WASHINGTON – It’s been an intense couple of weeks in the triangle of the United States, Iran and the European Union. The immediate trigger is the one-year mark since US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration decided to use that anniversary to impose fresh sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The Iranians, on the other hand, are trying to save their crumbling economy and gave the EU 60 days to save whatever is left from the original deal before they’ll cease to abide the agreement.
In between, the US sent a carrier group to the Middle East as a message to the Iranians, following intelligence about an Iranian intent to harm US interests in the region.
But what’s next? Is a war between the US and Iran on the horizon?
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, does not see a direct military confrontation as an option.
“H.R. McMaster said that, ‘There are two ways of fighting America: One is asymmetrically, and the other is stupid,’” he told The Jerusalem Post. “In other words, there’s only one way to fight the United States at this point. And that is through terrorism and insurgency. The idea that Iran would square off with the United States in a conventional conflict is not serious.”
He added that sending a carrier group to the Gulf is meant only to send a message.
“When [US] Ambassador [to Russia] Jon Huntsman talks about carrier groups, he calls them a hundred thousand tons of diplomacy,” Schanzer said. “When you put that in into play, it changes the way that your adversary is going to respond to you. They’re going to be more fearful, and that’s what we call leverage. The hope is that that’s what we’re talking about here, between the financial pressure and the deployment of force not to fight, but to influence, we could potentially start to see changes.”
Ilan Goldenberg, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, expressed similar sentiments. He told the Post that the US should not expect an immediate crisis, but rather that Iran will once again take a slow-motion crawl toward a nuclear weapon.
“This is consistent with how they were before the JCPOA and how they have been for years - slowly, slowly, slowly making progress, while avoiding the worst consequences of the international community," he said.
According to Goldenberg, while the risk of military confrontation exists, it is overblown by the media.
"Fundamentally, nobody actually wants a direct military conflict," he said. "I think that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu will be okay if the Americans lead the charge, and I think Trump would be okay if the Israelis lead the charge, but I don't think Netanyahu or Trump wants to be on their own in a major conflict like that. So that's the good news. The bad news is you can always have miscalculation."
“Nobody wants a war,” he continued. “it doesn't mean a war won't accidentally happen."
However, if there’s no war between the two countries, what’s the alternative? Is there any chance we could see the Iranian engaging in negotiations on a revised nuclear agreement with the Trump administration?
Last week, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) told the Post that this is the time to negotiate a new deal that would address the flaws of the original agreement.
“What is becoming an increasingly precarious situation can be turned into an opportunity,” he said. “I would turn [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s words around, and say – ‘Okay, you want to be open to negotiation? We do too.’"
“So, those negotiations have to deal with the failures of the JCPOA,” he continued.
Schanzer thinks that the Iranians would join the table only if they believe they can get something out of it.
“When they engaged with the Obama administration, they got quite a lot,” he said. “With the Trump administration, they may be able to negotiate their survival, which may be just as important to them right now, given that they seem to be under quite a bit of pressure. It’s hard to imagine a fruitful negotiation right now, unless the Iranian regime is willing to change.”
Mike Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, feels differently. He thinks that now is not the time to negotiate a new deal.
“This is the most pressure this regime has been under for 40 years,” he told the Post. “This is the time to continue to put maximum pressure on Iran and watch what they do over the next 18 months. Every month, the United States will put new sanctions on individuals and entities of Iran."
According to Pregent, by the time the election happens, “whether Trump wins or not, the Democrat presidential candidate, if Trump doesn’t win, will have enough leverage with Iran to get a nuclear deal that could pass Congress. That can pass as a treaty because it will address ballistic missiles. It’ll address terrorism; it’ll address sunset clauses. It would address inspections, everything. This is not the right time.”
The question remains whether or not the EU will save the Iranian economy from the specter of hyperinflation and thereby save the nuclear deal. Pregent thinks that the EU will not volunteer to save Rouhani. He said Iran is making threats against Europe, calling on Europe to invest in the Iranian economy or Iran will step up its nuclear program.
“It’s such a stupid argument, because the last thing the Europeans are going to do is try to look weak,” said Pregent. “The last thing you want to do is give the United States in an argument that Iran is what we said they were. Now they’re saying we’re going to move towards a weaponized nuclear program that we denied we ever had. So it’s pathetic in a way.”
If Pregent is right in his assessment, and the EU does not rush to save the Iranian economy, that means that in 60 days we will see the end of the agreement as we know it. It is hard to predict what the future will look like, but it is clear that the Trump administration will not hesitate to confront the Iranians both with new sanctions and in the diplomatic arena. Whether it will push the Iranians back to the negotiating table or not, is yet to be seen.
But there is one expert who says that a war might be more likely than the others think.
Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said that with no agreement or negotiations, a military confrontation is more likely.
“If the JCPOA collapsed, you could have new negotiations, and try to get a better deal,” he said. “But there’s no evidence that Trump really has a concept of what that deal looks like."
“If it’s Pompeo’s 12 points, it’s essentially regime change,” Shapiro continued. “If it’s just a longer version of the JCPOA that includes missiles, it seems unlikely that they will be able to reach that kind of agreement when the Iranians think they can get maybe a better deal and wait for another administration in a year and a half.”
Shapiro, a distinguished visiting fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank, said that another reason to force Iran out of the deal is to create a justification for a military strike, but then added: “That also isn’t something Trump has shown any appetite for. Some of his advisers may have, but he himself has been very critical of the Iraq war; tries to get US troops out of Syria. He doesn’t want to be involved in wars in the Middle East, which he calls, ‘nothing but sand and death.’”
According to the former ambassador, “It brings us closer to a moment when with Iran advancing on its nuclear program again, and without a prospect of a negotiation and with time ticking on Trump’s term in office that there may be no option other than a military option to slow them down,” he said. “And at that point it’s not at all unlikely that rather than do it himself, Trump would say to Netanyahu, ‘You have a green light.’ No Israeli prime minister has ever been faced with an American president saying, ‘feel free to attack Iran and good luck.’ That’s a decision no Israeli prime minister ever had to make. But it’s one that this current scenario brings us closer to every single day.”
Mark Dubowitz is the chief executive of FDD, a Washington-based nonpartisan policy institute. He told the Post that it is not likely that the Europeans will help the Iranians to save their economy.
"European companies and banks are not going to do this, regardless of what European diplomats say," Dubowitz said. "Ultimately, most banks and companies are going to vote with their feet. The US market is a $20 trillion market. The Iranian market is $400 billion market. They want to use US dollars, not the Iranian rial. [The companies] will leave Iran, or certainly not going back into Iran."
Dubowitz also thinks that the Iranians are starting to realize they could not wait for Trump to leave office and are likely to search a path for negotiation.
"They were told by the Europeans and by Secretary [John] Kerry for the past two years, they just need to wait Trump out, that he will be a one-term president, that a Democrat will come back to the White House in January of 2021 and take America back to the Iran deal, that there would be sanctions relief,” explained Dubowitz. “But I think it's dawning on the Iranians, that first of all, Trump might be reelected. And second of all, they may not even make it to January 2021 without a severe balance of payments crisis."
“They're running out of foreign exchange reserves,” he continued. “The currency is collapsing, there's severe recession. Inflation is skyrocketing. So maybe the Europeans can convince them to come back to the table and we'll see negotiation."