Notwithstanding the ‘maximum pressure strategy’ adopted by the United States of America to change Iran’s behavior in keeping with the US interests, Tehran appears unmoved and equal to the task. Consequently, a crisis in the Middle East is unfolding and threatening to plunge the entire region into the mire of a major war. However, the situation is not beyond cure.

Tensions between the two countries escalated after Iranian forces downed a US drone on June 20. The episode fed into the retaliatory attack from the US but president Trump’s administration decided against the attack. However, the climate of confrontation has not settled yet.

If the atmosphere of confrontation remains, the chances of miscalculation also remain high as the two sides are making dangerous moves. In view of this risky situation, it is crystal clear that neither Tehran nor Washington would prefer giving in. So a small incident may spark a catastrophe. An action by one side is sure to bring retaliation keeping in view the brinkmanship from both sides.

The escalation in tensions began when the US pulled out in May 2018 from the nuclear agreement – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Tehran and the six major powers in 2015 to stop the Islamic republic from making nuclear weapons in return for easing economic sanctions. Although it was expected that the agreement would work to ease tension, nothing such happened. Not only has tension risen but also the neighboring Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s relations have deteriorated alarmingly. With Israel against the nuclear agreement right from the word go, Yemen crisis has pushed Tehran and Riyadh to two extreme points and at each other’s throat.

Meanwhile, Washington has kept maximum pressure on Tehran, expecting to bring the latter to the negotiation table. US re-imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil sector. During this year, the US designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps as a ‘foreign terrorist organization’. Washington also declared that it would cancel the waivers for the buyers of the Iranian oil.

A host of sanctions was imposed on Iran in May and June. Important sectors like steel, aluminum, copper, iron and petrochemical industry were targeted. Even the republic’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been targeted. The purpose has been to pressurize Iran by isolating it and hurting its economy which is already suffering under huge sanctions. The sanctions at least  have forced Tehran to defend its position and so lose focus from key areas. The growing public resentment in Iran shows that the US sanctions have distracted Tehran to a large extent because the high inflation and the decreasing value of the Iranian currency against the US dollar have hurt public welfare.

Continuing to put pressure on Iran, Washington has beefed up its military presence in the Middle East by sending reinforcements to navy forces stationed in the region and deployed an MIM-104 Patriot missile battery in the Gulf. The US has also increased its ground forces in the region with 2,500 more troops for ‘defense’. This muscular approach is aimed at making Tehran toe the line but the latter has not yielded under pressure. It is reciprocating with strong statements to upset Washington’s apple cart.

Additionally, both the countries could be playing to the gallery to win sympathy and support. It is believed by some quarters that Trump’s show of strength under Iran crisis is motivated by his failure to take military action against the North Korean regime with whom he failed to reach consensus over denuclearization. True, no progress on negotiation with the North’s leader Kim Jong- un has been a big foreign policy failure for Trump administration. As the US presidential elections are going to take place at the end of 2020, Trump cannot survive another foreign policy failure with regard to Iran, which is a arch-rival of America’s key Middle Eastern allies – Saudi Arabia and Israel. A victory over Iran will brighten Trump’s electoral prospects and a tough stand against Tehran is a passport to appeal and attract the electorate.

As I said earlier, Iran is not giving in and is trying to pressurize America diplomatically and militarily. Tehran understans that the economic sanctions have crippled its economy, leading to pubic dissatisfaction and heavily impacting progress of the nation in the absence of the oil revenues. So to regain public image domestically, Tehran is reciprocating with pressure tactics against Washington. The aim is to make the US reconsider its position and policies against Iran.

So one sees attacks on the US positions and allies in the region. Targeting oil tankers is to force Trump reconsider his position against Tehran ahead of his reelection. Supporting the Houthi in Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria is Iran’s state policy to frustrate the US and thus force it to talks.

However, with confrontation and war lurking around the corner as no side can afford to concede, it is noteworthy that the path to de-escalation and talks is not a remote possibility. Iran wants everything but war while Washington is willing to negotiate the nuclear deal again if Iran compromises on certain key parts of the deal. The US demands that Iran must halt its ballistic missile program but Tehran considers its missile capability as its chief deterrence. Besides, Iran would not like to totally give up its nuclear program as it has become the country’s point of prestige.

Seeing the treatment meted out to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after agreeing to US demands to disarm, the Iranian leadership would never make the same mistake.

Furthermore, Iran would not give up its regional ambitions. After the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Tehran adopted a new military doctrine to move the war into enemy territories and never fight on Iranian soil again. It views its military involvement and proxy operations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon as a way to keep confrontation away from its borders.

Econimically, Iraq and Syria are also a key source of income for Iran. Iraq offers an unrestricted market for Iranian products, while Syria has given up a number of its strategic resources and infrastructure to Iranian and Russian firms and businesses.

In July 2011, Iran signed an agreement with Syria and Iraq to build natural gas pipeline to transport Iranian gas from South Pars/North Dome Gas field to Europe. This way it would avoid the Strait of Hormuz and establish itself as a major energy supplier to Europe.

Withdrawal from Syria and a derealised role in Iraq would cost the Iranian regime dearly and are, therefore, non-negotiable at this point.

It is increasingly clear that Washington’s “maximum pressure strategy” will not force Iran to surrender. Both sides also cannot afford a war either, and the status quo is unsustainable, particularly for Iran.

Worse still, the crisis comes at a time when US global hegemony is coming under increasing pressure. Iran’s geopolitical location between Asia’s rising powers (India, China and Russia), its regional weight and massive energy resources make it an important stakeholder in the region.

Winning Iran back by installing a friendly regime in Tehran is, therefore, essential for the endurance of US supremacy. But, for exactly this reason, other powers in the international system, Russia and China, in particular, will make sure that the US fails in this.

At this point, it seems Iran and the US are facing the worst crisis since the fall of the Shah regime in 1979, with no clear diplomatic way out. In the short term, the two countries are likely to gradually decrease the hot temperature, rhetoric and brinkmanship which could end the current deadlock and eventually pave the way for new negotiations.

Image credit: Bobbi Zapka (Via Wikimedia Commons). The image is in the public domain in the United States. 

The views and opinions expressed in this articl are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.