Trump’s Maximum Pressure Strategy and the Failure of Escalation
In 2018, the Trump administration shattered the fragile détente between the US and Iran, setting the stage for future escalation. Donald Trump, steered by his hawkish national security advisor John Bolton, withdrew from Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially known as the Iran deal, and instead opted for a program of aggressive sanctions. The aim was to put Iran under economic pressure, which would, in turn, spur a wave of domestic unrest, either completely upending Iran’s theocratic regime, or at minimum ensuring that the US occupied a more favourable position in future negotiations. However, despite the hopeful projections of the Trump foreign policy establishment, the Iranian leadership, though rattled by protests, retained its grip on power.
Donald Trump’s unilateral escalation severed the already strained bonds between the US and its allies; global consensus on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program was fragmented, and Teheran quickly seized the opportunity, returning onto the course towards acquiring atomic weapons. The maximum pressure approach failed, setting the stage for a new era of strategic insecurity regarding the Iranian question.
Shortly after his election, President Biden reversed his predecessor’s hawkish direction, striving instead to salvage the diplomatic legacy of the JCPOA. However, all efforts in this regard are hamstrung by the fallout of Trump-era escalation. Washington’s strategy in the past three years articulated many of the threats that were only implicit during the 2015 negotiations. Trump’s approach dispelled the strategic ambiguity surrounding America’s position towards Iran, demonstrating the extent of escalation the US is willing and able to go to. The Teheran regime can now be reasonably secure in believing that foreign pressure has passed its peak, with attitudes in the White House only bound to soften. The Teheran government is now dominated by staunch conservatives, and although the regime’s present stability is likely propped up by inflated oil prices, the failure of popular protests in past years indicates that its grip on power is secure enough to withstand even a more severe economic slump. Given the failure of Trump’s sanctions, there is little threat the White House can now credibly summon against Teheran.
US Withdrawal from the Middle East as a Bargaining Chip in Iranian Hands
Washington’s negotiating position is further undermined by the fact that Biden has already clearly signalled, both in rhetoric and in action, his commitment to shifting the focus of US foreign policy away from the Middle East and towards the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Biden’s White House displayed little initiative in its attempt at reviving the JCPOA, suggesting that rapprochement with Iran is low on the current administration’s list of priorities. The drawdown in US presence around the Persian Gulf is presented as a foregone conclusion, independent of a potential future settlement with Iran; under these conditions, Washington will find it hard to negotiate from a position of power.
In spite of this, the current White House administration has adopted a remarkably ambitious diplomatic stance, seeking to go beyond the framework advanced by President Obama, which was narrowly centred on the nuclear question. Instead, Washington’s commitment to a negotiated settlement is now conditioned by the reversal of Iranian policy with regards to Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The US strives to pressure the Teheran regime into cutting funding and combat support for Shiite militias that have long served as the backbone of Iranian presence across the Middle East. In this, questions of nuclear disarmament are linked to broader security issues in a manner that renders any diplomatic progress unlikely at best.
The Collapse of Internationalism and the JCPOA as a Tool of Diplomatic Obfuscation
The Iran nuclear deal was founded on a tenuous multilateral consensus, under which most major global powers negotiated with Iran under a unitary framework. However, Trump’s break with his allies undermined America’s role as the guarantor of a unified diplomatic front, a position that it will struggle to recapture. In addition, the mounting tensions between China and the US render global policy consensus virtually unimaginable. Indeed, China has already resumed trade links with Iran, buying up its petroleum supplies and thus easing the strain of US sanctions. With Beijing’s patronage, Iran has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian alliance bloc headed by Russia and China.
Iran is no longer a nation in diplomatic isolation, but a member of a solidifying trans-continental anti-US coalition. Despite the change in leadership within the White House, Teheran’s commitment to reviving the JCPOA framework is also clearly waning. Iran’s newly elected President, Ebrahim Raisi, has refused to participate in the talks in Vienna on the restoration of the nuclear deal. Furthermore, he has appointed Ali Bagheri Kani, a prominent opponent of nuclear reconciliation, as the new deputy of political affairs. Teheran is clearly not eager – and possibly not even willing – to return to the JCPOA. Raisi’s strategy is to remain in a diplomatic grey-zone, developing nuclear capabilities and delaying escalation by keeping up hopes of a negotiated settlement.
Tehran’s Atomic Threshold Status Within Grasp
Iran’s willingness to subject its nuclear program to international control is mostly constrained to half-hearted symbolic gestures. The Teheran regime acquiesced to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but its commitment to upholding the terms of the agreement has been dubious at best, spawning concerns of blind-siding. For instance, Iran failed to replace the surveillance equipment at one of its key nuclear facilities, damaged in a recent sabotage attack. In this, Iranian leaders directly violated the terms of their deal with the IAEA and raised questions about the origins of the sabotage. Since the collapse of the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear program has made huge strides; according to international experts, Iran has likely already succeeded in producing uranium at 60 percent purity. The enrichment process is not linear, and thus, Iran can make the leap to the critical boundary of 90 percent purity in a few short months – this level of enrichment is sufficient to produce fuel for atomic weapons. Iranian facilities are facing major supply constraints in producing weapons-grade uranium; Teheran will not likely possess the amount necessary for a single warhead for a few more months or even years. Simultaneously, the progress from weapons-grade purity to nuclear arms is not simply a matter of fuel; Iranian scientists must still overcome major technological hurdles. Therefore, Iran is not yet on the cusp of becoming a nuclear power.
