In April 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—known more commonly as the Iran nuclear deal—was still to be formalized, but Republicans preparing to run for president in the following year were already denouncing it. At a public forum in New York City, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius asked Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, whether he worried that one of these Republicans, if elected, might overturn the deal.
Zarif answered confidently that any successor to Barack Obama would be constrained by international law, by America’s commitments, formal and informal, to allies and partners, and by all the norms that governed relations among nations today. “I believe,” he said, “the United States will risk isolating itself in the world if there is an agreement and it decides to break it.” The result of any such action, he predicted, would be “chaos.”
Zarif’s comments prefigured the strategy that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is following today in his brinksmanship with President Trump. Playing on the fear, especially prevalent among European elites and American Democrats, that Trump is, precisely, an agent of chaos, Khamenei has taken a leaf from the book of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who in 2017 appeared at the World Economic Forum as the representative of enlightened globalism. “We should adhere to multilateralism to uphold the authority and efficacy of multilateral institutions,” Xi declared. “We should honor promises and abide by rules.”
The chords struck by Xi were still resonating in the halls of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last December, where the assembled leaders adopted a joint communiqué affirming their commitment to “a rules-based international order.” In the Trump era, this old phrase has taken on a new meaning. In the minds of the defenders of globalism, it is shorthand for the norms and values threatened by Trump’s abrasive personal style, aggressive diplomacy, and disruptive trade wars. By pressuring the American president to join them in affirming the “rules-based order,” the G20 leaders were treating him to a passive-aggressive reprimand.
The next meeting of G20 takes place in Japan this coming Friday and Saturday, June 29-30, and fears of “chaos” have hardly abated—especially among Europeans, who will constitute fully a quarter of all attendees. The recent European elections saw a significant rise in the power of nationalists who seek to weaken the European Union (EU), leaving its leading representatives, all of whom will be present in Osaka, feeling caught between the hammer of Trump’s America First policies and the anvil of European populism.
Khamenei intends to leverage the fears that haunt these Europeans by raising the specter of war and simultaneously offering a cooperative, multilateral way to exorcise it, namely, by returning America to the JCPOA. His goal is to place Trump’s renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal on the unofficial agenda of the summit, in the hope that it will win a place on the short list of Trump’s major sins against “a rules-based international order,” right up there with the American president’s economic protectionism and his disavowal of the Paris climate accord.
Khamenei’s strategy is as every bit as clever as Xi’s presentation of himself, of all autocrats, as a defender of high internationalism. If it succeeds, it has a good chance of accelerating Iran’s relentless push to obtain nuclear weapons.
It was the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani who revealed the public face of the new strategy. The date, May 8, was highly symbolic: exactly one year earlier to the day, Trump had renounced the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. His country’s patience, Rouhani declared in a televised speech, was exhausted. For twelve months, Iran had displayed admirable forbearance in the face of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against it. It had done so, he said, in an obvious nod to the Europeans, in large part because nameless signatories to the JCPOA had asked Tehran to avoid acts of retaliation while they worked to help shelter it from the worst ravages of American sanctions. And Iran had heeded the Europeans’ call.
“This strategic patience indicates the Iranian nation’s power and greatness,” Rouhani said, but even great nations have their limits. European efforts to blunt Trump’s campaign had largely failed, leaving Iran no choice but to chart a new course. Strategic patience would now give way to strategic pressure. Henceforth, Rohani dramatically announced, Iran would cease to observe the restrictions that the nuclear deal placed on its stockpiles of heavy water and enriched uranium.
On June 17, the spokesman of Iran’s atomic-energy organization followed up, disclosing that Iran’s stockpiles were set to exceed the JCPOA limits in ten days—just in time (as he neglected to add) for the G20 summit. “[I]f it is important for [the Europeans] to safeguard the accord, they should make their best efforts,” he said, reinforcing Rouhani’s pronouncement a month earlier that Iran’s forthcoming act of non-compliance was intended as “a surgical procedure to save the JCPOA, not to end it.”
Iran, in other words, would have to break the deal in order to save it. Only a foretaste of the chaos that would follow upon the death of the JCPOA would give the world leaders at the G20 summit in Osaka a sufficient incentive to rescue it.
