President Donald Trump and Iran’s leaders, notably the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have long been locked in confrontation. They feed on one another, for reasons both of foreign policy and domestic politics. For the most part, so far the confrontation has been “manageable.” That time is moving toward an end, with only a handful of options.
The United States and regional partners have had many concerns about Iranian behavior and many objectives in confronting it. One has stood out: to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders have always denied that they want the bomb and they have even said that religious doctrine forbids it. Naturally, others don’t take these protestations at face value. In fact, it is inconceivable that Iranian leaders haven’t looked closely at two other examples: North Korea and Libya. The former got the bomb, and its leader is being wined and dined by the U.S. president, while its nuclear weapons now deter attack by the U.S. The latter gave up work on the bomb and its leader ended up dead in a ditch.
The most important response to the risk that Iran will get the bomb was President Barack Obama’s negotiation of the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Five other countries plus Iran also signed on, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China.
Even the JCPOA’s supporters recognized that it didn’t achieve all the United States and others wanted from Iran. But it was still the most important strategic achievement in the Middle East since the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty took Egypt out of the Arab military balance against Israel and ended risk of escalation from the Arab-Israeli conflict to a U.S.-Soviet crisis.
Now the JCPOA is in jeopardy. President Trump took the first formal step in May 2018 by withdrawing the U.S. from the agreement. Iran has now followed by ending many of the restrictions that it had accepted on its nuclear programs. A further blow to the agreement has been the one-sided stance now taken by Britain, France, and Germany, threatening reimposition of sanctions on Iran. This followed intense pressure from Washington, including a threat of high tariffs on automobile exports to the U.S. Russia and China, meanwhile, have not joined in, but they are of secondary importance.
The Four Scenarios
Political and strategic analysis now presents only four alternatives or scenarios.
First, Iran’s clerical leadership might be overthrown. This is possible but not yet likely. It also begs the question whether an alternative government could take power without internal turmoil that would spill over into other countries, that it would shift Iranian foreign policy dramatically in ways congenial to neighbors and other interested parties, or that, in case of internal turmoil some Arab neighbors — for example Saudi Arabia and the UAE — would refrain from making matters worse through military intervention.
Second, Iran’s leadership could respond to America’s “maximum pressure,” reinforced by whatever the European members of the JCPOA decide to do, by agreeing to negotiate a new nuclear agreement that would also include other Western objectives. Notably, these are Iran ending its ballistic missile developments (expressed in the relevant U.N. Security Council Resolution, 2231, as a “called upon” request but not a requirement); ending Iranian-sponsored regional terrorism and support for proxies, notably Hezbollah; withdrawing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and stopping military intervention in Yemen. This is a tall order and unlikely all to be achieved. But Iran’s leadership, facing a rising internal, regime-threatening crisis, might be open to at least some of them.
Third, the United States could decide that the risks of conflict have grown to the point that it should entertain moving beyond its current approach, including serious and credible offers to remove major elements of sanctions, as well as the goal of outside-provoked regime change (denied by the Trump administration in theory but pursued in practice). It is possible that indirect negotiations with Iran are already underway, as happened with the JCPOA, notably through the role played by Oman. But there is a lot of political pressure in the United States and from some partner countries that oppose any compromise with Iran. We should recall how many people who should have known better opposed the JCPOA as it was being negotiated, continued to oppose it afterwards despite its major benefits for U.S. security, and applauded Trump’s withdrawal from it. Sensible analysis of America’s interests hasn’t been helped by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some other Middle East leaders who seem either to calculate that there will be no war or that the cost to their countries will be so little as to be worth risking.
Let’s also recall that for Obama and some other U.S. leaders and outside strategists and commentators, the JCPOA was supposed to represent a test whether it could become the basis for change in other aspects of U.S.-Iran relations. But while the US began to lift most sanctions on Iran as provided for by the JCPOA, others were kept in place . Whether or not Iran would have responded to full U.S. implementation of the spirit as well as the letter of the JCPOA is unknowable (At the same time, Iran soon tested ballistic missiles, which undercut those officials in Washington who wanted to explore what was possible diplomatically.)
Fourth, Iran might now move rapidly toward getting its first nuclear weapon. Already, some analysts and commentators in the region and the West argue that the time required for Iran to get the bomb is rapidly shortening. Perhaps Iran is just upping the ante in order to underscore for the United States the risks of Washington’s current policies. If so, it is a fool’s tactic. Perceptions matter as much as reality, as was also true before the JCPOA was concluded. Nuclear weapons are in a category all their own in terms of the degree of risk that others can tolerate. Even if Iran is bluffing with its renewed nuclear work, pressures on the U.S. to act militarily against Iran would mount to the critical point well before Iran could produce a bomb.
Those are the four alternatives or “scenarios.” Sorting everything out, the greatest risk comes from the fourth: that Iran’s renewed nuclear work could progress to the point that the U.S. would need to redeem Trump’s pledge that “Iran Will Never Have A Nuclear Weapon!” That means war.
The Fifth Scenario: Another Afghanistan or Iraq
War would lead to a fifth scenario: “now what?” Nearly 19 years of experience in Afghanistan and 17 years in Iraq should breed caution in Washington and a fundamental calculation of all U.S. regional interests that has so far been lacking. This experience should mandate all efforts possible to get out of the accelerating move toward the fourth scenario. What needs to be done is not rocket science — see the third option above — but requires serious leadership that, among other things, understands the need to ignore voices that urge actions that increasingly if unintentionally have “war with Iran” as the almost inevitable outcome.