Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
The Islamic Republic will reactivate the controversial Fordow underground uranium enrichment center Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in a televised speech November 5. What is Tehran’s motive behind this move? Is it likely to persuade President Donald J. Trump to ease the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran? How are the Gulf Arab states reacting to the row between the United States and Iran?
Inaugurating the Azadi Innovation Factory, Rouhani was expected to address concerns of Iranian startups and problems of the country’s knowledge-based enterprises. Instead, Rouhani used the occasion to deliver a policy speech announcing Iran’s latest measures to reduce its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal negotiated with world powers. “We declared the JCPOA is based on multilateral commitments, which must be honored by all,” Rouhani said. He continued, “We waited a year and gave a deadline. Next, we took steps to reduce the level of our commitments under the JCPOA.”
Summarizing Iran’s countermeasures after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, Rouhani said Iran has breached the 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium allowed under the JCPOA, no longer feels obliged to abide by limitations on enrichment levels, and will not abide by restrictions to its research and development. Announcing the latest step, Rouhani said that beginning November 6 “gas will be injected into centrifuges at Fordow.”
This underground uranium enrichment facility, located near Qom, only became publicly known when Western intelligence services reported it to the International Atomic Energy Agency on September 21, 2009. Aware of the sensitivity of foreign powers to the facility and its reactivation, Rouhani further explained, “As we do so, they may make mayhem. We are well aware of their sensitivity to Fordow.” He suggested, though, that if the other parties to the JCPOA hold up to their commitments, Iran’s step would be reversible.
Rouhani also spelled out his government’s demands along with a timeline: Within the next two months, Rouhani demanded removal of sanctions-related barriers to Iran’s oil and metals industry exports, along with free access to the international banking network to receive revenue from foreign trade partners. He further demanded removal of restrictions placed on insurance coverage, which currently puts Iranian vessels at risk of having insufficient liability coverage in the event of a casualty. In the question and answer session, Rouhani emphasized, “Dialogue and negotiations must take place at any level and with everyone. Now, we are in circumstances where the world believes us and the path for negotiation is open.”
Iran’s reactivation of the Fordow uranium enrichment center follows a pattern predicted in July 2018 by Abd al-Rasool Divsalar, an advisor to the Supreme National Security Council, the highest body for strategic decision making in the Islamic Republic. Divsalar argued that, under Trump, the United States is pursuing a regime change policy in Iran. It hopes to bring this about through economic warfare rather than the use of military force and war, which is anathema to the U.S. president.
Explaining the Islamic Republic’s countermeasures, he presented three possible future scenarios:
- “Iran, through active diplomatic effort, reaches an agreement with the EU, Russia, and China and remains in the JCPOA … Europe provides acceptable assurances to Iran, meaning it guarantees [Iran’s] oil sales …”
- “Iran opts for a soft exit from the JCPOA and begins [uranium] enrichment at higher levels, …”
- In a “hard exit from the JCPOA, … Iran, apart from enriching uranium at higher levels, also enhances its missile program and engages in stronger punitive measures in the Strait of Hormuz, Syria, and other countries in order to impose a higher cost on U.S. policy.”
The Iranian analyst admitted the third scenario is particularly risky but argued, “Once threats reach the point of conflict, conflict management structures at [the] international level, including Europe and even the Arab states, will take more serious steps to control the crisis.”
Fifteen months later, these scenarios look like a fairly accurate description of the sequential unfolding of events, which may indicate Divsalar was not so much predicting Iran’s future behavior as sharing his knowledge of the strategy adopted by the Supreme National Security Council only a few weeks after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.
Following a phase of strategic patience and failed diplomatic attempts by Iran to turn sympathy of remaining partners in the JCPOA into effective measures to protect Iran’s oil exports, on May 8 Rouhani started the Islamic Republic’s “maximum resistance” campaign by sending a letter to the governments of France, Britain, China, Germany, and Russia expressing his government’s decision to “reduce some of its obligations under the nuclear deal.”
A number of escalating incidents followed. On May 12, four ships were targeted near the strategic United Arab Emirates port of Fujairah. Two oil tankers were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz June 13. A week later, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a U.S. surveillance drone and seized a British-flagged tanker. Further escalating the crisis, state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked September 14. With the exception of the seizure of the British-flagged vessel, the Islamic Republic did not accept any responsibility for the attacks.