However, the Middle Eastern nation is rapidly nearing the status of threshold state, developing the resources and capabilities necessary to field atomic weapons within a relatively short timeframe should the need arise. With Iran’s technological progress now racing forward at breakneck speed, the framework of the JCPOA is effectively rendered obsolete. The Obama-era deal restricted the level of uranium enrichment to 3.7% – enough to operate power plants, but insufficient for military use. However, as Iran’s technological know-how and manufacturing capabilities grow, simply capping off the allowed levels of enrichment is not enough to stall its nuclear program. US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken acknowledged as much, stating that as Iran builds up its productive potential in the nuclear sector, a strict return to compliance under renewed JCPOA terms does not reproduce the benefits that agreements achieved.
Simultaneously, Iran’s leadership is likely aware of its tenuous regional position and will be – at least for a time – satisfied with the status of threshold state, instead of risking a regional, or even global military escalation over the nuclear question. However, even the fact that Iran’s threshold state status is perceived as a permissible alternative speaks to how far the diplomatic goalposts have shifted since the days of the Obama and Trump administrations. The US commitment to upholding Middle Eastern stability is waning. President Biden is following the course set by his predecessors, progressively scaling back military presence in the region; he has already authorized a complete retreat from Afghanistan and pledged to terminate combat support for the Iraqi Security Forces by the end of 2021.
This demonstrates that the current White House leadership is not only willing to gradually reduce commitments but take the last radical steps towards a full redefinition of America’s relationships with individual Middle Eastern nations, transitioning towards indirect influence, or even full withdrawal. Indeed, Washington’s shifting strategic focus afflicts even its closest allies; for instance, the US is reducing the amount of combat jets stationed in Saudi Arabia, and silently pulling out the Patriot batteries guarding Saudi air space, thus – without much press – abandoning its key ally in its long-running conflict with Yemen. In light of this, a unilateral US military intervention out of the question, and a growing shadow of doubt is cast upon Washington’s support for its regional allies in the event of escalating tensions.
The Threat of Force and the Realignment of Regional Alliances – Israel, USA, and the Arab States at a Diplomatic Junction
Saudi Arabia has seemingly already adapted to Washington’s changing attitude, pursuing an ever more independent policy with regards to Iran. The Saudis have entered bilateral negotiations with Teheran, meeting Iranian representatives on several occasions in the past months, breaching a long period of isolation lasting since the 2016 Iranian attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions. No major breakthrough has been achieved; indeed, the negotiations produced little except for vague pledges to normalize relations and strive for regional stability. Mutual tensions are still high; indeed, Iran still maintains its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen in a direct challenge to Saudi hegemony over the Arabian Peninsula. Given the tenuous nature of their relations, both Teheran and Riyadh hesitate to commit themselves to any concrete plan of action. Despite their inconclusiveness, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations throw into sharp relief the failure of Washington’s current diplomatic approach.
US representatives have commended the newly forged ties between Riyadh and Teheran as a vital step in defusing Middle Eastern tensions. In reality, Saudi Arabia’s commitment to talks with its arch-rival suggests that the peninsular kingdom has already written off Washington’s attempts at constraining Teheran’s regional ambitions. Instead of negotiating under the revived, US-guaranteed JCPOA framework, the Saudis chose to approach Iran through direct diplomatic channel. Saudi Arabia has been joined by the Gulf States in its tentative rapprochement efforts, with the UAE increasingly willing to resolve its long-running territorial disputes with Iran. The unity between America’s regional allies that has once underwritten the JCPOA is thus significantly eroded. Iran’s diplomatic flexibility is no longer constrained by its nuclear program. In this regard, Saudi openness to negotiations against the backdrop of mounting atomic escalation is in itself perhaps the most potent symbol of shifting diplomatic alignments in the Middle East. It goes to show that Riyadh has already effectively conceded to decoupling the nuclear question from broader issues of regional security.
With the US rapidly reducing its commitments in the region and the nations of the Arab peninsula pursuing a normalization of relationships, Israel remains the only power in the Middle East that is willing and able to use force in order to stall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel’s current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has repeatedly denounced Iran for crossing diplomatic boundaries as the first Middle Eastern nation that has stepped onto the path towards openly wielding nuclear weapons. Under Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran’s technological progress raised the possibility of war in Tel Aviv.
Some have even suggested that Israel should drop its diplomatic veil and openly declare itself a nuclear power, ending the policy that has long maintained Israel’s possession of nuclear armaments as an open secret. For all the sabre-rattling on part of the Israeli administration, the Jewish state is unlikely to opt for open conflict. Iran is rounded by nations that are either nominally neutral, or openly hostile to Israel, practically ruling out the possibility of war by conventional means. Indeed, insiders have revealed that Israel has no plans in place to directly attack the Islamic Republic.
Instead, Israel’s strategy will be one of limited strikes sabotages, and assassinations – similar to the recent killing of a leading Iranian scientist by a remote-operated machine-gun. For the time being, these operations are set to occur with Washington’s tacit approval, but without its open backing. It is possible – given an ultimate breakdown in negotiations and a further advancement of Iran’s nuclear program – that the US will once again coordinate joint operations with Israel, similar to the 2010 cyberattack on the Natanz facility.
Iran’s Nuclear Future
Foreign sabotage will likely set back the clock on Iran’s nuclear program for a few months or even years; however, it seems that a borderline nuclear Iran emerging from the ruins of the shredded JCPOA is now all but inevitable.
The US push to revive the nuclear deal is likely doomed to fail – it leans on a notion of a multilateral global consensus that is but a spectre of the past, and its core tenet – the inseparability of nuclear talks from the redirection of Iran’s foreign policy – has been rendered void by the actions of America’s closest regional allies, who are already pursuing an autonomous negotiating strategy. In diplomatic circles, the spirit of the JCPOA might still be alive, but in the geopolitical reality of the Middle East, its revival is growing ever more unlikely.
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Written by Matyáš Knol