Nor would this foretaste be limited to the threats of Iranian non-compliance with aspects of the JCPOA. On May 12, and again a month later on June 14, Tehran conducted covert sabotage attacks on a total of six oil tankers; and on May 14, it struck, through a proxy, an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia. To ensure that Japan in particular, the host of the G20, would help facilitate discussion on the issue, the Revolutionary Guards sabotaged two more tankers, one of them pointedly Japanese, during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to Tehran. And only last week, Tehran shot down an American drone over the Persian Gulf.
The Iranians took credit for the drone strike but claimed innocence of any involvement in the acts of sabotage. When U.S. intelligence confidently pronounced them guilty, much American and European press commentary entertained the notion, first floated by Tehran, that by sending the drone over the Persian Gulf the Trump administration was seeking to manufacture a pretext for attacking Iran.
That theory is too silly to merit discussion. Not so, however, the conventional wisdom regarding Iran’s motives in switching to its policy of strategic pressure.
According to the prevailing view, what pushed Iran over the edge and precipitated Rouhani’s May 8 speech was the Trump administration’s decision in April to tighten the economic sanctions that were seriously affecting the Islamic Republic’s ability to sell its oil and conduct banking operations. This view, which overlooks an event of far greater moment, requires serious modification.
Between the American decision on sanctions and Rouhani’s May 8 speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took another, non-economic step against Iran. On May 3, he revoked two waivers that had been allowing Iran to ship heavy water to Oman and low-enriched uranium to Russia. When Rouhani announced five days later that Iran would cease complying with the JCPOA restrictions on enriched uranium and heavy water, he was reacting directly to Pompeo’s May 3 revocation of the two waivers.
Iran’s policy of strategic pressure, then, is made up of three separate but interlocking lines of effort: a struggle to gain relief from the oil and banking sanctions; a campaign to tarnish Trump as an agent of chaos; and an initiative aimed at keeping its nuclear waivers in place. Among these, the third is by far the most urgent. To understand why, we need to examine the function of the waivers and why they are exceptionally valuable to Ali Khamenei.
When Trump renounced the nuclear deal, it was widely assumed that the United States had withdrawn from it entirely. In fact, the administration kept one foot in the deal. It continued to issue waivers permitting foreign parties, primarily European, to cooperate with the Iranians on projects permitted under the terms of the JCPOA.
There are seven sets of such waivers in total. Pompeo revoked only the two that pertain to the export of enriched uranium and heavy water; the other five remain in force. The decision to leave these five in place emerged out of a spirited debate inside the Trump administration that has not been reported in the press.
Party to that debate were the Europeans, who, naturally, lobbied Washington to continue renewing all of the waivers. Their efforts were partially successful. The five waivers escaped the ax because the Europeans pressed exceptionally hard to save these in particular. When it comes to low-enriched uranium and heavy water, as we’ve seen, Iran’s partners have been, respectively, Russia and Oman.
Presumably the Europeans kept Tehran well informed regarding the debate in Washington. Khamenei understands that the Europeans are fighting hard to save the nuclear deal, that their support is an asset to Iran, and that the debate over the waivers has been creating in the transatlantic alliance a fissure that benefits Iran. He also understands that the fight is by no means over.
The administration usually grants waivers for 180 days. On May 3, it shortened the term to 90 days, signaling that it is prepared to revisit the question. The Iranians will not be physically present at the Osaka summit, but they intend to haunt it like a shade. Khamenei is intent on pressing the Europeans, the other parties to the JCPOA, and interested powers like Japan to convince the American president to reinstate the two revoked waivers and commit his administration to leaving the other five in place for the remainder of his term in office.
There is more in Khamenei’s mind as well. In the debate over the waivers, the Trump administration also considered whether to activate the multilateral snapback mechanism at the United Nations as stipulated by Security Council Resolution 2231. That resolution conditioned the Council’s endorsement of the JCPOA on Iran’s faithful adherence to its terms. Thanks to the nuclear archive that an Israeli operation spirited out of Iran last year, Trump has at his fingertips enough information to argue persuasively that Iran has, in fact, grossly violated the JCPOA.
