, as well as Middle East actors, to push for such a preemptive strike. Such actions would, of course, entail costs for Western and Middle Eastern actors as well, including the risk of triggering a region-wide war in the Middle East. However, Iran would be the biggest loser in such a war.
Even if this worst case scenario did not materialize, Iran could face even more pressure. For instance, its nuclear dossier could be once again sent to the United Nations’ Security Council to be placed under the UN Charter’s chapter seven dealing with threats to international security. This act could pave the way for a UN-sanctioned military action against Tehran.
The fact is that in this contest of wills. Iran is in a much weaker position than its antagonists. The present situation does not present any of the major international actors with serious security and economic threats. The United States, Europe, and other players can essentially wait Iran out. Whatever retaliatory capacity Iran might have is ultimately more damaging to itself. Iran can block the Strait of Hormuz. But this is certain to invite military retaliation by the United States. Meanwhile, Iran’s economic and financial problems, notwithstanding claims that its economy is on the way to recovery, has nearly stopped its developmental programs and is fueling popular discontent.
What an Alternative Strategy Should look Like?
If the current strategy pursued by Tehran is unlikely to succeed and is full of risks, what should Iran do next? Given the position of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, on the question of talks with the United States, the divided nature of the Iranian polity. and the Trump administration’s unwillingness to change its position on its preconditions for possible reduction of American sanctions, to suggest that the two sides should talk is useless. This situation leaves Iran with few viable options. Nevertheless, there are policies Tehran can pursue that could reduce the risks of further economic and political pressures.
First, Tehran should realize the futility of its current strategy of reducing its nuclear commitments or threatening to leave the NPT. Instead, it should take the high ground and show that, unlike the U.S., it respects its commitments.
Second, Iran could gain some goodwill with the U.S. and Europe by freeing their nationals, including those who also have Iranian citizenship. The damage done to Iran by such arrests far outstrips any imaginable benefits. Keeping these prisoners as bargaining chips is also ineffective.
Third, the Iranian leadership should allow more cultural liberalization and show more tolerance towards political dissent. The cultural policies of the Iranian leadership has had serious economic costs. It has encouraged capital flights to places such as Dubai, Turkey, Europe, the Americas, and even places such as Armenia and Georgia. According to reports in the Iranian media, the number of Iranians buying houses in Turkey have sharply increased this year. Meanwhile, perpetual political tensions and risks of military conflict has acted as a barrier to investment by Iranian themselves in their own country.
Eventually, Iran would have to develop a more realistic and positive foreign policy agenda than one based on the slogan of anti-imperialist struggle. An alternative agenda would focus on advancing Iran’s national interests rather than chasing unrealistic goals. In the meanwhile, its leadership can at least refrain from doing things that are certain to cause it more damage.
First published in Lobe Log. Cartoon by Shadi Ghanim.
Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor.