This article was published in Arab News on May 19, 2019.
Waiting for the calm after US-Iran storm
Tensions in US-Iran relations rose further last week because of a statement by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the reaction it provoked from the US. The nuclear deal provides that Tehran will reduce its enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent to 300 kilograms and keep the level of enrichment at 3.67 percent, which is sufficient for running a nuclear power plant.
Rouhani had said, on Feb. 1, that Iran would withdraw from the deal if the US does not allow it to reap the advantages of the JCPOA. In the absence of a positive response by the US, he went one step further on May 8 and said Iran would suspend its commitments in two parts of the JCPOA — the sale of surplus enriched uranium and heavy water. Iran’s withdrawal from these two parts of the agreement means it will be able to keep its enriched uranium stock in the country rather than sell it abroad.
The president also threatened to resume the production of more highly-enriched uranium in 60 days if the other signatories to the JCPOA — Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany — did not protect Iran from US sanctions.
Some EU countries, led by France, tried to take action with a view to protecting Iran from the sanctions — or to protect their own commercial interests — by trying to circumvent them. They introduced a mechanism to avoid using the US dollar in their transactions with Iran. Instead of monetary transactions being required, the Iranian companies selling oil to European companies would accumulate credits that could then be used to purchase products from a different EU firm. In other words, the mechanism would function as a clearing house. Many EU companies were eager to benefit from this mechanism, but the biggest were reticent because they feared Washington would punish them or their branches operating in the US.
Despite good intentions, the initiative did not produce the expected results, probably because of strong US pressure. Those who were expecting to see Europe being economically independent from the US were left disillusioned.
The US’ assurances that the occupation of Iran is not envisaged may not be enough to dissipate the worries.
Sanctions imposed on Iran before the JCPOA came into effect did not achieve the target of destroying its economy. Although they are tougher this time, Tehran’s economy is more resilient than many believe.
Turkey is one of the countries affected by the sanctions and it is strongly against them. Ankara does not want to be made part of a bilateral conflict between the US and Iran. As an energy-hungry country, Turkey fails to understand the logic of preventing it from using an existing pipeline that could pump gas from Iran.
The terrorist attack carried out last week just off Fujairah, not far from the Strait of Hormuz, against four oil tankers — two of them identified as Saudi — is directly related to the US-Iran tensions. Experts believe that the damage done to a Norwegian-registered oil tanker shows similarity with the damage caused by improvised sea mines used by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Another attack, this time on the oil pipeline between the east and west coasts of Saudi Arabia, was claimed by the Houthis.
The disclosure by Washington that there are preparations underway for sending a sizeable military unit to the region — 120,000 soldiers according to media reports — may be an indication that everything is connected to this tension. President Donald Trump’s denial of the existence of such a plan does not reduce the tension because US officials had already said the plan was prepared but not yet submitted to the president. The president confirmed the officials’ statement, but said that an even bigger army may be sent to the region if it becomes necessary.
The US administration’s assurances that the occupation of Iran is not envisaged may not be enough to dissipate the worries. If a military operation is carried out in Iran, the casualties will probably be much higher than that of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Iraq, estimates varied about the number of casualties, but between 36,000 and 50,000 people were believed to have been killed because of the false pretext of the weapons of mass destruction the Saddam Hussein regime was accused of possessing.
The White House announced last Wednesday an unscheduled visit to Washington by Swiss President Ueli Maurer. The US’ interests in Iran are taken care of by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran and Switzerland has mediated in the past between the US and Iran. It is unclear whether this visit took place to avoid the worst or to usher in better relations.
One can only hope that this visit may be a turning point in US-Iran relations after several stormy episodes. As the saying goes, “after the storm comes the calm.”