The archive reveals, among other things, that Iran never abandoned its nuclear-weapons program but simply restructured it, emphasizing dual-use activities that have allowed Tehran to claim with a modicum of plausibility that its nuclear activities are “peaceful” and “civilian.” The JCPOA helped advance this deception by bestowing international legitimacy on facilities like the Fordow bunker.
Built under a mountain, Fordow never had any purpose other than to produce weapons-grade uranium. One of the five waivers reissued in May allows Iran’s international partners to work in Fordow. Their presence aids in the careful preservation of a key component of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program until the deal’s automatic sunset provisions hand the facility back to the Revolutionary Guards.
If Trump invokes the snapback, he can quickly reinstate all United Nations sanctions against Iran that existed prior to the passage of Resolution 2231. He could, in short, blow up the JCPOA and once again place Iran where it has always belonged: in the category of a flagrant violator of international law. In his May 8 speech, Rouhani inadvertently revealed just how much Iran fears this step by threatening “a strong and immediate response to any irresponsible action” such as “referral to the UN Security Council.”
For Khamenei, then, the waivers constitute the cornerstones of the JCPOA, the structure that provides international cover for Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Historically, Khamenei has always valued the preservation of this program over any practical economic considerations. Although some have suggested that the economic sanctions now imposed by the administration will be severe enough to force him, eventually, to rethink his priorities, it’s worth bearing in mind just how much he has been willing to sacrifice for them in the past.
Prior to the JCPOA, Khamenei had received lucrative economic offers from Europe and the United States, all of which came with only one requirement: that, in return, Iran would buy its nuclear fuel on the open market, thereby ensuring that there would be no risk of its use for purposes of creating an arsenal. This would have involved nothing more than following the example of other countries with nuclear-energy programs that were and are truly peaceful and civilian.
Had Khamenei taken that option, he would have saved his country untold billions in lost revenues. Instead, he turned it down. But then, to the Supreme Leader’s great good fortune, came the JCPOA, which bestowed upon Iran unfettered control of the nuclear-fuel cycle. This gift is priceless to him for one reason and one reason only: it is a prerequisite for building a nuclear bomb.
As nodes in its nuclear-weapons program, Iran’s nuclear facilities are the crown jewels of the Islamic Republic. The JCPOA is the fortress that surrounds them. The waivers, in turn, have been the cornerstones of that fortress. Pompeo, on May 3, crashed the gates. Khamenei will therefore fight to preserve the JCPOA almost as hard as he will fight to retain the nuclear facilities themselves—and he will fight just as hard to reinstate the two nuclear waivers and preserve the other five.
At least at this stage, and setting aside the drone episode, the fight is not primarily military in nature. Khamenei is playing a psychological and political game. In the process, he is benefiting from the help of some surprising allies.
I say surprising because, on the face of it, American Democrats and stalwart members of the European establishment would not seem like natural allies of a clerical regime that, to name just a few of its unsavory traits, imposes the death penalty for homosexuality, eagerly anticipates the destruction of Israel, ruthlessly oppresses religious minorities, and participates in ethnic cleansing of Sunni Muslims in Syria. And yet, in one salient respect, one could say that the Islamic Republic’s most impressive diplomatic achievement is less the 2015 nuclear deal itself than the creation of a transnational coalition of Westerners who helped give birth to the deal and who are today enthusiastically helping Iran fight for its survival.
How did the shabby and ruthless Islamic Republic manage to mobilize this coalition of transnational progressives?
“Progressives” is the key word. Just as Xi Jinping had the effrontery in 2017 to present Beijing, no less, as a fervent defender of high-minded values threatened by the hammer of European populism and the anvil of Donald Trump, so, too, the Islamic Republic has been positioning itself in the mind of the European establishment and American progressivism as a hapless punching bag in the West’s culture war.
The stunning success of this tactic begins with a fable. The government of Iran, it runs, is split between two parties: hardliners, represented by the Revolutionary Guards; and moderates, made up of figures like Rouhani and Zarif. The hardliners are bad and brutal men, whose power depends on keeping Iran culturally and politically isolated from the outside world. The moderates are good men, striving to open Iran to the outside world.
The balance of power between the bad men and the good men, the fable continues, is precarious and ever shifting. But in 2013, the good men saw a fleeting chance and grabbed it. They appealed to the West, in the form of Barack Obama and the EU, and with their help were able to create a mutually beneficial agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear program.
