May 16, 2019 | By Brian Hanson, Ariane Tabatabai, Michael Singh

Deep Dish: Does President Trump Want a War with Iran?

The White House escalated warnings about a threat from Iran this week, Tehran warned it may resume enriching uranium at higher levels, and more US warships were sent to the Middle East. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute and Ariane Tabatabai of the RAND Corporation join Deep Dish to explain what's going on.

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Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, Going Beyond the Headlines on Critical Global Issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about Iran. It's been a full year since President Trump ended US participation in the nuclear deal that sets limits on Iran's nuclear program, but in just the last few days, tensions between the two countries have ramped up considerably. Washington is levying new sanctions against Iran and is sending warships into the region and Tehran is threatening to resume enriching uranium at higher levels and also appears to be sending illicit oil shipments to Syria. Where is all this going and are we even possibly headed towards war? To help us answer these questions, we have two distinguished experts. First, Ariane Tabatabai who is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She is also coauthor of the book Triple Axis: Iran's Relations with Russia and China. Welcome Ari, it's great to have you on Deep Dish.

Ariane Tabatabai: Thanks for having me again.

Brian Hanson: And joining us as well is Michael Singh who is the Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and managing director at The Washington Institute. He was previously a senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.

Brian Hanson: Mike, great to have you back in Deep Dish as well.

Michael Singh: Thanks very much.

Brian Hanson: There's a lot going on in terms of the interactions currently between Iran and the US and Ariane, let me start with you. Of this range of activities that's happened recently, what do you see is the most important of all the things that have happened and why?

Ariane Tabatabai: As you said, there's a lot going on and I think many of the activities, many of the events we've seen are important in their own rights. I think the most significant thing has been the announcement by Iran on May the 8th to resume certain activities in incremental sort of way and really trying to dial up the pressure against the Europeans in particular to act and to afford Iran the economic recovery that it's been looking for and it doesn't feel like it's been receiving over the past few years. This is a bit of a departure from the past year where Iran had made certain statements but it had largely tried to sort of keep the status quo going. We were anticipating some sort of action, but it's finally here and I think that's been the most significant thing we've seen in the past few months.

Brian Hanson: Mike, do you agree with that? 

Michael Singh: I do agree. I think we've entered a new phase actually of this confrontation between the US and Iran. You know what I mean? Prior to the events in the last week or so for the Trump administration, it was sort of the best of both worlds, you could argue, because they were ramping up pressure on Iran to try to get this new, bigger, better deal that the president has talked about. But Iran was largely remaining within the limits of the joint comprehensive plan of action, the Iran nuclear agreement. In a sense that was unexpected I think for a lot of people, but it also wasn't producing the policy outcomes that I think the United States wanted. Obviously, there were no new negotiations with Iran, the Iranian regime was not really on the brink of collapse. In other words, there was a big effect from sanctions but not much movement in terms of policy. The US, I think, made a decision to double down on sanctions in an effort to, let's say, stop Iran from just waiting out the pressure in hopes that maybe President Trump wouldn't win a second term and they could just hold out. Iran, in turn, decided to stop complying with the JCPOA. Not right away but essentially to threaten an end to its compliance as of this expiration, the 60-day deadline. I think that really puts us in a new phase because I don't think the Europeans can do what the Iranians need to do. Unless Iran is willing to accept some kind of face saving solution from Europe, we're back in a cycle of escalation like we had in the mid-2000s.

Brian Hanson: Before we pursue down that escalation route, I want to pick up on this point about what the Europeans can deliver. Ariane, you had this really smart op-ed in the New York Times that explored exactly this question. If the Iranian nuclear deal could be saved, can it?

