(July 14, 2019 / JNS) As the United States continues to ratchet up pressure on Iran and as Tehran continues to breach the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the question is whether the increased tensions could trigger a war.
France is worried about the escalating situation.
“The situation is serious. The rise of tensions could lead to accidents,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters when asked about the risk of a wider Middle East war, Reuters reported on Sunday.
“No one wants a war. I’ve noticed that everyone is saying they don’t want to go to the summit of the escalation. Neither [Iranian] President [Hassan] Rouhani nor [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump or other Gulf leaders. But here there are elements of escalation that are worrisome,” said Le Drian.
According to Behnam Ben-Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, while Iran isn’t looking to start a war but rather to improve its negotiating position with the United States, its actions do entail risk.
Taleblu told JNS: “While leaders on both sides don’t desire war, continued escalation has the potential to grow the chances of an accidental conflict down the road if Iran further surpasses enrichment caps and sends conflicting or unclear signals about its intentions.”
Iran’s graduated nuclear escalation inherently introduces more variables and more risk into the equation, according to Taleblu.
“But nonetheless, it is—at least, thus far—still incremental and designed to avoid a conflict while generating leverage for the regime,” said Taleblu.
“In my view,” Taleblu said, “part of Iran’s escalation, in the nuclear and non-nuclear domains, is designed to generate leverage for the regime to trade away in order to offset the growing macroeconomic contraction.”
“This could involve enrichment [of uranium] to 20% purity under the auspices of medical isotopes or even towards 60% purity under the auspices of propulsion,” said the Iran expert, speculating on Iran’s next moves with regard to its nuclear program.
“We are not at peak sanctions yet,” said Taleblu, “the Iranians know that. And this is their way to try to offset and deter it.”
Raz Zimmt, an Iran expert at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Iran’s decision to violate its commitments under the JCPOA it is mostly designed to send a message. It’s a strategy, said Zimmt, aimed at sending a message to the United States and in particular to the European Union that the maximum-pressure strategy and the E.U.’s failure to address Iran’s demands concerning the lifting of sanctions, especially on oil exports, will only escalate the situation even further.
Zimmt also sees Iran as trying to gain leverage for future negotiations.
“If and when that [negotiations] happens, Iran would be in a much better position, even though at this stage [Iran’s] Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei made it very clear that he opposes any negotiations with the U.S. administration.”
The Iranian public and the struggling economy
Asked about Iranian public opinion, Zimmt said there is certainly a growing public sense of frustration and despair at the country’s worsening economic situation.
“While it’s difficult to say exactly whom the Iranian public blame for the deteriorating conditions—the government, the regime in general or the Trump administration—there is certainly an expectation for a crisis following the failure of the JCPOA to improve the economic situation, and then its subsequent collapse,” he said.
Nevertheless, continued Zimmt, “It’s important to note that at this stage, this sense of frustration has not developed into a growing protest movement. The protests in Iran remain limited and sporadic, due to several factors.”
The first, explained Zimmt, is that the regime is still capable of deterring the population. Secondly, “the Iranian middle class is reluctant to join the protests because it is mostly busy with daily economic survival and partially because it is dependent on the government for jobs. And third, many Iranians consider the possible alternative to the current regime as worse, perhaps resulting in chaos, violence, and possible territorial disintegration.”
The question now is whether the United States can ratchet up the pressure enough to cause real cracks in the regime and give the Iranian public hope that the regime can be toppled, or whether the Trump administration will reach some kind of deal with Iran.
And, in the meantime, whether the brinkmanship of the two countries could spark a war nobody wants.