As an analytic tool, the fable is of no help in understanding the actual rivalries among the mafia-like syndicates that jockey for position under the Iranian dictator Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, for two reasons, the fable is especially beguiling to progressives.
First, it posits a transnational alliance of open minds, a kind of global ecumenical brotherhood that is struggling against a global coalition of closed minds. Consider Obama’s defense of the nuclear deal in 2015. Senate Republicans who opposed the deal before ever reading it, he said, were “reflective of an ideological commitment not to get a deal done.” “In that sense,” he continued, “they do have much more in common with the [Iranian] hardliners who are much more satisfied with the status quo.”
That is to say, in the U.S. just exactly as in Tehran, it was the battle of closed minds against open minds: a perfect symmetry. This same trope would be faithfully echoed by Wendy Sherman, one of the architects of the JCPOA, in the aftermath of Trump’s cancellation last week of a military counterattack on Iran: “[Trump’s] maximum-pressure campaign through the sanctions has only strengthened the hard hardliners in Iran, just like [Mike] Pompeo and [John] Bolton are the hard hardliners in our country.”
The second beguiling quality of the fable is that it sells the nuclear deal as one element in an ongoing process of transformation. By viewing it as the first stage in a multistage progression toward greater openness and international cooperation, its supporters can easily deflect the charge that they are abetting the nuclear ambitions of a noxious regime. In their grand, uplifting perspective, even the most glaring deficiencies of the nuclear deal, like the fact that all significant restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program would melt away within a decade, become mere quibbles.
The deal was never going to be perfect, the fable teaches; the bad men would never allow that. But it was a start, a hopeful beginning. It created, for the first time, a joint venture between Iran and the West, a foundation for more cooperation in the future—a cause that would, yes, require painful compromises from the West but in whose lofty name the good men on both sides had been prepared to risk their careers and perhaps even, in the case of the Iranians, their lives.
Then came Trump’s decision to kill the deal. As a victory for the coalition of closed minds, that step automatically and fatefully strengthened the bad men in Iran—or so reported Thomas Erdbrink, the Tehran bureau chief of the New York Times and a leading popularizer of the fable:
Hardliners, who have long lost popular support but control security forces, the judiciary, and state television, are set to declare victory, since they have always argued that the United States can never be trusted in any deal.
But Trump’s renunciation of the JCPOA also energized the coalition of open minds, which began working on both sides of the Atlantic to save the deal. In America, John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, led the effort, launching a quiet campaign to oppose Trump’s policy and coordinating directly with the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and heads of government in Europe. At home, according to the Boston Globe, Kerry worked “with a group of officials who were his top advisers at the State Department, and who helped craft and negotiate the Iran deal in the first place.”
This group, formally organized into a public-affairs organization called Diplomacy Works, has continued its efforts, serving as an unofficial coordinator of Europeans, Iranians, and Democrats in an international effort to save the JCPOA from Trump. Indeed, Iran’s latest policy of so-called “strategic patience” was built on a tacit alliance with this same coalition of open minds.
When Trump first renounced the deal, European diplomats raced to turn an evident reversal into an opportunity. Triangulating between the Americans and the Iranians, they worked toward a compromise based on four key elements.
First, as Rouhani mentioned in his speech, they asked Tehran to be patient as they labored to save the JCPOA. Second, they lobbied Washington to slow down the implementation of the oil sanctions. If Trump were to issue enough economic waivers to countries that found it difficult to end their trade with Iran (as had been his selective practice up to that time), this might provide the Islamic Republic with enough revenue to continue business as usual and refrain from retaliatory gestures. Meanwhile, thirdly, the Europeans worked to offset the economic sanctions by developing what has since become known as the “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges,” or INSTEX for short: a clearinghouse that protects European companies from American sanctions by trading with Iran in euros and thus operating outside of the dollar-dominated global financial system.
Finally, when it came to Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities themselves, the Europeans advocated adherence to “the nuclear status quo.” The phrase was the coinage of Christopher Ford, the American assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation, who in a talk outside London last December explained that the U.S. had “carefully refrained from restoring sanctions in such a way as to obstruct international cooperation with Iran on a number of projects contemplated under the JCPOA.” In other words, the United States was then still continuing to issue the seven waivers. And it was doing so, Ford signaled, in response to requests from the Europeans.