Ariane Tabatabai: Well, so I think the Rouhani statement is actually pretty significant in giving us some clues as to what the Iranians might be looking for. The statements, I listened to the 30 minutes of it several times and there are a number of caveats in there that I don't think have been reflected very well in our media. I think that those caveats are essentially designed to give the Rouhani government some sort of flexibility with regard to how it proceeds and what it's willing to accept in 60 days from the Europeans. Just to give you one example of these caveats I'm talking about. Rouhani mentions that if in 60 days the Europeans are unable to deliver what Iran is looking for and he highlights specifically two items, the oil and banking restrictions that Iran is facing, he said that Iran would make a decision to resume the activities that pertain to the heavy water reactor in Arak. Now the keyword here is we'll make a decision rather than it will resume those activities and I think that is designed to give some sort of flexibility to the Iranians where in 60 days, in a number of weeks if nothing has been done, if they don't feel like the Europeans are delivering as they have promised, then they can say, well, we have made the decision right now to do X, Y, and Z and to actually, again, take a more restrained approach than what I think many people in Iran would like the government to take. The statement itself is designed to buy Iran some time. It's also designed to buy the Rouhani government some sort of political capital as it continues the implementation of the deal. I'll also add this. I don't believe that the Iranians want the JCPOA to collapse right now. I don't believe that they want to have to stop implementing or actually to start violating the terms of the agreements. I think what they're doing here is really to try to continue the process through November 2020 to be precise when we will have elections and which will determine what happens next. Whether the Trump administration gets a second term or if a Democrat perhaps or a different Republican wins who may be inclined, especially if it's a Democrat, to go back into the JCPA. We can debate whether or not that's feasible. I'm not very optimistic but the point is that for the Iranians at least, the next few months are a period of wait and see. I think they've done everything they can to do just that to continue this period to buy themselves some time and some flexibility here.

Brian Hanson: Mike, you talked about the administration really doubling down on the maximum pressure approach. These waivers that they have drawn that allowed Iran to export oil to a number of countries in the world being a very significant economic sanction. Is there more that we can do to turn up the economic pressure on Iran or basically, was that the last card that we could play that plus some sanctions on steel, aluminum, iron, copper industries, et cetera? Are there additional things we can do on the economic side?

Michael Singh: There are additional things we can do and I do think that's the road we're headed down. At this stage, I think US policy is maximum pressure, as the Trump administration has called it, combined with this sort of broad diplomatic opening where the president says call me to the Iranian. I think there is more we can do along the lines of maximum pressure. The sanctions that were just announced on industrial metals is a good example of that. I think when the oil sanctions came out or when the sort of nonrenewable oil waivers to be more precise, people assume that that was sort of our last bullet, that this was the most we could do and it is by far the most significant step that we can take. I think we're moving on to what are called sectorial sanctions. These sanctions on Iran's industrial metals industry are the first sectorial sanctions since 2013 and probably a sign of things to come. There are other sectors to Iran's economy, the automotive sector, things like this and those might be the next target. These are significant because of two things, really. One, they like Iran's oil export industry provide Iran with sources of foreign exchange. That foreign exchange is incredibly important to Iran being able to withstand these sanctions and continue to, for example, buy imports so things like food and whatever else it may need as well as pay people overseas like its proxies. Second, these are important because they also are sources of employment within Iran and so targeting these broad sectors could theoretically lead to labor unrest and things like that inside Iran. There is more pressure that can be brought to bear. This takes me back to Ari's last answer and while I hope she's right, I don't know that I believe that these caveats that President Rouhani put on his statement were as significant as Ari believes they are because I think that ultimately, having set this deadline of 60 days, it will be tough for President Rouhani after 60 days if he gets nothing to say, well, we've decided not to do anything. Setting this kind of deadline for a policymaker generally forces your hand and I think the question really ultimately is what is Iran willing to accept from the Europeans? If he's willing to accept symbolic, political or face-saving measures such as Europe finally activating this so called special purpose vehicle or INSTEX, then perhaps the Europeans can satisfy him. They'd been holding off on activating it because they've been waiting for some steps on Iran's side, some sensible steps relating to money laundering and so forth. Protections against the illicit use of the channel.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, and this channel just to be clear would allow there to be payments for oil to go to Iran that wouldn't have to pass through the US system, which is under sanction, right? That's the point of that channel.

