Iran circles wagons as Trump’s B Team beats war drum

(Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani addressing the cabinet meeting, Tehran, May 8, 2019)

If there can be a lethal game of Russian roulette in international politics, this is it — what just began on May 8, the first anniversary of the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal of July 2015. 

Iran exercised “strategic patience” for one full year, as President Hassan Rouhani noted, upon the request from the five remaining signatories of the nuclear deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. That period has run out. 

Not only have the five powers failed to persuade the Trump administration to retract from its decision, but Washington has gone on a warpath of sanctions and deployment of a formidable strike group to the Persian Gulf. 

On the other hand, the five big powers couldn’t ensure that Iran got the full benefits out of the nuclear deal as envisaged under the nuclear deal, despite its full compliance with the terms of the deal, which has been acknowledged repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Only Russia and China observed the commitments given to Iran as signatories, while the three European powers merely paid lip service. 

Against this sombre backdrop, Rouhani announced on Wednesday that if the remaining signatories fail to provide Iran with the merits stated under the deal in the next 60 days, Tehran will stop complying with its nuclear undertakings in consequent phases. For a start, Iran will cease to observe the capping on the volume of enriched uranium and heavy water reserves that it is permitted to hold. 

After 60 days, if Iran’s grievances are not still addressed, it will no longer observe the restrictions on the 3.6 percent level of uranium enrichment and will resume work on its heavy water reactor at Arak. Iran has underlined that it is not withdrawing from the nuclear deal but is only taking reciprocal measures as provided under articles 26 and 32 of the agreement regarding the eventuality of one or more of the six powers failing to observe the treaty. Rouhani has specified Iran’s concerns particularly in the oil industry and the banking sector, which Washington has targeted with sanctions. 

Rouhani said that after 120 days from now, even if Iran starts enriching uranium beyond the 3.6 level and resumes work in Arak, it will give yet another 60 days for negotiations before taking additional unspecified  (which could be by the yearend). Meanwhile, Iran will react strongly against any move by the western powers to approach the UN Security Council for reimposition of the old UN sanctions. 

Russian roulette is a game of chance where players spin the cylinder of a revolver with a single bullet in turns, put the muzzle against their head and pull the trigger. The player has 16.67% chances of firing a bullet into his head if there is one bullet in the 6-chamber revolver. Each player starts by spinning the cylinder, thus each player has an equal chance of being killed by the bullet. 

Quite obviously, it’s an insane game that US President Trump started on May 8 last year. With Iran’s response by way of reciprocal measures, round two is complete. Russia and China are watching helplessly from the sidelines the insane game being played out. 

The two immediate measures Iran has announced — non-observance of the capping on the volume of enriched uranium (300 kg limit) and heavy water reserves that it is permitted to hold — is not a unilateral step. It is a fait accompli that the Trump administration created last week by sanctioning other countries against holding Iran’s excess volume of enriched uranium or trading in heavy water reserves. 

( IR-40 heavy-water reactor site at Arak)

Suffice to say, the crunch time comes after 60 days from today if Iran is forced to take the additional measures of resuming the work on the Arak Heavy Water Plant and enriching uranium beyond the 3.6 percent level. The Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi had warned in December that Iran has the capability to restore 20 percent uranium enrichment. 

(Satellite image of underground plant at Fordo for uranium enrichment)

On the sidelines of a visit to the Fordo nuclear facility, Salehi said in December, “We currently have 1,044 centrifuges in Fordo (near Qom), and if the establishment wants, we will restart 20-percent uranium enrichment in Fordo.” He added, “I would like to warn that this is not a bluff; I have kept my word whenever I’ve said something. Now I’m emphasising once again that if the establishment wants, we can easily return to the 20-percent enrichment, and meet the country’s needs at any level and volume.”

That was the first sign that Iran was beginning to lose hope that European powers would show the political will to stand up to Trump’s bullying and defy the US sanctions so long as Tehran continued continued to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal. This is where the problem lies. Traditionally, UK took the lead in the western camp on Iran affairs, but today London is sunk deep in the Brexit morass, while France and Germany on their own simply lack the courage to stand up to Trump. As for Trump himself, he is beholden to the Jewish and Zionist lobbies with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pulling the strings from behind the scenes in a shadow play that has bearing on his own campaign in the 2020 US presidential election. 