Thus, Tehran’s policy of “strategic patience” rested on a division of labor. The Iranians would sit tight while the Europeans ran interference for Tehran in Washington, and while the Democratic friends of the JCPOA, led by John Kerry, worked to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s Iran policy in the media and on Capitol Hill. “Strategic patience” was based on waiting Trump out. As if to encourage Tehran to do just that, the Democratic National Committee, in February of this year, passed a resolution that sounded as if written by Kerry’s Diplomacy Works and that called on the United States to “return to its obligations under the JCPOA and utilize multilateral and bilateral diplomacy to achieve political solutions to remaining challenges regarding Iran.”
But the compromise that the Europeans hoped to bring into existence quickly evaporated. Trump’s decision to tighten the sanctions this past April meant that Iranian oil revenues, already badly hit, would fall to an unprecedented low. INSTEX did become a reality, but the volume of trade that it will actually handle in the coming year will be minuscule, too small to compensate in any meaningful way for the loss of Iranian oil sales.
By early May, all that remained of the European compromise was the “nuclear status quo.” In upsetting that status quo, Pompeo’s announcement on May 3 regarding the export waivers pushed Iran from “strategic patience” to “strategic pressure.”
The new Iranian policy, to be sure, is not a total reversal of the old. Both rest on the core underlying assumption that it is folly to seek lasting compromise with Trump, especially at this stage when the Americans are only seventeen months away from a presidential election that might return to office a pro-JCPOA Democrat. After all, convincing the United States to lift the sanctions, in whole or in part, would require negotiating seriously—it would require making concessions to Trump, which for Tehran would be a deep humiliation if not a total capitulation. Hence the “strategic pressure” campaign to squeeze as much economic benefit as possible from the rest of the world—from the Chinese, Russians, and Europeans—in the expectation that it will provide enough to limp along with until November 2020.
At the same time, though, with respect to the nuclear-export waivers and the specter of a multilateral snapback at the United Nations, it is not possible simply to wait Trump out. If he were either to revoke the remaining five cooperation waivers or to invoke the snapback in the next seventeen months, he could permanently alter the status quo, dismantling the structure that provides Iran with international legitimacy for its nuclear-weapons program.
So the tacit partnership between Tehran and the coalition of open minds continues to operate. The experience of the last year has taught Khamenei that the coalition is of great value in maneuvering politically against Trump. John Kerry has made no secret of his own regular contacts with Iranian officials, and Iranian diplomats enjoy open access to other European and American political figures as well. Even a veteran figure like Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, did not hesitate, in late April, to travel to New York to dine with the Iranian foreign minister.
With the help of organizations like Diplomacy Works, such access translates directly into influence over the Western press—as is attested by the media campaign calling for the removal of John Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser.
That particular campaign started first in the minds of Iranians. In his late-April meetings with Americans in New York, Zarif began advancing the idea that a nefarious coalition was pushing Trump to war against his will. He named the coalition the “B-Team”: John Bolton, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Arabia’s de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). In his May 8 speech, Rouhani reinforced Zarif’s message, declaring “that an extremist group that is running the affairs in the White House has taken the authority from even the president.”
By this point, the Iranians were undoubtedly aware of the debate in Washington to revoke the waivers, which is presumably the main reason they began targeting Bolton. Recall: the waivers were revoked on May 3, after which Tehran immediately increased the military tension in the Gulf. Once the threat of war became real, prominent Democrats and pundits in the media just as immediately parroted the Iranian “B-Team” line. Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, was typical: “With Bolton, MBS, and Bibi pushing to confront Iran,” he tweeted, “we shouldn’t take too much comfort that Trump is the only check.”
Blow holes in a few tankers, threaten American soldiers, and legions of influential personalities in Europe and America come forward of their own free will to demand that Trump sack whomever Iran has identified as a threat. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing easier than mobilizing a coalition of open minds.
While the American and European press has been remarkably conscientious in parroting Iranian propaganda with regard to John Bolton, it has neglected to report the full extent of the Iranian “strategic pressure” campaign as it pertains specifically to nuclear matters. In his end-of-patience speech, Rouhani sketched out the basic concept as a multi-phase process of escalation.
