Ibrahim Al-Shammary (Al Riyadh Newspaper)
Flawed Nuclear Deal and Washington Options.. Worst-case Scenarios (3-3)

Iran is trying to reuse tactics that were used earlier and achieved its goals, and to develop new ways to circumvent the US sanctions.

Meanwhile, the US administration adopted the "Maximum Pressure" strategy to reach a new nuclear deal to put a brake on Iran and an end to its terrorism. Sanctions are the main leverage within this strategy, through gradual escalation with offering to sit at the negotiating table to reach a new deal.

In this episode, we are discussing scenarios for the US-Iranian crisis and their repercussions, and assessing their chances.

Military Confrontation Scenario

After the expiration of the exemptions granted to the Iranian oil eight importers in May 2019, the US-Iranian crisis started to move towards escalation, and the Iranian reactions were rapid and successive. The escalation policy prompted observers to question the option of a military confrontation as one of the expected worst-case scenarios.

Early May 2019, the US sent a number of warships led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, marine and air Patriot missile batteries, and a number of strategic bombers "B-52", and reinforced its forces with the USS Arlington.

On the other hand, Iran refused dialogue and negotiation, and followed the escalation, through operations carried out by its agents in the region. It threatened to disrupt the shipping movement if the siege on selling its oil was not lifted, and also targeted two Saudi oil refineries by booby-trapped drones. In June 2019, the US accused Iran of being responsible for an attack that caused two oil tankers to explode in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. Then, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard announced the downing of a US spy drone in southern Iran. The escalation was in full swing when President Trump announced on April 1st 2020 that Iran will pay a "very high price" for any attack by it or its proxies on US targets in Iraq, but he did not go into detail. Then made another statement on September 15th 2020, warning Iran against planning any attack on the US, vowing "1000 times greater' response."

The war scenario is also supported by the fact that many of the actors on both sides are conservative hawks. In the Trump administration, there is Mike Pompeo who is more hawkish towards Iran. On the Iranian side, there are the traditional conservatives who raise the slogan "Death to America" and who have opposed the nuclear deal from the get-go.

This is in addition to the important Israeli role, which sees Iran's nuclear experiments as a threat to Israel's national security, and desire to exploit Trump's term, as well as the pressure of the Kingdom and the UAE in this direction to end this project that threatens the whole region.

This military confrontation between the US and Iran, if it does not take place, even partially, will push Iran not to engage in dialogue, and encourage it to activate the role of its proxies to strike the US interests in the region and target its allies, and it may push the Hezbollah militia to attack Israel in an attempt to raise the US costs of the conflict. It may continue to target the US bases in Iraq, which resulted in some withdrawals from these bases in the interest of the armed militias and Iran, and the US complacency with Iran's violations encouraged the Houthis to bomb Saudi cities and oil facilities.

The US complacency also encouraged Iran to engage more in an alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan, killing more US soldiers and perhaps causing the downfall of the Afghan government, to cut off the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban.

Although Iran has some tools that may cause harm to the interests of the US and its allies, and is well aware of the difference in military capabilities between them, the economic and social repercussions and the escalation of popular rage towards the regime will push it to use its proxies in the region to keep dealing blow to the US interests and its allies.

On the other hand, there are other considerations that reduce the chance for a military confrontation between the US and Iran. President Trump, who is running for the next presidential elections, does not wish to get into a new confrontation in the Middle East, so he would not lose his popular base that elected him on the basis of the return of the US soldiers from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to homeland.

Moreover, the war may get the US involved for years in the Middle East, costing it billions of dollars that may be burdened successive administrations, not just the Trump administration. Also, the war decision is not individual, but requires the approval of Congress, whose majority rejects escalation.

Likewise, European countries still reject the war option that they see threatening their national security, lacking international legitimacy, exposing them to an unprecedented wave of refugees, and obstructing oil flows to them, in addition to the practical annulment of the nuclear deal and Iran's resumption of its nuclear activities.

Considering these repercussions, the option of war can be ruled out, and the US will continue, especially if President Trump wins the upcoming elections, the Maximum Pressure policies to obtain maximum concessions on the negotiating table. However, the chances of war remain.

Diplomatic Solution Scenario

The US escalation towards Iran is part of the pressure to drag Iran to the negotiating table and obtain the widest measure of concessions, and the Iranian escalation is to raise its negotiating shares later.

