David Patrikarakos is a freelance journalist and author of several books, including “War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century” (Basic Books, 2017).
Iran is “standing down,” declared U.S. President Donald Trump with evident satisfaction as he gave a press conference at the White House Wednesday. His comments came in response to Iran’s missile strike against two U.S. bases in Iraq — an act that caused no injuries or loss of life.
Expert opinion is that the absence of a casualty count was deliberate: Iran wanted a symbolic retaliation to save face without escalating the situation further. This was a view borne out by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s announcement shortly after the strikes that Iran had “concluded” its attacks on the United States and did “not seek escalation or war.”
But if Trump’s speech was designed to end the latest round of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, it also spelled out clearly over what issue the next round will be fought.
Before he even greeted his audience, Trump uttered a phrase that has underpinned his Iran policy since he took office: “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” he said. This is nothing new. What is instructive is the timing — and what came next.
Internal politics are playing aggravating roles on both sides.
Trump’s press conference was addressing the events following Washington’s assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. He was letting the world know that — before anything else, even an Iranian attack on a U.S. target — his No. 1 issue of conflict with Tehran remained its nuclear program.
He followed up his declaration by saying that “the time has come” for the other P5+1 nations (the United Nations Security Council powers plus Germany) to “break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA, and we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”
Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA and reinstated U.S. sanctions on Iran in May 2018. Since then, the European powers and to a lesser degree China and Russia have struggled to hold the agreement together, with little success. Up until now, Trump has been largely inclined to leave them to it. No longer. We are entering a new phase of yet more pressure on the Iranian nuclear program.
What makes this crisis so acute is that after Soleimani was killed, the Iranians announced that they would violate their central commitment under the JCPOA, centered on uranium enrichment.
Specifically, Tehran said it would no longer abide by limitations on its capacity to enrich. Nor would it cap the level of enrichment or its stock of enriched material. Uranium enrichment is Iran’s most likely path to a nuclear bomb. If left to continue down this path the regime could — theoretically — reach a “break out” capacity in around six months or so.
We should be worried. If there has been one constant between Trump’s foreign policy and his predecessor Barack Obama’s, it is the absolute determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capability. Even under the far more dovish (on Iran at least) Obama, U.S. officials told me that the one thing that would force the administration’s hand militarily would be if Iran made a dash for a bomb.
Tellingly, Iran has not said it is abandoning the nuclear deal. Its actions are reversible (and designed to be so). But we are now right back to where we started before the deal was signed. Iran is enriching; the world (especially Washington) is watching — and getting antsy.
Trump has repeatedly said he will do whatever it takes to stop Iran going nuclear; if Tehran continues down this path, he would almost certainly have to strike. He would look irretrievably weak if he didn’t. The crisis has become yet more Manichean — and with that, the possibility of conflict grows.
Internal politics are playing aggravating roles on both sides. The regime in Iran has been facing almost daily protests for over a year now. The government is getting desperate, and violent. The recent conflagration with the Great Satan allowed it to focus on an external enemy and buy some — admittedly limited — breathing space.
What Iran does next with its nuclear program will determine how the standoff evolves from here.
As for Trump: It will have not have been lost on him that while Soleimani was on the front pages of the national press, his impeachment proceedings were not.
The crisis around the general’s death has made one thing clear: Neither side wants open war. But it has also made something else clear. The nuclear issue is the one card a weakened and isolated Iran still has, and it is the trigger for the most bellicose of the U.S. president’s impulses. And it remains utterly unresolved.
We are at a fragile, and dangerous, stalemate. What Iran does next with its nuclear program will determine how the standoff evolves from here. One thing is for sure: Tehran will not abandon enrichment without major concessions from the U.S. or the re-establishment of the JCPOA — neither of which Trump will countenance.
Don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. The matter at the heart of this dispute — Iran’s nuclear program — means that a return of the conflict is all but guaranteed.