Phase One began on May 8 with Rouhani’s announcement that Iran would no longer comply with the JCPOA-mandated limitations on stockpiles of uranium and heavy water. It will last 60 days. If Tehran’s grievances are redressed within the allotted time, he said, Iran will once again respect the stockpile limitations of the nuclear deal. If not, the stockpiles will continue to rise and Phase Two will kick in. At that point, Tehran will refuse to comply with additional aspects of the JCPOA.
Rouhani hinted at what this might entail. For one thing, Tehran, which till now had been producing low-enriched uranium, would start producing highly enriched uranium (HEU)—that is, uranium enriched to 20 percent and above, something that is explicitly forbidden by the JCPOA. Since HEU can be turned into weapons-grade uranium quickly, stockpiles of it would significantly reduce Iran’s “breakout time,” the amount of time it would need to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb. For another thing, Tehran would restore the plutonium reactor at Arak to its original purpose, which, if the reactor had ever gone online, was to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
And herein lies a neglected tale of its own. The nuclear deal came into effect before construction at Arak was complete. The terms of the deal required the Iranians to destroy a component of the Arak core, called the calandria, without which it is impossible to make weapons-grade plutonium. So the Iranians dutifully replaced the calandria with a new element that posed no risk of proliferation, and they poured cement into the original calandria’s tubes, rendering it unusable—or so the architects of the JCPOA thought. But in an interview on Iranian television last January, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, revealed that he had secretly imported a spare set of tubes for the calandria to replace the ones plugged with cement. On television, Salehi said: “When they told us to pour cement into the tubes, . . . we said, ‘Fine. We will pour.’ But we did not tell them that we had other tubes.” So much for the hard distinction between compliance with the JCPOA and non-compliance.
In addition to the prospective non-compliant measures listed by Rouhani, the latest verification report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reveals that Iran has begun installing as many as 33 IR-6 centrifuges. These enrich uranium at ten times the speed of the IR-1 centrifuges that the Iranians currently operate; the JCPOA prohibits their use until 2024. The Iranians, no doubt, will argue that installing is not the same thing as using, so they are technically not in violation of the JCPOA. At the very least, and more to the point, they have placed themselves in a position to enrich uranium much more quickly than ever. Olli Heinonen, the former deputy head of the IAEA, estimates their present breakout time to be no longer than five months.
Traditionally, Americans and Israelis have regarded such a short period as a threat to peace and security. As Iran’s stockpiles of uranium rise, therefore, international tensions will rise along with them—which is precisely why Heinonen characterizes what Tehran is doing as “the weaponization of enrichment.”
From Khameini’s perspective, the beauty of this form of brinksmanship is that it increases the pressure on the international system, and therefore on Trump, in a real but subtle way that, unlike the downing of a drone, does not give Washington a justification to attack. The Iranians know that, militarily, they are no match for the Americans, and have been careful to avoid a head-to-head conflict. Moreover, they have put their bad-men assets to good political and psychological use. The goal of the pressure campaign is to raise fears without crossing red lines, like attacks on Americans soldiers, that could destroy the political support Iran receives from the coalition of open minds.
Consider the crisis in early May, when the U.S. ordered a military buildup. At a recent public appearance, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the intelligence reports that prompted the administration, among other things, to divert a carrier group to the Persian Gulf. The reports of “malign activity and threats to our forces” by Iran were, he said, unprecedented, taking on a “widespread, almost campaign-like perspective.”
But that campaign never materialized. Why? It’s possible, to be sure, that the speedy buildup of U.S. forces deterred the Revolutionary Guard Corps, but it’s more likely that the Iranians did not intend—at least not at this particular moment—to strike. With one eye trained on the upcoming summit in Osaka, they sought instead to raise the fear of war. Thanks to the support of the coalition of open minds, Tehran can bank on the fact that the Western press will reliably fault Trump for any rise in tensions in the Gulf—provided, of course, that the rise does not involve significant loss of American and European life.
Is it any surprise, then, that in May and June the Iranians scrupulously avoided the targeting of Americans? The hardest hit were the Saudis, who, among other attacks, lost two tankers and saw one of their oil pipelines and a desalination plant subjected to drone attack. The Iranians, of course, regard the Saudis as their primary rival, not just in the Persian Gulf but in the entire Muslim world. Tehran’s message to Riyadh, though unstated, could not have been clearer: if you continue to support the American campaign against Iran, you will pay a massive price.
