Iran nuclear issue at inflection point

French President Emmanuel Macron met Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani at UN Hqs, New York, Sept 24, 2019

The unexpected move by the Pentagon to shift the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar to the Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina 7,000 miles away from the Middle East took place against the backdrop of the gathering storms in the regional environment. It injects a crisis atmosphere into regional politics.

To put the Pentagon move in perspective, in addition to hosting Qatari forces, the base also hosts the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing of the US Air Force. Other US military has been active in the country as well including the US Navy SEALS. The facility is also used by the British Royal Airforce. The al-Udeid Air Base is one of the few US airbases overseas where B-52 bombers, America’s largest warplane can land due to the long runways.

This is not the first time that the US temporarily relocated the CAOC. The last time it happened was 13 years ago. When tensions erupted between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there was even talk of relocating the Central Command out of Qatar. 

However, in the current scenario, the Pentagon move is undoubtedly related to the US’ mounting tensions with Iran. If push came to shove and a full blown US-Iran conflict erupts, the CAOC would be one of Iran’s priority targets. The CAOC is so critical to providing fire power for the US forces operating in the region that Pentagon cannot take risks. The US commander of the 609th Air and Space Operations Center has been quoted as saying, “Iran has indicated multiple times through multiple sources their intent to attack US forces.” 

How serious are the prospects of a US-Iran military conflict? Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani disclosed after his return to Tehran from New York that the two sides came breathtakingly close to a summit meeting on the sidelines of the UN GA in New York last week. Rouhani said,

“They (Americans) had sent messages to almost all European and no-European leaders that they wanted one-to-one negotiations between the two Presidents, but we had rejected it, saying that negotiations had to be done in the framework of P5+1, and they accepted.” 

“Of course, 3 out of the 6 countries, that is the Chancellor of Germany, Prime Minister of Britain, and President of France all insisted for the meeting to be held, saying that the US would lift all sanctions. But the problem here is that under sanctions and maximum pressure, even if we want to negotiate with the Americans within the framework of P5+1, nobody can predict about the end and upshot of the negotiation.” 

Significantly, last Tuesday, during the UNGA in New York, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) also spoke with noticeable restraint in a rare interview with CBS’ ’60 Minutes’. MbS warned, “If the world does not take a strong and firm action to deter Iran, we will see further escalations that will threaten world interests. Oil supplies will be disrupted and oil prices will jump to unimaginably high numbers that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.” And he went on to stay that a “political and peaceful solution is much better than the military one.” 

Importantly, he was categorical that there should be US-Iranian summit meeting, and added, “this is what we all ask for.” Conventional wisdom is that Saudi Arabia is petrified that the US may engage with Iran directly. But that is apparently not the case.

No doubt, the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia in October will be keenly watched. Prior to the Saudi visit, Putin will be meeting Rouhani on the sidelines of the summit meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in Yerevan on October 1 when the regional situation and the Iran nuclear deal will certainly be on the agenda of discussion. 

This is a defining moment in Russian-Iranian relations too, as Iran is about to sign the formal agreement to join a free trade zone with the EAEU, which of course is a prestigious Kremlin project.

Moscow is cautiously optimistic that “Possibly we will achieve some positive solution (on 2015 nuclear deal) over several months to come, or else the situation will continue to get worse,” to quote Russia’s representative at international organisations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov during a press conference on Friday to highlight that the Iran nuclear issue is approaching an inflection point.

But Iran is potentially inching its way back in the nuclear weapons business, with a fourth step it is expected to take in early November to reduce its commitments under the 2015 deal. A report in the Guardian last week said the European Union has “privately warned Iran that it will be forced to start withdrawing from the nuclear deal in November if Tehran goes ahead with its threat to take new steps away from the deal… The EU told Iran that it would put the issue of Iranian non-compliance into the agreement’s formal dispute mechanism if the next Iranian move away from the deal is significant… Once the deal’s dispute mechanism is triggered, both sides have 30 days to prove significant non-compliance, and if necessary a world-wide sanctions snap-back occurs.” 

The Guardian report put across the European dilemma on the following lines: “The difficulty is that Iran says the steps are reversible, but if they learn about building a nuclear bomb, that is irreversible.” 

Iran is no longer finding the support it hoped for in Europe and could be susceptible to broad censure. Conversely, the US is getting the opportunity to restore a modicum of credibility with its allies and the international community, which would broaden the pressure on Iran. 

On the other hand, a climbdown by Trump is becoming more difficult in the rising tumult of impeachment proceedings. But while he may appear to have boxed himself in, it is still up to him to offer to Iran that resuming compliance with the 2015 agreement would be met with concrete benefits, like the $15 billion bailout package France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has proposed. 

Such a turn to events between now and November cannot be ruled out. After the UNGA, Trump hinted at willingness to negotiate. He said on Friday, “I don’t want military conflict. We’ve offered to talk, we’ve offered to discuss things… I’ve shown great restraint and hope that Iran likewise chooses peace.” 

It is within these broad parameters that events may unfold in the coming months. Meanwhile, Pentagon is doing advance planning by shifting the CAOC away from the zone of conflict.