Michael Singh: It would allow for payments although not at first for oil. Europeans have said that only non-sanctioned transactions would take place so humanitarian transactions, for example, food, medicine and so forth. It might have some other limitation as well. The point though is that if ultimately Iran is looking for significant steps from the Europeans, the Europeans I think simply cannot deliver those steps. I mean, the power of American sanctions is that they essentially compel private sector, commercial entities in other countries not to do business with Iran. There isn't that much that the governments of those countries can do short of their own forms of compulsion to get those transactions to continue. I don't know that there's much that can happen before the 60-day deadline approaches.

Brian Hanson: Ari, how do you see the 60-day deadline? What happens after 60 days?

Ariane Tabatabai: Yeah. I agree with a lot of what Mike said. I think the main thing where I see things perhaps a little differently is that I think the statement buys enough flexibility just by virtue of the fact that Rouhani was very vague in the way he described what he's looking for from the Europeans in addition to being fairly vague about what happens next. I mean, he laid out steps, he talked about after 60 days Iran wouldn't see itself bound by the provisions limiting the level at which Iran can enrich uranium and also the heavy water provisions I mentioned earlier on. He, again, he added things. He added caveats such as we will make a decision about that, which already buys a bit of flexibility but also the fact that he was not very specific about what it is that Iran is looking for. That leads me to believe that they are fairly ... they understand the Europeans are limited in what they can achieve and what they can deliver. The Iranians are not looking for the magic bullets. What they're looking for is political and symbolic steps that will allow them to buy some more political will at home to continue the implementation of the nuclear deal. I don't think that they have the illusion that the Europeans will be able to magically circumvent US sanctions or that they will pick sides and that that side will be Iran in the ongoing tensions between the two countries.

Brian Hanson: Well, this set of economics issues has been playing itself out on the security side? We've seen action as well including declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization and then the decision to deploy a US carrier strike group and bomber task force into the region. Mike, how do you view this? Is this an escalation and is it dangerous?

Michael Singh: Well, I think that when the US decided to attempt to take Iran's oil exports down to zero by not renewing the waivers that allowed Iran to export around a million to a million 0.3 barrels of oil per day, a lot of people feared that Iran's reaction would be to target US interests, allied interests or regional energy infrastructure, regional energy interests in response to that because Iran has often said through the years that if it isn't permitted to export oil, it won't permit others in the region to export oil either, especially US allies of course. This has often been looked at in the context of Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz but I think, and you can view the news in this past week of the targeting of some oil tankers in the Gulf, some Saudi oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, that ultimately these types of retaliation could take other forms. They could take the form of proxy attacks on US forces, proxy attacks on US interests or allies, as well as the types of lower level attacks on regional and energy infrastructure. Things which are less likely to provoke perhaps an open conflict. Obviously, it's in the US interest to deter those kinds of steps. Moving assets to the region, assets which reportedly were already on their way in any event already planned to be deployed in the region anyway as well as issuing warning, you could argue with actually just prudent deterring, an effort to show Iran that no, we will not in fact sit back if you're intending to target our interests.

Brian Hanson: Ari, how do you see the military deployment? Is that an effective deterrence approach?

Ariane Tabatabai: Yeah, I mean, I agree with Mike. I think that a lot of the activity we're seeing right now is, first of all, sort of business as usual perhaps being packaged slightly differently and the narrative around it may be a little more forceful than what you would normally have. A lot of the activities and the Gulf specifically have been fairly standard and so we should shouldn't freak out about them, right? Whether it's effective deterrence, I think it remains to be seen. I think that the challenge here is not so much that the Iranians want a conflict or that the US wants a conflict, but rather accidental escalation, which can be a result of a lack of channels of communication and ways off ramps that will allow us to deescalate tension. I want to add one more thing which is that interestingly, if you look at the most hard line elements of the regime, their interpretation of what's going on in the United States is actually fairly reasonable. They are looking at it saying, well, this is deterrence, this is business as usual. They're not looking at the carrier movement or any of the sort of news reports that we've seen over the past week that have led a number of people to go into a frenzy. They're seeing all of that as sort of this is not new. This is something that it's a continuation of traditional US foreign policy. They're not overreacting in that sense. What has been interesting though is that you have a lot more wariness, more concern, coming from the Rouhani camp, the more moderate, traditionally moderate camp who are using this opportunity to say that, look, the status quo was not sustainable. We need to be doing something and we may very well end up in a conflict with the United States, which of course the hardliners have pushed back and said, well, again, this is normal. This is business as usual in the US.

