Iran: Close to New Conflict? Conversation with Ali Vaez, International Crisis Group

 In June 2015, a nuclear agreement was signed between Iran and the countries of the so-called "5 + 1", the members of the then UN Security Council veto power: England, France, United States, Russia and China, plus Germany (P5 + 1). The agreement was called 'historic' by Obama, who together with his allies imagined a new, optimistic Middle Eastern scenario, where Iran would ultimately have a protagonist role.

 The agreement included the gradual abolition of economic sanctions imposed on Iran for years, which on the other hand agreed to limit the nuclear program, allowing periodically control of power plants to UN employees. The deal came after years of US-EU discussions, accusing Iran of the military end of nuclear centrifuges, contrary to what the Islamic Republic claimed to be hiding behind civic purposes.

 The deal seemed work, everything seems going for the better, if it were: Iran, abandoning nuclear power, has started testing new strategies such as ballistic missile systems and aerospace vehicles. In this context, it should be remembered the change of US foreign policy, resulting in the administration’s change from Barack Obama to Donald Trump.

Trump has always adopted the policy of destroying everything done by his predecessor, expressed great doubts about the Iranian agreement. This confirms the strengthening of relations with Tehran's main enemies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

 Following the successful completion of Iran's latest test on July 27, with the launch of the 'Simorgh' spacecraft, Trump threatened to overthrow the 2015 agreement, if necessary with immediate introduction of new sanctions. Nothing of new, considering that in May during the meeting in Riyadh, he accused Tehran of funding terrorism, flirting with Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood, and defining Iran as "the greatest danger for the West."

 While several Western analysts hypothesize a possible Iranian hegemony in Middle East, specially at the end of the Iraq war against ISIS, we tried to make it clear, meeting one of the top experts in the matter: Ali Vaez, Senior Analyst of Iran for Crisis Group. The scholar, over the last few years and with the advice of all parties in the nuclear negotiations, has helped fill in gaps between Iran and P5 + 1 and is also recognized by the US Government as one of the most important Experts on Iranian nuclear and missile programs.

Which is the actual economics, social and politics situation of Iran?

The good news is that the nuclear deal is working precisely as intended. A lot of people had pinned a lot of other ideas on it, but this was and is purely a nuclear agreement. The basic bargain was roll back of nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. The deal has shrink-wrapped Iran’s nuclear program into the most vigorous safeguards inspection regime ever implemented and the IAEA has verified already six times since the deal went into force that Iran has complied with its commitments. There have been some technical hitches, but they have been quickly resolved by the joint commission created under the deal. Iran’s economy has also recovered and undeniably improved, however maybe not as quickly as the Rouhani administration had hoped for. But IMF expects Iran’s economy to grow at the rate of around 5% through 2018 – which will make it the fastest growing economy in the region. Inflation has decreased from 40% in 2012 to less than 10%, and foreign investment is on the rise. Trade with Europe has increased by 5 folds. The bad news is that despite its success, the deal remains extremely unstable. It is as fragile as forces against it are formidable. To ensure success, the parties negotiated it as a narrow arms-control accord not to usher in broader détente or collaboration in areas of shared concern, though some had hoped, or feared, that it would.

Let me be clear that the accord could not have been negotiated successfully if those issues had been on the table. But today they constitute the primary threat to its successful implementation. This, in turn, is because the JCPOA’s transformational potential has not yet materialised in the face of powerful stakeholders who moved to ensure it was a ceiling on, not a foundation for, détente between Iran, its neighbours and the U.S. 


Iran is, for the USA president Donald Trump, the biggest threat for the West. What strategies adopted the American administration against it?

The Trump administration is highly sceptical of the deal and has empowered a national security team who are highly hostile to Iran. The administration has realized that killing the deal is not a good option as given the high degree of satisfaction of other stakeholders and Iran’s compliance with the deal, it would lead to US isolation. However, it seems to proactively seeks ways to make sure Iran can’t reap the economic dividends of the deal, so that it would be the first to violate the JCPOA. In parallel, the administration is seeking to counter Iran’s regional policies. This could escalate tensions between the two sides and result in a tit-for-tat that would turn the nuclear deal into collateral damage.

How much weighs Israel in these choices?

Israel does not seem to be as keen as the Trump administration in undermining the JCPOA as a matter of priority.

Tehran and Moscow have developed strategic relationships and have been able to strengthen ties, especially in trade. More sanctions by the US are not the risk of reinforcing these relationships?

Tehran’s relationship with Moscow is mostly tactical, not strategic. The two countries share their enmity towards the US and common stakes in the Syrian conflict. The more the US isolates both, the more they have an interest in cooperation. But the relationship is unlikely to become strategic, as there is a tremendous amount of historic mistrust between the two countries.