The diplomatic solution scenario can be summarized through Iran's commitment to the twelve points contained in Pompeo's document to lift sanctions on Iran.

The Trump administration insists on adhering to these demands, while Iran refuses to negotiate under these conditions, as they are - as it has always claimed - an existential threat to its national security, and that it has missile capabilities that can attack vital installations in the Kingdom and the Gulf states, in the event of a US attack.

In addition to its expansion in the region through its proxies to transfer the confrontations outside its territories, Iran uses Lebanon, Syria and Gaza as starting points against Israel, as well as using the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Houthis against the Kingdom. It also links its security with the global energy security and closing the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran also sets other conditions for negotiations, despite its failure to respond to the terms of the US negotiation, which are the commitment of the signatories to the deal to buy its oil and to obtain the earnings of its exports, and activation of the nuclear deal and abiding by its provisions, not to amend it, and it believes that the implementation of the US conditions aims at the collapse of its regime and its surrender.

This is confirmed by Khamenei's remarks, saying: "Negotiating from a position of weakness is a trap, and the only way-out for a country that is under US pressure is to use its pressure tools to urge Washington to change its approach.

In order for Iran not to reach the stage of surrender, it may agree to some conditions, which will increase the pressure on the signatories to the deal to find a solution to the crisis, return to the nuclear deal and its economic gains, even partially, and sell oil and collect its revenues.

The Iranian regime will go on as much as possible with its policy until the US elections, and the arrival of a democratic administration that removes the previous conditions, especially since Biden, a rival to Trump, criticizes the withdrawal from the nuclear deal. In addition to that, there are regional efforts that may be led by Iraq, the Sultanate of Oman, or the Europeans to mediate, because it is impossible to continue the deal practically without the US.

Likewise, it is impossible to continue to circumvent sanctions in the future due to Iran's need for economic resources, and its fear of the return of popular protests extensively.

As for the US, it may bias in the future to the option of negotiation due to the weak Maximum Pressure policy that it has adopted to achieve its goals, remove the tension in its relations with the Europeans, and the US people's  desire to avoid the repercussions of war.

Iran's Strategy to Confront Sanctions

With the increasing US pressure on its partners and allies to adhere to the sanctions and tighten the economic blockade on Iran, so that the Iranian regime avoids the severity of the sanctions, it will direct its economy towards the eastern countries, specifically China, Russia, India and North Korea, as important allies at the political and economic levels, and will adopt methods of deception and unknown destinations to its oil exports.

First: China is the Biggest Outlet

China is the biggest outlet for Iran during the US blockade. It is the first trade partner of Iran and the largest buyer of its oil, and it acquired the share of the French company Total after its exit from Iran. China was also the first country that Javad Zarif visited after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, a matter which confirms the importance of China to the Iranian regime.

Iran provided price cuts to China to promote its oil and sell on credit, so China benefited a lot from the Iranian need for it by paying on credit, instead of paying cash, or bartering the Iranian oil for Chinese products, and this would ensure the flow of oil sales and fill the gap in the exit of European investments.

With the continuation of this type of cooperation, the Chinese role inside Iran will grow, and perhaps hegemony over decision-making in light of the limited options, in addition to the entry of less-quality technology than its European counterpart fleeing sanctions, a matter that will affect the oil sector and the quality of Iranian products.

Second: Russia and Calculation of Damages

After the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, Ali Akbar Velayati, went to Russia to seek its support and search for alternatives, although the trade cooperation between the two sides is very limited, whether during the past sanctions or after lifting them.

The Russian Oil Minister commented on that visit by wishing to provide Iran with an opportunity to trade with Russia and buy its products, as if he wanted to say: If there is Russian support for Iran during the period of sanctions, it will not be at the expense of the interests of Russia with the US.

Although Iran is seeking, and will always do, to strengthen relations with Russia, the latter actually have no much to offer, as the Russian economy has sufficient internal economic crises, with an American and European economic blockade against the background of the Russian interference in the US presidential elections, its annexation of Crimea, and its interference in Belarus. Therefore, Russia is in need of increased economic pressure on it, and more differences with the international community for the sake of Iran.

India and a Geopolitical Goal

Oil is the most important commodity linking India with Iran. India is the second largest importer of the Iranian oil, and cooperation between them is likely to continue even during the US sanctions, albeit at lower rates, especially with regard to purchasing oil for free shipping and insurance services, and easy payment.

