On course for conflict

10 July 2020



While the crisis sparked by the assassination of its leading commander Qasem Soleimani by the US ended in a face-saving – and non-lethal – missile strike on US bases in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran still feels diplomatically isolated by President Trump’s sanctions. Tony Dee asks Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and Dr Sanam Vakil, who holds the same role at Chatham House, how allied nations should defend against an opportunistic power with an increasingly dissatisfied populace and a growing list of grievances.


How do you make a major concession to your opponent without losing face? The answer is: with creativity. Take the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. In 2015, Khamenei gave his tacit assent to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed between his government and the international community, which would end the massive economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran in return for it giving up its nuclear ambitions. Not that the supreme leader was pleased about it. A supporter of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Khamenei withheld his public approval for the deal. By doing this, the supreme leader ensured that were his government’s agreement to fail, his moral authority would be preserved.

Then came Trump. Having publicly condemned the JCPOA in 2016 as a “terrible deal”, the newly elected US president withdrew his country from the agreement the following year and reimposed sanctions.

Its economy once again in freefall, Iran began to lash out, first by launching rockets at Israel from military bases in Syria, and then by harassing oil tankers and allied naval ships in the Persian Gulf. Following a series of attacks on US military installations in Iraq by Iranian proxies, President Trump abruptly escalated tensions between the two countries by ordering the assassination of the commander of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qasem Soleimani.

What followed was another Iranian masterclass, this time by its government, in de-escalation without the cession of its (self-perceived) moral high ground. Seeing that the US government was prepared to risk all-out war in the region by assassinating its most famous general, Tehran chose to fire several ground-toair missiles at allied bases in neighbouring Iraq. All the projectiles were non-lethal. The world breathed a sigh of relief. Four hours later, however, that relief turned to shock when the IRGC shot down a passenger aircraft over Tehran without explanation. Likely misidentified by the capital’s air defence brigades as the beginning of an allied air incursion, all 176 civilians aboard were killed. As news of the accident emerged, national support for the regime in the face of international pressure quickly turned into revulsion at its lethal incompetence. Pointedly avoiding stepping on the US and Israeli flags painted on the streets, demonstrators gathered chanting slogans including “Death to the liars” and “Clerics, get lost”.

The Iranian government fought to claw back its standing by announcing that, in the face of international apathy at enforcing the nuclear deal, Iran would begin enriching uranium at a higher level than it had prior to the JCPOA. Although global attention has since been diverted from the Persian Gulf to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that the current crisis surrounding the regime’s nuclear ambitions remains unsolved. Indeed, it seems that Iranian government is more isolated and belligerent than ever before.

War in a pandemic

Given all that’s happened since, you can forgive the rest of the world’s internet users for forgetting that one of the year’s first major Twitter trends was ‘#WWIII’. It might even seem a long time ago to some in Iran. After China, it was the first country to experience a Covid-19 epidemic.

“At the beginning of January, there was a real potential for war,” says Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “If anything, Covid has distracted politicians at the moment, but it doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a continuation of the same focus and prioritisation, because Iranians have such a security priority that it is very difficult to sideline it.”

Dr Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, agrees. She explicitly links the Iranian state’s response to Covid-19 to the “crisis-driven leadership” that came out of its experience in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. “The war mentality above all has very much impacted the world view of Iran’s political leadership,” she explains. “It all sort of feeds into some, let’s say, patterns that have repeated over the past 30–40 years in how the leadership handles things – specifically that they’re trying to use this siege mentality to maintain their grip on political institutions.”

“In Iran, they compare their Covid response not with the Arab Gulf countries that have done a relatively good job, but to the UK or the US, and they think, ‘Hmm, not so bad’.”
Dr Sanam Vakil

Unlike in many other countries, what Vakil calls this “technocratic and administrative response” was led mainly by Khamenei’s conservative allies while the more moderate voices around Rouhani did the most to downplay the severity of the virus. In particular, the hard-line IRGC’s work rapidly building hospitals and distributing aid helped the country to patch up some of its messaging both domestically and internationally, where representatives criticised Trump’s intransigence over medical imports and appealed to the UN for humanitarian sanctions relief.

“In Iran, they compare their Covid response not with the Arab Gulf countries that have done a relatively good job, but to the UK or the US, and they think, ‘Hmm, not so bad,’” says Vakil.