The Emiratis, the primary Arab ally of the Saudis, also lost a tanker, and, in the first round of tanker sabotage, Tehran made a point of choosing their port, Fujairah, as the target site. Fujairah looks onto the Gulf of Oman—east of the Strait of Hormuz. The East-West pipeline, which Tehran’s Houthi proxies struck at two different points, carries oil from the fields near the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. That Iran had the ability to threaten shipping through the Strait of Hormuz was well known, but these attacks demonstrated that even terminals and pipelines specifically designed to bypass the Hormuz chokepoint were not immune to attack. The signal to every consumer of Middle Eastern oil and to the major financial markets: if Trump continues to challenge us, we are ready and able to disrupt the world’s oil supply.
The Iranians were also careful not to strike European assets—if by “European” we mean members of the EU. Of the four sabotaged tankers, one did sail under the flag of Norway, a country enjoying a close association with the EU but not actually a member. Targeting Europeans directly would be unwise in light of their usefulness in lobbying Washington. Instilling fear of war in them, however, helps keep them motivated to press Trump to return to the JCPOA.
Needing no motivation are the Democrats, led by former Obama officials like Wendy Sherman. “Either the Trump administration is trying to goad Iran into war or a war could come by accident because of the administration’s reckless policies, but the prospect of the current tensions in the Middle East escalating into a serious conflict is now dangerously high,” wrote Sherman in the New York Times. “The best way to avoid war is to talk with Iran.” Sherman is on the advisory board of Kerry’s group, Diplomacy Works.
When the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited Tehran recently, he transmitted a message from Donald Trump to Ali Khamenei—and received a very surly response. “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange,” Khamenei responded, “and I do not have any reply for him, now or in [the] future.”
Khamenei has decided, obviously, that a direct correspondence with Trump is disadvantageous at this moment. It would be wrong, however, to conclude from this rebuff that he has no interest in negotiating. Even a snub is a line in a dialogue. Indeed, Iran is deploying the violence of its bad men with only one purpose in mind: to rope Trump into a negotiation.
At this stage, Tehran does not envision a bilateral process so much as a mediation, facilitated by, presumably, one or more Europeans. Could such a negotiation begin in earnest at the G20 summit meeting in Osaka? Rouhani signaled as much in his May 8 speech by addressing an ultimatum to the non-American participants in the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the EU—all of whom will be present in Osaka. Should they fail “to come to the negotiating table” to help Iran weather American sanctions within 60 days—that is, by July 7, the end of Phase One—then Phase Two of Iran’s non-compliance would begin. By choosing this date, Rouhani guaranteed that Iran’s ultimatum would be a major point of concern at the summit.
Of course, the Iranians know that Trump is solely responsible for the crushing sanctions, and that the remaining participants in the JCPOA are powerless to do anything about it. Rouhani directed the ultimatum to them not in order to compel them to negotiate with Iran but to encourage them to lobby Trump, starting at the G20.
Even in the absence of an Iranian delegation at Osaka, Tehran can rest assured that its views will be well represented. The European contingent alone, as I mentioned earlier, will constitute one-quarter of all attendees. Most of the remaining participants agree with the Europeans that Trump, not Iran, is to blame for the military escalation in the Gulf. While they may deplore Iranian tactics, they also believe that Iran has shown patience—that word, again—in the face of what they consider to be reckless provocations from Trump.
With the exceptions of the Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman and the Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro, virtually every interlocutor with the American presidential party at the summit will rehearse the same themes: negotiate with Iran, and, for crying out loud, don’t listen to that maniac Bolton and don’t kill the JCPOA. It is a signal achievement of multilateral diplomacy, and an innovative example of how to convince a rogue regime to respect a rules-based international order.
