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Sunday 30 June 2019

Tensions in the Gulf

Dire straits

Hardliners have locked Iran and the United States into an escalating crisis but it was not always this way

By Peter Westmacott

Images of burning tankers in the Strait of Hormuz have again focused international attention on the complex relationship which has existed between Iran and United States since the middle of the last century. Hardliners in both countries are stoking the tensions with little regard for the strategic consequences of an escalating drama that is playing out against the backdrop of the 2020 race for the White House.

According to President Trump, we came within 10 minutes of US strike aircraft being launched against targets in Iran in response to the downing of a US drone reconnaissance aircraft, because he concluded that military action which could have killed 150 Iranians would not have been “proportionate”.

The president may have blinked, but we are not yet out of the woods. His own language is contradictory. One minute, he is suggesting that the downing of the drone might have been a mistake; and that, notwithstanding talk of regime change in Washington, Iran “has a chance to be great country with the same leadership”. The next, he is talking about its “obliteration”.

A bit of context might help. US policy towards the Middle East was originally about oil. From 1947 onwards, the focus shifted to the security and prosperity of the new state of Israel. Both priorities led, via 9/11, to today’s determination to stamp out terrorism – though we should not forget the importance Trump gives to tapping into the wealth of the oil-rich Arab states for the benefit of both the US arms industry and his own family.

US President Jimmy Carter (left), Jordanian King Hussein and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, in Tehran, 1978, the year before the Shah’s overthrow

For decades, Iran was, by and large, on America’s side. In part at least because of the CIA’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi regarded close relations with the US as critical to the stability of his regime. Moreover, after the Shah tripled the price of oil in December 1973, Iran became a hugely attractive market for investment bankers, nuclear power station builders and arms salesmen.

By the mid-1970s, when I was working at the British Embassy, Iran felt like a natural ally of the West – even if there were complaints about the presence of large numbers of US military personnel on the edge of cities like Isfahan. The Shah meanwhile was taking limited steps towards democratising and modernising his country.

Afghan resistance fighters not long after the Soviet invasion. These groups later morphed into the Mujahideen and other jihadists

All that changed in the fateful year of 1979. That was when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in a move which led directly to the creation of the Mujahideen who later morphed into a series of jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda.

It was also the year the Great Mosque of Mecca was taken over by a group of Sunni Muslim reactionaries opposed to the limited steps towards modernisation which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was then taking. The Saudi Royals took fright and agreed that liberalisation would go into reverse while the clerics would be free to export their intolerant, Wahhabist form of Sunni Islam to other countries.

And 1979 was the year when a Shia Muslim theocracy overturned the Shah’s regime in Tehran, once president Jimmy Carter had signalled that he would not intervene to keep America’s close ally in power.

A woman in Tehran on 12 February 1979, the second day of the Islamic Revolution in Iran

The consequent polarisation between Shia and Sunni Muslims, with the arrival on the scene of a new form of Islamist terrorism, spelt the end of the uneasy truce that had allowed Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians to co-exist without too much difficulty since the maps of the region were redrawn after the First World War.

By 1980, the hostility towards the US felt by the new Iranian regime – which was holding hostage 52 US embassy staff, in appalling conditions – was exacerbated by Saddam Hussein’s decision, with strong Western support, to launch what became a bloody, indecisive, eight-year war with its eastern neighbour.

The Iran-Iraq war exacerbated relations between Iran and the West

In the following years, Iranian proxies were responsible for horrendous terrorist attacks against US Marines in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, US diplomatic missions in Africa, and a Jewish community centre in Argentina. On the other side of the charge sheet, Iranians never forgot the downing in July 1988 of Iran Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes, with the loss of nearly 300 innocent lives.

It’s worth remembering that the downing of flight 655, which the US considered an honest mistake made in the heat of battle, took place the last time the US Navy found itself engaged in a shooting war to protect oil tankers during a regional conflict that threatened the world’s energy supplies.

By the beginning of the new millennium, US attention was directed more to the threat posed by Al Qaeda and to managing the wars it had started in Afghanistan and Iraq. With Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein as much of a problem for Iran as for the United States, it was a time when US and Iranian interests might have begun to coincide.

A statue of Saddam Hussein is toppled in the centre of Baghdad after the 2003 invasion

Unlike so many of its neighbours, Iran is not a country cobbled together by the Great Powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. It is, rather, a proud, independent nation with a 3,000-year history, an Indo-European culture and language, and a people who are probably the least theocratic and, at heart, the most secular and pro-American of any in the region. It is often forgotten that on the night of 11 September, 2001, Tehran was the one Muslim capital where spontaneous candlelit vigils were held for the victims of the attack on America.

But there was to be no détente, and Iran pressed ahead with a nuclear programme building on the support which had been freely provided in the Shah’s time by France, Germany, Russia, the US, the UK and – later – by the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, AQ Khan. Attempts by the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) to reach an agreement preventing Iran developing a nuclear weapon collapsed in 2005 over the refusal of the western powers to allow Iran an enrichment capability of its own. International sanctions brought Iran back to the negotiating table after the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani was elected president in place of the hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the spring of 2013, following months of intense, private diplomacy by the Obama administration. The sanctions had had their effect. But so too had Iranian determination: despite the constraints, its stock of centrifuges had risen from less than 200 in 2004 to 19,000 by 2013.