For now, Iranian analysts appear to have been correct in their assessment of Trump’s reluctance to use military force against Iran. While the U.S. government agencies accused Iran of orchestrating the May 12 incidents, Trump allegedly told the Pentagon he does not want war with Iran. The day after the IRGC shot down the U.S. surveillance drone, Trump aborted authorized strikes on three Iranian targets. Still more remarkably, he publicly said Iran was “very wise” not to shoot a manned spy plane and risk a much different response. After the Aramco attack, at a joint press conference with the crown prince of Bahrain, when asked if he has seen evidence of Iran being behind the attack, Trump said, “Well, it’s looking that way.” A few minutes later he contradicted himself by dismissing ever blaming Iran for the attack and concluded, “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.”
This pattern of U.S. nonresponse to the Islamic Republic’s provocations may hearten the Islamic Republic, and Tehran may also find some satisfaction in widening the gap between the United States and its Arab allies. Yet Tehran’s countermeasures and Trump’s indisposition to use military force have not produced the one policy objective the Islamic Republic covets most: to persuade Trump to ease the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. This in turn explains Tehran’s need to engage in further countermeasures, including the latest move to reactivate the Fordow uranium enrichment center.
One day, the Islamic Republic may engage in one countermeasure too many, and as the Iranian analyst Divsalar pointed out, threats may “reach the point of conflict.” But who is there to take serious steps to control such a crisis?
The Europeans, who are trying to salvage what remains of the nuclear deal, have no interest in tensions escalating between Tehran and Washington. However, their attempts at mediating between Washington and Tehran have hitherto failed, as have their efforts to shield Iran against the impact of the U.S. sanctions. Just as important, the Europeans are increasingly alienated by the Islamic Republic’s “maximum resistance” campaign.
The Gulf Arab states are in no better position. Iran reactivating the Fordow center may remind them of the long-term risk of facing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic. Currently, they are caught in the row between an angry Iran, which lashes out against them, and a U.S. president, who demands their full cooperation in the “maximum pressure” campaign, but seems unwilling to risk war with Iran for the sake of the United States’ Arab allies.
Rather than trying to control a simmering and uncontrollable crisis, the UAE and, to a lesser degree, Saudi Arabia are trying to strike a balance between Tehran and Washington.
In July, an Emirati delegation led by coast guard commander Brigadier General Mohammed Ali Musleh al-Ahbabi, visited Tehran to discuss maritime security. On October 14, Rouhani said “Tehran-Emirates relations [have] been better in recent months than ever before.” Akbar Torki, an Iranian parliamentarian, on October 20 said the UAE has released $700 million of Iran’s frozen assets, although this has not been confirmed. Perhaps in a balancing move, the UAE simultaneously, as a part of the seven-member Terrorist Financing Targeting Center in Riyadh, designated 25 targets affiliated with the Islamic Republic and Lebanese Hezbollah. Addressing the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate on November 10, Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, emphasized, “Further escalation at this point serves no one and we strongly believe that there is room for collective diplomacy to succeed.”
There also appears to be diplomatic activity between Tehran and Riyadh. In October, in a statement to The New York Times, the Saudi government acknowledged that Iraq and Pakistan had offered to mediate talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The statement also denied reports that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had asked the leaders of Iraq and Pakistan to speak with their Iranian counterparts about de-escalation. The result of this quiet diplomacy is not yet known, but on October 11 Iranian authorities released photos of the Iranian tanker Sabiti, which was allegedly hit twice in the Red Sea, raising concerns about a new round of retaliatory measures between Iran and its regional adversaries.
Reactivating the Fordow uranium enrichment center is neither the first nor the last countermeasure of Tehran’s against Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which is not likely to ease anytime soon. And thus, Gulf Arab states must continue their balancing act between Tehran and Washington.
is a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is the author of Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Demise of the Clergy and the Rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (2020).
Qatar’s emir has made a flurry of diplomatic visits to Iran, Turkey, the UAE, and Europe to bolster regional relations, energy cooperation, and the Iran nuclear deal.
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