Even if the peer pressure at the G20 fails to soften Trump’s position significantly, it could still prove to be a successful round of “negotiations” for Iran. If nothing else, it stands a chance of making Trump think twice before attempting another grab at the crown jewels. For when the Iranians chose July 7 as the deadline for their ultimatum, they had a second event, in addition to the G20, on their minds. On August 1, the five remaining cooperation waivers that support “the nuclear status quo” will once again come up for renewal. By setting their deadline as July 7, three weeks earlier, the Iranians positioned themselves to organize an international lobbying effort to convince Trump not only to leave the five waivers in place but to reinstate the already revoked waivers and, above all, to refrain from exercising the multilateral snapback option at the UN.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of discussion, that Trump is less impressed with the high-minded internationalist arguments that he will hear in Osaka and more struck by the fact that the bad men in Tehran are mounting an exceedingly shrewd campaign to save the JCPOA. If the nuclear deal truly constrains them, why do they love it so? Let’s suppose, then, that Trump does activate the snapback. If he were to do so in, say, early July, then the international sanctions on Iran would return in full force by September, in time for a dramatic statement at the General Assembly meeting in New York. What then?
This approach would bring the JCPOA to an end—not with a whimper but with a bang. Snapback would lead to an immediate escalation in the conflict. The Iranians would likely dash to produce weapons-grade uranium at the fastest rate possible, while carrying out greater acts of violence—targeting more tankers and oil facilities in the Gulf, conducting terrorist attacks around the globe, and setting their proxies in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon against Israel. They would certainly engage in all of these activities, and more, including the targeting of Americans.
But they would not take this step lightly. Even as they decided to escalate, the same considerations that have led them to act with relative restraint thus far—fear of alienating the coalition of open minds and of provoking a devastating American retaliation—would continue to weigh on their thinking. So they would increase violence incrementally, with an eye to striking at Trump’s Achilles heel, namely, his desire for reelection.
In the 2016 campaign, Trump ran on a peace-and-prosperity platform, promising an end to Middle Eastern military adventures. In the 2020 election, he aspires to stand before the electorate and claim that he delivered on that promise. “I want to get out of these endless wars, I campaign on that,” he said only last week after Iran shot down the American drone over the Persian Gulf and before he first authorized and then at the last minute canceled a military counterattack.
Khamenei, for his part, will continue to aim at convincing Trump that Iran can cause just enough turmoil to paint him before the American people as a reckless cowboy driving the United States into a senseless war. In fact, Khamenei might choose this course of action even if Trump does not exercise the snapback. In this no-war, no-peace scenario, Iran would seek to carry out operations sufficiently disruptive to grab headlines, disrupt markets, and cause Trump a continuous political headache, at home and abroad, but not so outrageous as to provoke a counterattack of a size that might put the survival of the regime in question. The conflict, in that case, would take the form of sporadic rounds of escalation followed by periods of de-escalation.
Still, while Khamenei and his advisers would certainly think twice before targeting Americans, their restraint cannot be assumed. Historically, the Islamic Republic has taken severe risks, including by targeting Americans. A partial list of operations against American forces by Iran and its proxies includes the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the attacks on American vessels in the “Tanker War” of the late 1980s, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, and the targeting of American forces in the Iraq war. Thus, conceivably, a no-war, no-peace scenario could easily intensify, culminating in a significant but limited conflict on the model of the “Tanker War” during the Reagan administration or one of the major recent conflicts between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
That one such conflict might descend to all-out war is unlikely, because both Trump, in his desire for reelection, and Khamenei, in his desire for survival, have very strong incentives to keep the conflict within certain limits. At each moment of escalation, prominent figures on the international scene would rush to offer their services as mediators. Both leaders would be tempted to accept, if only to reduce the tension.
Consequently, there is a possibility that, if not at the G20, then at some point over the next seventeen months, Trump will indeed get roped into a negotiation with the Iranians. And then? One hesitates to guess, but the odds that it will lead to a lasting accommodation of any kind are nil. On all major issues, the two sides could not be farther apart. Both sides, each for its own reason, will simply be buying time, waiting to get past the presidential election in 2020.
The great conceit of Barack Obama’s approach to Iran was to believe that there existed a clever diplomatic way to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb. There is not. Iran’s nuclear-weapons program will come to an end only if the United States wrests it from the talons of the regime. This need not mean war, but it will require a prolonged coercive strategy, one element of which, but only one, is the threat of war. The great paradox—true when first formulated as a general adage in the ancient world, truer than ever today—is that the more successfully the United States transmits a readiness for war, the less likely war will become.
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