When I was ambassador in Washington, my Israeli colleague used to say – not entirely in jest – that Ahmadinejad was “the gift that kept on giving”. In other words, the constant Iranian refrain of “death to Israel” and “death to America” meant there was never any real pressure on Jerusalem to stop building settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories or to engage seriously on the Middle East peace process. Ahmadinejad’s hostility towards Iran’s Sunni Arab neighbours, and support for Hamas and Hezbollah, also helped build bridges between Israel and the Arab world: whatever the disagreements about Palestine, everyone could agree that Iran was the real threat.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Natanz uranium enrichment facilities. Israel saw him as “the gift that keeps on giving”

This new, relatively comfortable status quo began to change with President Obama’s decision to try again for a nuclear deal. The agreements that emerged in July 2015, co-negotiated with Iran by the US and the other members of the P5 +1 (Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK) suddenly made it harder for Israel and its Arab neighbours to consider the US as their unconditional supporter against Tehran. Even before Obama authorised the start of secret negotiations with Iran in early 2013, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel had been actively campaigning on behalf of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in the 2012 presidential elections.

In Washington, I found myself actively defending the JCPOA, as the nuclear deal with Iran was known, before members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, alongside my French, German, Russian, Chinese and EU colleagues. We were up against the highly influential America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and almost daily phone calls from Netanyahu to US senators. Netanyahu’s lobbying to kill the deal failed as the Obama administration and international diplomats mustered enough support in the Senate to ensure that the bill never came to the floor for a vote.

Benjamin Netanyahu persistently lobbied for the US to ditch the Iran nuclear deal

For all the nuclear deal’s imperfections – how could it have given one side everything it wanted? – the co-signatories of the JCPOA saw it as an important victory for diplomacy, a guarantee that there would be no early development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and – just possibly – the beginning of a process that might bring Iran, with all its human, economic and strategic potential, back into the community of nations.

For President Trump, however, the deal was “horrible, one-sided… should never, ever have been made”. He had always been hostile to Iran, was determined to rubbish the achievements of his predecessor, and was under pressure from a number of friends and donors who were unconditional supporters of Israel as well as from his Arab friends in the Gulf.

Donald Trump holds up a memorandum reinstating sanctions on Iran after he withdraw from the “horrible” nuclear deal

So in May 2018, against all the evidence, he claimed Iran was non-compliant and withdrew from the agreement. Washington immediately increased its sanctions against Iran, ostensibly in order to force Iran to accept a better deal. But the terms demanded by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo amounted to such an unconditional surrender that no-one saw them as anything other than a means of applying further pressure on the regime.

For all the bluster of Trump and his team, Tehran was initially inclined to sit Trump out and hope that the Europeans would keep their share of the JCPOA bargain, ensuring that Iran received some at least of the economic benefits to which it was entitled for meeting its obligations. In recent months, that calculation seems to have shifted. To the dismay of Tehran, the Europeans have been unable to counter effectively US insistence that all its trading partners apply their sanctions against Iran. The Iranian economy is consequently in free fall.

Tehran has also noted that Trump’s re-election in 2020 is far from certain. The Iranians know the President is more interested in wins than in starting wars in faraway places which may not serve US interests or his own chances of winning a second term. But they see that he has a hawkish national security adviser in John Bolton, and a vice president and secretary of state with strong links to the Republican evangelical base and Jewish community. Quite suddenly, the prospect of conflict with the US just before the 2020 elections no longer strikes them as remote.

The initial attacks on empty tankers in the Gulf of Oman were probably a not-so-subtle message to America’s cheerleaders in the UAE and Saudi Arabia that, if there was a war, they too would pay a price. Iran’s recent announcement that it is on the verge of breaking out from the enrichment limits to which it is subject under the JCPOA is also a message to the international community that the present situation is not sustainable.

The more recent attacks, on loaded tankers, and the downing of the US drone significantly raise the stakes. Trump pulled back from military action last week, and Washington has interestingly let it be known that there are reports that even the Revolutionary Guard thinks shooting down the US drone was a mistake.

Iranian soldiers on parade. There are hawks in both Tehran and Washington who oppose any form of compromise

Clearly, there are people on both sides who see the risks. Equally, there are hawks in both Tehran and Washington who oppose any form of compromise. Trump’s modus operandi has often been to create a crisis and then claim credit for restoring the status quo ante. With North Korea, he could rely on China, Japan and South Korea to help him out of the standoff. In the case of Iran, most of his regional friends would be happy to see the regime get a bloody nose. By lying about Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, unilaterally abandoning the deal, and demanding that the rest of the world applies crippling US sanctions on Iran, Trump has done little to encourage others to support him; and even less to provide a political incentive to Iran’s leaders to sit down with the Great Satan, let alone drinking another “cup of poison” – the term Supreme Leader Khomeini used to describe the agreement ending the war with Iraq in 1989.

If we are not to find ourselves with a game of chicken turning into conflict by bluster and miscalculation, wiser heads are going to have to prevail. Not long ago, professional diplomats in Western European capitals might have been able to intervene. Alas, Europe is currently too weak, divided, and distracted by Brexit to be in a position to call time out. Japan has tried and failed. Who’s next?

Further reading