Could the US-Iran Crisis Lead to War?
The US-Iran crisis has raised the specter of war in the Middle East. (Photo: Global Look Press)
By Anita Inder Singh

Could the US-Iran Crisis Lead to War?

Jul. 01, 2019  |     |  0 comments


US President Donald Trump’s decision to take the US out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — which was accepted by Iran — has created America’s ongoing confrontation with Iran. Since he took that decision in May 2018, the US-Iran crisis has raised the specter of war and instability in the Middle East. World oil prices have soared and caused alarm in Asian countries. The diplomatic impasse has become a major international issue, with the possibility of China and Russia being drawn into any conflict.


Both the US and Iran have upped the military ante. But there is no doubt that the tension between them stems in the first instance from the Trump administration’s attempts to use “maximum pressure” on Iran, which actually reflects Washington’s broader foreign policy strategy. Whether rattling the saber over Iran’s nuclear program, or threatening China with a trade and technology attack, Trump’s approach is to use the utmost pressure to secure American interests as perceived and defined by his government.


Fears of war between Iran and the US have mounted since June 13, 2019 following explosions on Norwegian and Japanese tankers in the Gulf of Oman near the Strait of Hormuz, which is the passage for one-fifth of global oil shipments. Iran also threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz. Washington in turn warned that each attack on America’s interests would be answered adequately. The US released pictures which it claimed show that Iran carried out the attack. The US repeated it did not want a conflict, but wanted to use “maximum pressure” on Iran.


To add fuel to the smoldering fire, Iran’s shooting down of an American drone on June 20 threatened to escalate the conflict in the Strait of Hormuz. Trump, meanwhile, backed off from a decision to bomb Iran. His volte-face added confusion and controversy to the ongoing crisis, especially as he threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran.


Trump’s maximum pressure implies crushing Iran through economic and military means. At the time of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the US would “crush” Iran with military pressure and by imposing sanctions until it changed its behavior in the Middle East. Washington wanted to restrict Iran’s influence in the region and ensure that it never acquires a nuclear weapon. The US threatened Iran with war and sent bombers and 1500 troops to the Middle East. Its withdrawal from the JCPOA was impolitic, to say the least. For Tehran had accepted the agreement and its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. But Iran will not tolerate sanctions and restrictions on its nuclear program.


Meanwhile, the US alienated its European and Asian friends by banning their Iranian oil imports. And it choked Iran’s economy with crippling sanctions.


Trump’s approach to dealing with Iran is analogous to his handling of China. NSS Strategy 2017  saw the US facing world competition from China, Russia and rogue states like Iran and North Korea. The National Defense Strategy of 2018 urged the US to foster a “competitive mindset” in order to “out-think, out-maneuver, out-partner, and out-innovate revisionist powers, rogue regimes, terrorists, and other threat actors.” NSS 2017 criticized the JCPOA as flawed and branded Iran as the world’s top exporter of state-sponsored terrorism with ambitions to destabilize the Middle East. It alleged that Iran had exploited regional instability to expand its influence through funding, partners, proxies, weapon proliferation and its missile program. Vying for regional dominance, Iran was thus creating an arc of influence and instability.


However, it should be remembered that Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the JCPOA also reflected a broader dislike of multilateral agreements and institutions. They included the 2016 Paris agreement on climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia, UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council.


Economic coercion is a major instrument of Trump’s policy towards Iran. Economic force explains why Trump imposed new unilateral sanctions against Iran to stem the alleged militarization of its nuclear program. The exemption from sanctions granted to eight countries importing Iranian oil in November 2018 ended recently.



As the images of burning tankers in the Strait of Hormuz stoke fears that the US is on a collision course with Iran, the only option for the international community is to develop a framework for diplomacy.



The European Union (EU) and China have opposed Trump’s turning of the economic screw on Iran. New American sanctions are a heavy burden on their own economies. But the EU and China are unable to throw down the gauntlet before the US. China is already finding it hard to cope with the adverse effects of Trump’s trade and technology war and American challenges to  its position in the South China Sea. So it is unwilling to risk an even greater fallout with the US.  


EU countries stand to lose from unilateral sanctions, but have failed to find a way to bypass them. In January 2019, the EU announced the setting up of a payment mechanism to secure trade with Iran. The new mechanism, labeled INSTEX — Instrument In Support Of Trade Exchanges — was to  allow trade between the EU and Iran without relying on direct financial transactions. But it came up against Washington’s threat that any attempt to evade its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran would meet with stiff penalties. Unable to avoid the US-dominated global financial system, European countries cannot risk crippling their own companies. The result? The EU failed to implement INSTEX.  


Anger at Washington’s war talk and the priority given by the EU to trade and investment ties with the US led Tehran, on May 8, to declare that Iran would lift the restrictions on the stockpiles of uranium and heavy water. Iran also affirmed that if sanctions relief is not forthcoming by July 8, it will no longer abide by key parts of the JCPOA. It would breach the internationally agreed limit of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium within days. Iran would reach the allowed 300kg level of enriched uranium at levels mandated by the agreement with world powers on June 27. If Iran carries out this threat, the achievements of the JCPOA would come unstuck. Tehran is thus increasing pressure on the remaining signatories to the JCPOA to save the 2015 nuclear deal.


Washington’s threats and the EU’s failures led Iran to turn to China and other Asian countries. Wanting to defy Washington’s “maximum pressure”, Tehran announced on June 10 it would join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which Iran has observer status. President Hassan Rouhani met Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the SCO summit on June 14. After that, he headed to Tajikistan for a meeting of the Fifth Summit of Heads of State of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). Both these meetings challenged US global ascendancy and advocated a multipolar world.


Rouhani’s meetings, which took place in less than a couple of days after the tanker attack, created the image of Iran as a country having many friends.


Meanwhile Washington’s declared intent to send an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East was condemned by Russia, which accused the US on being on a “conscious course to provoke war” with Iran. China “firmly opposes unilateral action and the so-called long-arm jurisdiction” and “a war in the Gulf region in the Middle East is the last thing it wants to see”. Beijing criticized Washington’s destabilizing, unilateral behavior as having no basis in international law. But it also urged Iran to “make prudent decisions” and not “so easily abandon” the 2015 deal. As the largest foreign investor in Iran and Asia’s strongest military power, China would probably try to negotiate with both sides. But it is unlikely that China would allow the US, whose global primacy it challenges, to defeat Iran in a war.


If Iran is responsible for the tanker attacks in the Gulf, it may be trying to show countries dependent on oil that passes through the Strait of Hormuz what disruption caused by war could look like. In short, Iran is using counter-escalation for deterrence. But escalation is a dangerous way to gain political leverage.


What is noticeable is the inability of the US to convince the world of the need to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran, which had committed itself to complying with the 2015 nuclear agreement. Trump’s hard-line strategy on Iran collides with his pre-election goal of extricating the US from costly wars in the Middle East. But Washington’s unilateral pressures continue. 


For its part, Tehran is determined to stand up to American bullying. As the images of burning tankers in the Strait of Hormuz stoke fears that the US is on a collision course with Iran, the only option for the international community is to develop a framework for diplomacy. Unfortunately, there is no sign of a truce emerging at the moment.



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