It was written in the stars that relations between Tehran and Washington would turn into a showdown, beginning with the moment that Donald Trump decided, in May 2018, to back out of the Iran nuclear deal on the pretext that it did not ask enough of the Islamic Republic. Here we are. Verbal escalation sprinkled with military bravado. These tensions are the direct consequence of this withdrawal. We have the distinct impression of watching a Trump-Kim Jong Un confrontation video from before their love affair. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent in the role of South Korea’s mediator President Moon Jae-in.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday, June 25, that the White House suffers from a “mental disability,” a comment that Trump responded to by threatening to obliterate Iran.
While the American president’s language no longer shocks — or perhaps, only a little — his Iranian counterpart’s language still does. Oddly insulting remarks coming from a president who is said to have self-control and who is the architect of the 2015 nuclear deal by which Iran, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, agreed to stop its nuclear arms race. Rouhani is not Kim. His remarks are a sign that, under current circumstances, he is not in a position to resist the regime’s hawks, otherwise known as the Guardians of the Revolution. And we can see that, like Kim, Trump only hears those who do not allow themselves to be intimidated.
Tehran and Washington, by a more or less contained escalation and without wanting to live up to the pessimism of some, are exposing the world to this dangerous game — and doing so at the risk of a war in due time. It is alarming to learn that after Iran shot down an American drone on Thursday, June 20, Trump had planned a retaliatory military intervention, only to change his mind 10 minutes before the strike. In the absence of a military strike, on Monday, June 24, he imposed a new series of sanctions against Iran and its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, further hurting the national economy.
Even though Trump has apparently figured out that, with 2020 coming into view, there is no electoral advantage in getting the United States caught up in another war, his inconsistencies, his policy of maximum pressure toward Iran, his diplomatic stupidity, and the influence of his two hawks-in-chief, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton — who swear only by a regime change — provide the conditions for war. And they are possibly pushing Iran to set that war in motion.
The fact is that Iran respected the demands of the nuclear deal, a deal that, far from solving all issues in the region, nevertheless had the potential in the long term to help pacify international relations and, not insignificantly, to allow the Iranian people to breathe more easily, both economically and socially. The American withdrawal, in combination with Trump’s pro-Israeli, pro-Saudi double obsession, has destroyed these possibilities, placing a clan of moderates surrounding Rouhani in a weak position opposite the regime’s hard-liners and, on the inside, increasing the repression of opponents — writers, lawyers, feminists, etc. — who dare to contest the theocracy.
And here is what has been accomplished: a downed drone, and an increase in maritime incidents (for which the responsibility is still unclear) around the crucial Strait of Hormuz. For want of anything better, Iran is using its ability to do damage. And for the moment, far from convincing Tehran to return to the bargaining table, Trump’s policy that allowed for the embargo on Iranian oil to be reestablished invites the country to withdraw from the bargaining table and to reestablish its nuclear program, which, incidentally, it threatens to do.
Where will this showdown take us? If not to war, then to a plain and simple impasse. Too much gesticulation, not enough diplomacy, wrote Alain Franchon in Le Monde. Having lost patience, Tehran announced that beginning in July, it will restart its centrifuges again if the other signatories of the deal do not find a way to ease the impact of American sanctions. Despite their promises, the European signatories, who do not have much room to maneuver, have done little, both when it comes to working around the sanctions and when it comes to playing a useful role as a moderator.
One key signatory, China, remains. It scores one point for being a major consumer of Iranian oil. It scores another for being the only country in a sufficiently solid position to be able to openly resist the United States and the far reach of its injunctions. To what degree is it prepared to open a new front in its trade war with the United States?