Is the United States under President Donald Trump following a well thought-out strategy in dealing with Iran? The first answer to this question would be in the negative given the way the American president had governed since assuming the presidency in January 2017. His record is that of impetuousness. However, some analysts have reached the conclusion that Trump, in dealing with Iran, was pursuing an approach that looks at relations with that country from a time perspective that is long, stretching over several years. By squeezing Iran economically, Trump’s Washington believes that local resentment against the current governing order might reach the point where changing the regime would be the only option available to the citizenry. Bringing about ‘regime change’ has been the ultimate objective of the Trump administration.
This reading was the main conclusion drawn by David Ignatius, one of the two journalists who accompanied the new commander of the United States Central Command. He and his troops are responsible for protecting US interests in the Middle East, Africa and West Asia. General Frank McKenzie started his trip with a stopover at Oman, the Arabian Peninsula country that sits atop the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The General arrived in the country soon after Iran’s apparent seizure of a small United Arab Emirates oil tanker about 240 miles northwest of Oman. “It’s an international problem, it’s not a United States problem,” the General told the two journalists who were accompanying him. He said that any escorting of tankers through the narrow strait should be done by the countries that depend on oil from the gulf, with the US providing reconnaissance and other special tools to enhance what he called ‘maritime domain awareness’. He was not prepared to commit the United States beyond that.
The General was correct in calling for international action to maintain free flow of traffic in the Gulf. With the sheer volume shipping that carries 17.5 million barrels of oil a day out of the Persian Gulf, it would be difficult for the United States acting alone to protect all the ships operating in the area. The United States, by developing its own resources, has dramatically reduced its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. That is not the case with most of the large Asian consumers. Some 80% of the oil shipped through the strait goes to Asia. China is a major consumer. As Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to former president Barack Obama, wrote in a newspaper article, “Especially at a time of growing tension in the US-China relationship, this is one area where we could actually work together. China’s involvement could also have a chilling effect on Iran. Trump may not value alliances and allies, but if he wants to blunt Iran’s sabotage without war, now would be a good time to become less belligerent and less unilateral and work with our allies and others who share a stake in the free flow of oil.”
The General agreed with that assessment. He expanded on his thinking that certainly reflected that of the authorities in Washington. “Our ability to bring forces into the theater has acted to deter Iran. We’re in a period right now where they’re sort of calculating and trying to gauge our intent and our commitment,” he told the journalists traveling with him.
Based on these conversations, Ignatius drew an important conclusion. “This measured US response may be the most notable, if least discussed aspect of the confrontation with Iran. US planners reckon that time is on their side. Iran gets weaker with every additional month of economic sanctions. Tehran wants to break out of this straitjacket, but lacking diplomatic channels with the United States, it’s choosing to send messages through kinetic force. Yet the Iranian leaders know they need to be careful.”
Activity in the Persian Gulf was not the only pressure point Tehran was using to prevent its situation from rapid deterioration, something that the Trump administration was aiming at and hoping for. The Iranians were also counting on some help from the Europeans. Three large European nations — France, Germany and the United Kingdom — were party to the 2015 nuclear accord. Tehran had indicated its intention to accumulate lightly enriched Uranium beyond the point established in the 2015 agreement. The Europeans maintain that Tehran’s move reflects a desire to win more economic benefits from the powers in the Continent than to abandon the accord altogether. This issue was discussed by the European foreign ministers when they met in Brussels in mid-July. “None of the parties to the deal believes that Iran is in ‘significant noncompliance’,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said after the meeting of the foreign ministers. Iran continued to allow international inspectors to keep close watch over its uranium enrichment. It had not taken any steps to bring it closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The Europeans were hoping that they will be able to persuade Iran to remain within the bounds of the 2015 accord. To this end, they are launching a complicated trading tool designed to shelter certain transactions from Washington’s sanctions. The financial tool known as Instex had begun to process deals that could bypass the American-dominated international payments system. However, Iran’s principal interest in the instrument being developed was to use it for oil exports. That would be a real incentive for the Iranians to continue to abide by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal but for that Instex had to develop more and faster. That is yet to happen.
In calibrating their moves, both Tehran and Washington were watching other developments in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates announced that it was pulling out its forces engaged in Yemen. The war they and the Saudis were fighting there against the Houthis, who were aided by Iran, showed no sign of ending. It had caused a major humanitarian crisis in that country. The UAE decision was a victory for Iran. Tehran was also pleased with the developments in Sudan, where the military that had the support of both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, agreed to a power-sharing agreement with the leadership of the groups that had caused the long-serving military dictator to leave his position. He had been replaced by a general who had aided the Saudis in Yemen. These positive developments for Iran had to be factored into the way the Americans were approaching Tehran. They should also be factored in the way Pakistan’s shapes its foreign policy.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2019.