Michael Singh: If I can, I want to just chime in with something because I think that Ari hits on something here when she talks about accidental escalation. It's true that deploying bomber squadrons, carrier strike groups to the Middle East is a pretty conventional step by the United States. It's right out of the kind of deterrence playbook and it's something that Iran has seen many times before and thus is likely not to overreact to. I think that if there's escalation, however, accidental can be a misleading term because we worry about accidental conflicts in places where, for example, like Syria where you have US and Russian forces operating side by side, not targeting each other but in a crowded environment mistakes and accidents can happen. Between the US and Iran, we worry about something else, I think. Iran, if it takes a step to target US interests will be quite deliberate and they will, I think, try to calibrate their steps so as not to prompt American retaliation against Iran itself, which is why they work through proxies and using deniable attacks that they don't necessarily own up to right away. The attack on these oil tankers is a good example. Of course, we don't know if it was perpetrated by Iran, and that's part of the point. It takes time to attribute these attacks. Sometimes you can never attribute them with any certainty and therefore, it makes responding more difficult. Cyber attacks can be the same way. I think what is different in this environment is that the Trump administration offers a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, President Trump has been clear that he does not want more military involvement in the Middle East. On the other, President Trump seems perhaps more inclined than his predecessors to respond forcefully to provocations. Look, for example, at his response to the Syrian chemical weapons attacks over the past couple of years in contrast to President Obama's reluctance to respond to such steps. I think it probably will be harder for the Iranians to accurately judge what is an attack that doesn't merit American retaliation versus one that would bring American retaliation. That maybe is where some of the risks enters in here.

Brian Hanson: In a crisis, one of the things that can often be useful if there are channels of communication between the two sides so that there can be at least some sort of dialogue about what's happening and why and better understanding to avoid escalation. In this case, is there any channel of communication between the Trump administration and Iran?

Michael Singh: There is a channel, it's the channel that has existed now for many years, decades in fact and that's the Swiss channels. The United States and Iran can still pass messages to one another via the Swiss who are the United States protecting power into Iran. In fact, there was an allusion to this in recent days where there was this report, which I actually found a bit dubious, that the US had passed the White House phone number to the Iranian via the Swiss. But the fact is that the United States and Iran have used this channel many times in the past, the past messages about warnings, threats and so forth.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, I guess the other, and this may be a reach, but to just ask about a parallel and another form of at least rhetorical escalation in a different part of the world was President Trump's escalation over in the North Korea situation, in which he talked about fire and fury raining down on the North Koreans. Today, quite famously, he talks proudly about his relationship with Kim Jong-un. Are the Iranians paying attention to that in terms of trying to interpret Trump's behavior or is there anything that he established there that could be helpful or unhelpful in this situation?

Ariane Tabatabai: Well, yeah. I mean the Iranians were paying very close attention to what was going on with North Korea. I mean there is a part of the Iranian establishment that watch the events that led to the first summit and then what has happened since saying, look, the North Koreans were right. They went ahead, they acquired a nuclear weapon and now the world has to contend with them even though the United States doesn't like the fact that there are nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, but they have to accept it. They deal with North Korea in a different way from the way they've dealt with Iran. There's also been some discussion about the best approach to the Trump administration's negotiating tactics, whether or not the Iranians would be better off actually coming to the table and negotiating with President Trump rather than waiting for the next administration because the Trump administration has demonstrated that it's willing to dial up the pressure pretty significantly, but it's also willing to dial it down pretty quickly, as was the case in North Korea. There have been discussions about whether or not it would make sense for Iran to come to the table and get a similar agreement or at least to try to get a similar agreement to what was ... or that it wasn't an agreement, but what was the settlement that was reached essentially between the United States and North Korea in the first summit. Yeah, they've been paying close attention to that and it's generated quite a lot of debate about what should happen.