There is also an Indian geopolitical goal other than energy security, which is the Iranian Port of Chabahar, in order to threaten the great position of the Pakistani Port of Karachi, open markets for its goods in Iran, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries via railways, and access to Turkmenistan gas, and so the US administration exempted it from the sanctions, seeking to complete this project.

North Korea

Iran seeks a future role for North Korea in marketing the Iranian oil to ease the blockade on it, thanks to North Korea's long experience in dealing with international sanctions, as well as smuggling oil into it with Russian and Chinese technical assistance This role was confirmed by the two-day visit of the North Korean Foreign Minister on August 07th 2018, with the launch of the US sanctions on Iran.

We are not exaggerating if we say that both Iran and North Korea have a long and rich history of secret military cooperation. The evidence for this is North Korea’s transfer of weapons to the Houthis with Iranian funds, as well as its sale of nuclear and missile technology to Tehran.

In conclusion, the Iranian regime has not responded to Trump's call to negotiate, which means that the pressure is still insufficient, and the strategy is weak, and with the Iranian regime still having an opportunity for maneuver, it will not come to the negotiating table willingly.

The US has no choice but to find alternatives to negotiation, and perhaps using force is one of them, or threating with it, to diversify tools and steps to suit the nature and magnitude of goals.

So, the US focus on economic pressures and sanctions to amend the nuclear deal, curb the Iranian regional behavior, and stop its missile threats, needs other pressure mechanisms along with sanctions to achieve goals.

In addition, the US needs to target all Iranian terrorist militias in the region by including them among the border-crossing dangerous entities, and target influential figures within the regime and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Without confronting Iran and its armed militias, the US strategy will be amputated, and will fail to achieve its goal, because Iran's presence in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen gives it influence and bargaining chips for pressure, and makes circumvent sanctions.

In order for the strategy not to lose its influence, especially since the Iranian regime is betting on time until the 2020 US elections, there should be pressure alternatives so that the Iranian regime would feel the seriousness of the US position.

The Iranian file inside the US should also turn into an electoral issue among the contenders for the presidency, given the danger it poses to the US and its allies.

US Strategic Strengths towards Iran:

• The ability to prohibit financial transactions within the scope of sanctions, and to control the  

   Movement of funds due to the status of the US dollar.

• The ability to target private and public Iranian companies.

• The ability to impose sanctions that include transgressing states, companies and individuals. 

• The ability to reduce the Iranian oil exports.

• The ability to coordinate with regional allies to modify the Iranian regime’s behavior, by proving the companies withdrawing from the Iranian market with investment shares in the local markets of the allies, and stopping businesses with the refusing companies.

• The ability to make up the oil shortfall in the global market, in agreement with allies, and to reduce prices in the event of rise.

• Trump's policy is characterized by seriousness, credibility, and pragmatism towards Iran, starting with the withdrawal from the deal to re-imposing full sanctions on Iran.

• The ability to influence the legitimacy of the Iranian regime, especially with the expansion of protests and slogans condemning it, its symbols and policies, and its failure to provide any solutions to its crises in light of a major collapse in the economy.

• The ability to gradually introduce sanctions, which Trump's policy aims to modify the behavior of the regime.

• The ability to undermine the nuclear deal and stabilize the ceiling of negotiations to include Iran's entire hostile and expansionist behavior that threatens the interests of the US and its strategic allies in the region.

• The weakness of Iranian policy options and results in the face of the US pressure, as Iran's reliance on the resistance’s strategy is an experiment that has proven to be a failure, because the Iranian economy is rentier and depends mainly on oil revenues.


• A large gap between the US and the international powers that signed the nuclear deal, which confirmed the continuation of the deal.

• Fear of not being able to persuade importers to stop their oil imports from Iran in the future.

• Fear of failure in dealing with the Iranian ploys to smuggle oil, whether through neighboring countries such as Iraq and Turkey, or following other methods with the help of allied countries.

• The strategy of modifying Iran's behavior is devoid of sufficient tactics to confront it regionally, compared to the magnitude of its threats, a matter which led to the crystallization of an Iranian-Turkish alliance of interests, which Qatar, Syria and the terrorist militias supported by these countries may join in the future, and perhaps with the cover of known countries.

• The US adopting of the negotiation approach, and excluding other options, such as direct or indirect military confrontation, gave the Iranian regime confidence in overcoming sanctions in the future.

• The great experience of the Iranian regime in circumventing sanctions, which it has gained and mastered over four decades.

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