That said, Iran is not of one mind. Tabrizi, who is quick to emphasise the country’s complexities, accepts that some aspects of its response to Covid-19 may have helped “decrease the lack of trust in decision-makers”, but argues it was balanced out by the subsequent rush to reopen the economy. “There was a lot of frustration in certain sectors of the society because there was a perception that the economy was being put ahead of the protection of citizens,” she says.

1,021kg
Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium as of 19 Feb, up from 372kg on 3 November 2019 – more than five times as much as it is allowed according to the terms of the JCPOA (203kg).
The International Atomic Energy Agency

Threat of further escalation

Overall, then, Covid-19 hasn’t much changed Iran’s position or interests. Rather, it has magnified the impact of US sanctions, which had already contributed to a sharp downturn in the Iranian economy, a collapse in its oil production and waves of protests arguably more destabilising than any since the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power. As such, Tabrizi emphasises that the Iranian state increasingly links domestic dissent to foreign activity, and points to a longer-term trend away from Rouhani’s previous strategy of engaging and negotiating with the West now memorialised by the shell of the JCPOA.

“There was a lot of frustration in certain sectors of the society [in Iran] because there was a perception that the economy was being put ahead of the protection of citizens.”
Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi

Indeed, the pandemic has done little to interrupt the series of tit-for-tat shows of force between Iranian and US-aligned actors that have typified relations since the latter country increased its naval and air presence in the Middle East in the summer of 2019. As well as attacking US bases in Iraq and shooting down a drone, Iranian-backed forces have attacked or seized a number of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz. The most high-profile was the UK’s Stena Impero, which was detained in July 2019 in response to the Royal Navy’s seizure of the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1. The latter ship was suspected of delivering oil to Syria in contravention of EU sanctions.

Headline writers were looking elsewhere when IRGC gunboats approached and pointed weapons at US warships off the coast of Kuwait in April, but the incident gave President Trump a welcome distraction from the worsening situation at home. He tweeted that he had ordered the US Navy to “shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea”.

None of the JCPOA’s other signatories support that measure, but nor do they have any way to lower tensions. “European countries are in a very awkward position,” says Vakil. “They’re frustrated with Iran’s regional behaviour and Iran’s ballistic missile programme, but at the same time, they believe strongly in protecting the JCPOA. They’re very angry and disappointed by the US’s unilateral approach towards Iran, and the fight over the JCPOA has become almost, I think, a turning point between Europe and the US, such that European countries are willing to do anything to protect the JCPOA because they believe in multilateralism and they believe in nuclear non-proliferation.”

For Tabrizi, “the question is how much the two sides, the US and Iran, are really willing to go into an open confrontation if there is no de-escalation”. Given the wariness both sides have shown so far, she says, “there is also the option of the status quo. In the two different capitals some might think that’s the best and easiest way to do things: the kind of ‘muddle through’ scenario, which is not ideal, obviously, because it’s not a resolution of the crisis, and it leaves a lot of options for unintended conflict. But I think the bar is so high at the moment and the options are so limited that it’s very difficult to see an exit strategy.”

Even so, the status quo won’t hold by itself. Trump’s government is pushing to completely kill the JCPOA before November’s US presidential election – making any detente much more difficult if his opponent, Joe Biden, wins. According to a strategy laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US will soon petition the UN Security Council (UNSC) to extend the embargo on conventional arms sales to and from Iran that is set to expire in mid-October. This is likely to be blocked by Russia and China, who wanted the embargo lifted when the JCPOA was originally signed. If and when that happens, the US will invoke the UNSC Resolution 2231’s unilateral ‘snapback’ clause, arguing that as one of the parties named in the original deal, it still has the right to reimpose all sanctions.

Vakil is quite sure about what would happen if the US gambit succeeds. “At the end of the day, the symbolic defence of the JCPOA is, I think, important for Iran,” she explains. “But if the E3 [France, Germany and the UK] isn’t able to protect the JCPOA in the coming months over the arms embargo issue, and if the Trump administration succeeds in getting back to the UN, and if snapback comes back, it’s all just going to go to hell in a handbasket.”

A protestor holding up a poster of Qasem Soleimani after his assassination by US forces.
President Trump contributed greatly to US-Iran tensions through withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2016 and ordering Soleimani’s assassination in 2020.
Several Iranian Revolutionary Guards standing next to a missile display.


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