US-Iranian relations at a crossroads

Everybody is boxed in but so far Iran has been the party suffering the most due to sanctions. Tehran strongly feels the way EU has dealt with US sanctions on Iran is a violation of EU’s commitment to the JCPOA.

Under the cover of darkness, thirty Royal Marines under the direction of the Royal Gibraltar Police boarded a ship using a Wildcat helicopter and rigid inflatables and seized the ship. The sea may have been calm, but the capture of the Grace I of Iran which was sailing in international waters was surrounded by police boats and has caused a diplomatic storm. This event took place just two weeks after Iran shot down US-made Global Hawk surveillance drone and has further escalated tension. The Grace I is believed to have been loaded with Iranian oil of the coast of the Gulf and made it as far as Gibraltar, a British overseas territory located at the entrance of the Mediterranean. The incident has added fuel to fire and has put United States and Iran at a crossroads again. Spain revealed that United States had been monitoring the Iranian ship and passed information on to the Gibraltar government. Gibraltar government released a statement saying they have reason to believe the ship was carrying its shipment of crude oil to the Baniyas refinery in Syria.

The Baniyas refinery is a property of an entity that is subject to European Union (EU) sanctions against Syria. The EU does have sanctions against Syria. Spanish authorities were aware of the operation which was demanded by the United States to the United Kingdom, signatories of the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015 before the US withdrew from the deal May 2018. All this was part of the US “maximum pressure” strategy to force Iran to renegotiate the deal. Iran claims the interception was illegal and condemned the action and summoned the British ambassador to Tehran. The US national security advisor, John Bolton called the interception and detention “excellent news.” The Iranians’ are threatening retaliation by seizing a British oil tanker. The British have made their move and sided with the US.

This action, along with British blaming Iran in the Fujairah incident without any evidence (attack on oil tankers on the Fujairah port of UAE) highlights British intentions with regards to Iran and the JCPOA. The British have endorsed the US narrative in recent months. This is a shift in British policy with regards to Iran as they jump on a bandwagon with the US against Iran. Iran feels it has the right to trade oil with Syria as it does not acknowledge the unilateral sanctions imposed by EU or the US and will not be forced into abiding by these sanctions.

The timing of the capture of Grace I is interesting as it comes after the EU announced to make INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) operational, a financial mechanism to maintain limited trade with Iran, thus bypassing the dollar and US financial system. This was a symbolic move by the EU and a signal to Washington that the EU is circumventing the US sanctions. However, Iran does not find INSTEX to be substantive as only limited transactions can be made using INSTEX. The seizure of the Grace I at the behest of US has taken place right before the acting foreign minister of Spain, Josep Borrell was set to become the next EU foreign policy chief. This puts Spain at odds with the British as the seizure was a possible infringement of Spanish sovereignty by the Britain. This not only drives a wedge among the Europeans at this critical juncture who are desperately trying to save and salvage the Iran Nuclear deal. Only time will tell whether this was a calculated move by the United States to order the seizure at this time as it comes within the context of escalating tensions between Iran and the US.

Iran never left the JCPOA and has been abiding by the deal since 2015. Iran’s nuclear sites and activities have been closely monitored by the world’s nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). IAEA February 2019 report states Iran’s facilities are peaceful, and an important part of Iran’s strategy is to reduce its energy reliance on oil and gas. IAEA also stated that Iran has kept the uranium enrichment levels at a low and Iran does not have enough uranium to make a bomb. A year and few months after the US withdrawal from the deal, Iran has responded with the boldest step so far and has stated it will reduce compliance with its 2015 Nuclear deal.

Iran stated it would start enriching uranium to higher levels than allowed in the deal. Iran is playing hard ball to Trump administrations policy of “maximum pressure” and has asked other signatories of the deal to fulfil their end and the international community must help it reap the benefits guaranteed in the JCPOA, or it will stop honoring its commitment to the deal. Iran is going back to square one to deal with EU and US on an equal footing. Iran.

Everybody is boxed in but so far Iran has been the party suffering the most due to sanctions. Tehran strongly feels the way EU has dealt with US sanctions on Iran is a violation of EU’s commitment to the JCPOA. So far, EU nations have been unable to mitigate US sanctions and have warned Iran of the consequences of weakening the deal. Iran has announced reduction of its commitment from the JCPOA rather than withdrawal.

The deal was not perfect, but the deal was working. With Iran abiding by the deal, the United State’s withdrawal was significant. This was a massive reversal in the US foreign policy. The Trump Administration wants to revisit the deal under new and stringent rules and restrictions. The message to Tehran based on suspicion and accusation is to end the pursuit of nuclear weapons and stop testing and proliferating ballistic missiles. One must question what the suspicion and accusations are based upon? Is it the pressure from Saudi Arabia because of the theological war that is being found across the Islamic World and creating a Sunni-Shia divide? Are these accusations based on pressure from Israel which has been critiquing the nuclear deal since 2015 and does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons? While United States allies strongly urged the Trump administration to stay committed to the deal as there were lack of better options.

Evidence by IAEA and other organizations suggests that Iran is not developing a nuclear warhead right now. The IAEA has issued fifteen separate reports confirming Iran’s cooperation with the JCPOA. However, with the future of the deal uncertain it could still decide it needs a nuclear bomb. How fast would it take to build a nuclear bomb under the current conditions? Experts suggests it would take a year.

How does Europe navigate through these tricky waters? How does EU bring the US back to the talking table and keep Iran calm by bypassing US sanction? The EU has failed to act as it said it would with respect to the JCPOA. All parties need to show flexibility and discuss the situation at hand before a red line is crossed. US must signal to Iran that they are willing to talk without preconditions and would be willing to stop some of the sanctions. The US must establish and build trust with Iran rather than apply maximum pressure and use other strategies of fear and intimidation to bring Iran to a new negotiating table.

The Japanese tried to mediate the situation, but it is up to the EU to step in and mediate the situation. President Macron has stepped up his efforts to mediate talks with his office releasing a statement, “The President of the Republic has agreed with his Iranian counterpart to explore by July 15 conditions to resume dialogue between the parties, engage in a de-escalation of tensions related to Iranian nuclear issue.” Ensuring that Iran and US do not end up at crossroads is a diplomatic challenge that lies ahead of President Macron, with the Iranians adamant that the world powers will not get a better deal than the landmark nuclear deal of 2015 and the United States adamant on making sure Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

The author Mohammed Abrar Khan has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences with a major in Political Science from IBA, Karachi. He is currently working at the Pakistan Business Council as a Policy and Development Trainee.


1 Comment

Filed under Discussion, Iran, Pakistan Horizon, Politics, Syria, United States

One response to “US-Iranian relations at a crossroads

  1. Pingback: Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” Doctrine: A Terrible Miscalculation | Pakistan Horizon

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