A big question can be put whether Trump himself wants another Middle Eastern  war. The danger lies in sleepwalking into a war. (See my earlier blog Iran to even the nuclear score with US.) Iran’s reflexes will be guided by certain key factors. 

First and foremost, Tehran has no illusions that the Islamic Revolution faces an existential challenge from the US and Israel. Capitulation is a non-option. The nuclear issue is an alibi to overthrow the 40-year old Islamic regime in Iran, which the US had wanted to strangle in its infancy in the cradle for the dangerous precedent it was setting in the region — nationalist resistance to the western political, economic, military and cultural hegemony of the Muslim Middle East. 

Interestingly, even as Rouhani was preparing to address the nation, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif headed for Moscow to meet his counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday. Both symbolically and substantively, it carried a big signal that there is an unspoken geopolitical dimension to what is unfolding. The fact of the matter is that the US’ Iran project is a multi-vectored enterprise. 

It is at once about the Arab Spring and the New Middle East, Syrian settlement, Middle Eastern oil and gas, Iran’s rise as regional power and Israel and Saudi Arabia’s uncertain future as about Russia’s assertive return to the Middle East and its consolidation in post-war Syria and ensuing realignments in the Eastern Mediterranean (such as the Russia-Turkey entente), which pose obstacles to the US’ regional strategies.  

However, a most decisive factor in the Iranian calculus is about Trump’s own agenda. Quite obviously, Trump’s preoccupation is going to be his re-election bid and anything that can help it is welcome — support from the Jewish billionaire financiers like Sheldon Adelson, for instance. Having said that, Trump will also be extremely wary of negative influences. A botched-up military operation in Iran (Operation Eagle Claw) virtually sealed Jimmy Carter’s re-election bid in April 1980 in analogous circumstances. 

Today, Trump’s decision to quit the 2015 nuclear deal has no supporters in the western world and is doggedly opposed by an influential body of domestic opinion. With Joe Biden as Trump’s Democratic contender, trust Iran policy to surge as a top campaign issue in the 2020 election. Simply put, Trump faces a tough electoral battle where every segment of opinion counts and a new Middle Eastern war will horrify the American opinion. 

On top of it, if in the heat of the battle, perchance an aircraft carrier sinks or if the Straits of Hormuz gets closed or if oil prices cascade, Trump alone will have to face the music. The point is, Iran is a large country and its nuclear sites are vastly dispersed. A massive bombing campaign is needed to destroy them, which will inevitably trigger a full-scale regional war with catastrophic consequences and in all probability sink Trump’s presidency.

Zarif talks about the famous ‘B Team’ that is pushing Trump into a war with Iran — Bibi (Netanyahu), MBS (Saudi Crown Prince), MBZ (UAE Crown Prince) and Bolton (US national security advisor.) In common perception, the B Team is credited with having magical powers over Trump. But is it really so? 

Trump doesn’t convey such an impression, certainly. When the crunch time comes, Trump indeed has a way of taking decisions that are in his self-interests or can make or mar his presidential legacy. North Korea is a telling example. Trump’s 90-minute phone call to Vladimir Putin last week too shows his lone ranger approach. Bolton threatened imminent US intervention in Venezuela and damned the Russians for supporting Nicolas Maduro but Trump steps in to mollify the Russians, hold out assurance that there is no US intervention and actually seek Putin’s help.

Looking ahead, therefore, Zarif’s consultations with Lavrov on Wednesday signal that Iran will coordinate closely with Russia its future moves. Significantly, at the joint press conference with Zarif in Moscow yesterday, Lavrov went out of the way to justify Iran’s role in Syria. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blamed Washington’s “ill-conceived subjective decisions” subjecting Iran to “unjustified pressure” and triggering the current face-off. He said the priority now is to “maintain the (Iran nuclear) agreement’s viability” and to this end, Moscow will plan its diplomatic moves.