Relations with several terrorist groups, missile tests, flirtations with Hezbollah against Israel, do you think there is an Iranian plan to conquer the Middle East?

It is not helpful to exaggerate Iran’s sway and power: While Tehran has more influence in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa than it used to, its role in all four is more bitterly contested by state and nonstate actors than in the past. As a Persian nation among Arabs and Turks, a Shiite state among Sunnis, there are natural barriers to Iran’s reach; hence its failure to export its nearly four-decade-old revolution to any neighbouring country. In the words of former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, ‘Iranian influence is self-limiting. The harder they push, the more resistance they get.’

The policies of all contemporary Iranian leaders, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, have been shaped by two impulses: regime preservation and restoration — critics would say expansion — of Iran’s role as a regional leader. The pursuit of self-preservation, the principal objective of any political system, borders on paranoia in an Iranian political culture steeped in a deep sense of insecurity and solitude. The security perspective of Iran’s current leaders is shaped by the traumatic 1980-1988 conflict with Iraq, in which almost the entire region and the West supported Saddam Hussein’s war effort. Subsequently, they witnessed the United States invade Afghanistan and Iraq, their neighbours to the east and the west.

To compensate for its sense of encirclement by U.S. forces and pro-U.S. states, and its inferior conventional military capacity compared with that of its neighbours, Iran developed a network of partners and proxies to push threats away from its borders. Tehran dubs this its ‘forward-defence policy’, a euphemism for many in the region for Iran’s exploitation of other states as buffers at the expense of their sovereignty.

The Lebanese Hezbollah is the cornerstone of Iran’s forward-leaning strategy. As a senior Israeli official once put it: ‘For us, Iran is 1,000 kilometres away, whereas for Iran, Israel is 10 meters away from across the Lebanese border’. Many in Tehran are convinced the primary reason Israel did not strike Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities and heavy-water reactor during the nuclear crisis was its fear of hundreds of Hezbollah’s Iran-supplied missiles pointing at Israeli cities.

What Iran calls the “axis of resistance” to Israel and the United States, known to Iran’s Sunni neighbours as the “Shiite crescent”, is a more aggressive extension of its forward-defense policy. It not only gives Iran strategic depth but allows it to project power in the Levant. Iran long rejected the notion that sectarianism lay at the root of its alliances, but as Syria’s zero-sum proxy war deepened, it has shed even the pretence of staying above the sectarian fray. Tehran now mobilizes Shiite militias from across the region to fight in Iraq and Syria while it fails to condemn (and even facilitates) the atrocities they commit in these countries’ Sunni heartlands, stoking resentment and providing Sunni extremists a potent recruitment tool. Tehran’s conventional deterrence appears no less threatening to the region. Its centrepiece is a ballistic missile program, a legacy of having been a victim of these during the Iran-Iraq War. As the only Iranian weapon that could reach its adversaries on their soil, the missiles are deemed an existential asset by Tehran, which will pursue their development regardless of whatever sanctions are imposed. The Iranians refused to put their missiles on the bargaining table during the nuclear negotiations and are unlikely to compromise on them, absent fundamental changes to the region’s security structure of which Iran would be an integral part.

It’s hardly surprising that what looks defensive from Tehran would be perceived elsewhere as aggressive. But what makes Iran’s regional policy seem especially menacing is the second impetus behind it — its desire for regional power status, which to neighbouring capitals looks like a bid for hegemony. To them, that scenario is as unbearable as Iran’s isolation from the region is unacceptable to Tehran.

Any U.S. policy toward Iran’s regional ambitions must take these dynamics into account. This will allow Washington to develop a realistic assessment of Tehran’s likely reactions.


Israel has already speculated that if Assad resumed control of South-East Syria (Governor of Deir Ezzor and Syrian-Iraqi border), Iran will be the true winner of the war against ISIS. Can this hypothesis be real?

It is important to remember that prior to the Syrian uprising in 2011, Iran had a close military alliance with the Syrian regime and had access to SE Syria. As such, it is hard to declare Iran as victor given the amount of blood and treasure it had to spent to preserve the status quo ante.

Do you think that we are close to an armed conflict?

Regional dynamics are trending in a very worrisome direction: friction between Iran and the U.S. in Syria, Yemen and Iraq is growing; Saudi Arabia’s new leadership is intent on cutting Iran down to size; and, to date, there has been no high level political contact between Tehran and Washington.  All of which significantly increases the odds of a deliberate or inadvertent confrontation, which could send the entire region into deeper chaos and bloodshed.

Vanessa Tomassini