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Few options remain as US sanctions fail to subdue Iran

Sep 10,2019 - Last updated at Sep 10,2019

More than a year after President Donald Trump pulled his country out of the multi-lateral nuclear deal with Iran, his policy of putting “maximum pressure” on Tehran, mainly through tough economic sanctions, appears to be leading nowhere. In fact, between May 2018, when the US withdrew from the agreement, and today, Iran was able to pedal back on its commitments; resuming its uranium enrichment programme, while keeping its European partners engaged in delicate negotiations. Moreover, it insists that it is only reacting to Washington’s violation of the agreement and is not abandoning the deal, for now.

But between President Trump, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, there appears to be a divergence on how the White House is managing this critical and destabilising issue. Trump has toned down his rhetoric lately, appearing to be welcoming a French initiative to arrange a meeting between himself and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, probably on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings later this month.

Pompeo, who originally had put forward 12 conditions that Tehran must meet before sanctions are eased, now appears to be walking back on his tough stand. On Sunday, he told American media that Iran’s behaviour must change, but that the US wants “a successful Iran. We want them to be part of the community of nations...” but that “you can’t do that when you’re building missiles that threaten Europe, threaten Israel and building out systems that could ultimately create a nuclear weapon”. Ironically, Pompeo continued to urge Europe to put pressure on Iran to stop its “nuclear extortion” by abiding to its commitments under a deal that Washington wants revised.

And while Trump and Pompeo insist that the US is not seeking regime change and wants to talk to Iranian leaders, Bolton is not shy of talking openly about the need to overthrow the regime in Tehran.

Trump’s latest position now centres on three elements, while stating that he is willing to meet Rouhani without prior conditions. Trump is “looking for no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles and a longer period of time. Very simple. We can have it done in a very short period of time”, he was quoted as saying last month.

The US unilateral approach to the Iranian issue has left it with little leverage over its European allies, who remain seemingly united in their defence of the nuclear deal. But France has said that negotiations should focus on Iran’s ballistic missile activities; an issue that Tehran says is a red line. The Europeans are yet to come up with a solution that would ease the effect of US sanctions, and bring the Iranians back to the table. After a year of fruitless negotiations, Iran is giving the Europeans notice that it would abandon the deal altogether if relief is not provided.

The idea that the US and Iran should talk is not a bad one. Trump wants validation that his move to withdraw from the 2015 deal was the right thing to do. But the decision to engage with Washington is not Rouhani’s to make. America’s withdrawal and the ensuing economic sanctions have emboldened hardliners in Tehran. The so-called moderates, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have little maneuvering space. The final word remains with the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is openly anti-American.

Trump’s policy on Iran cannot be separated from the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who was against the deal from the onset. But as Iran resumes its uranium enrichment activities and removes restrictions on nuclear-related research and development, all while maintaining its controversial ballistic missiles programme; it is Israel that is feeling the heat.

While Netanyahu had objected to any contact between the US and Iran, last in week in London he appeared to be easing his position saying that he does not tell the US president who to meet.

It is clear now that Tehran will not cave in to what Zarif has called America’s “economic terrorism”. He demanded that the US drops the sanctions before talks can take place. Pompeo hinted that there are those in Iran who believe the two sides should talk to each other. The UN General Assembly would provide neutral grounds for such meeting. But even though, this remains unlikely, the US and the Europeans know that without a diplomatic breakthrough the nuclear pact faces inevitable doom.

That leaves fewer options for Washington, including a military strike that would be catastrophic for the region as a whole. With tensions building up in the Arabian Gulf over oil maritime safety and the flare-ups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, time is running out for a last ditch plan to save the deal and prevent spiralling towards an unpredictable military adventure.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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