Brian Hanson: Mike, do you think this could be effective that the Iranians may come to Trump to negotiate?

Michael Singh: Well, there've been US-Iran negotiations under just about every president, in fact. It would be unsurprising if there were US-Iran negotiations under President Trump and President Trump has in fact said that that is what he wants. Now, that doesn't mean that it will be easy or uncontroversial. For sure, I'm sure that there are some in the administration who will be very skeptical about US-Iran negotiations at this time and would prefer to allow pressure time to work, so to speak. Historically, the US and Iran have talked to each other, which is a bit contrary to the conventional wisdom. I think what you won't have between the US and Iran is the type of engagement you had between the US and North Korea and so President Trump is really waiting for the supreme leader of Iran, for example, or maybe even President Rouhani to reach out. That I think is unlikely to happen. North Korea for its own reasons was looking for the legitimization that came with the Kim-Trump summit. I think for Iran, it's almost the reverse. They would see the idea of sitting down with the American president as one which was dangerous for them. Remember President Rouhani didn't want to sit down with President Obama because he worried about the effect it would have on him at home.

Brian Hanson: And Ari, how do you see this playing out at home? The sanctions are biting, the economic pressure is higher, President Rouhani talked about this could be a situation as severe as the war between Iran and Iraq but basically, trying to steal the population to persevering through this time of economic hardship. Can that work?

Ariane Tabatabai: Yeah, I think the appetite for negotiations between the US and Iran is currently lacking. That's not to say that in four years if we have another Trump administration, a second term in the Trump administration, that it wouldn't happen but at least in the first term, I don't see that happening. I think there's been too much pushback domestically. The supreme leader who typically doesn't just dictate what happens in foreign policy but who sets the framework for negotiations and for foreign policy decision making is very much against any kind of negotiations. That leads him to go back to the pre-2013 status where he was very much rejecting the notion of any kind of negotiation. I think domestically within Iran that is not going to happen, at least in the first term of the Trump administration. I think that if there is any kind of appetite for negotiation, it has to be limited to the JCPOA itself to negotiating with the Europeans and to try to sustain the deal rather than coming back to the table to negotiate a so-called big-for-big kind of agreements with the United States.

Brian Hanson: We've been talking about this set of developments in primarily a bilateral way between the US and Iran. I want to broaden the aperture just a little bit. Ari, this is the subject of of your book about how does this set of interactions and this increasing tension, how do the relationship, Iran's relationship with Russia and China play into this set of dynamics? Is it relevant? And if so, how?

Ariane Tabatabai: Yeah, it's absolutely relevant. The Chinese and the Russians are part of the negotiating ... the countries that negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran and are now among the remaining parties to the agreement. They are trying to sustain the deal and they have an interest in the JCPOA's survival. They play an important role in the nonproliferation provisions of the deal, the Chinese especially, and the Russians of course are very involved in the Iranian nuclear program as a supplier. Also in the case of China as a very important factor in Iran's economic recovery and sanctions relief. The thing though is that, and again going back to the statement that was made by Rouhani, the Iranians wouldn't come to the negotiating table to work with the Chinese and the Russians. They were already doing that and so for them the primary target in their decision to come back to the negotiating table in 2013 was to open up channels of communication with the United States and to open up and deepen economic channels with the Europeans. Europe really here now is the primary reason why Iran is sustaining the nuclear deal. They want to continue working with the Europeans and they really see Europe as the key factor in the sustaining of the nuclear deal. I see the Russians and the Chinese playing a bit of a secondary role in that front, but I suspect Mike will disagree with me.

Brian Hanson: Mike.

Michael Singh: Well, I don't know that I disagree. In fact, I think that if you go back to the history of this issue, the United States made a decision in the mid-2000s that we needed the Russians and Chinese to be a part of the P5+1 process because our strategy centered in part on getting UN Security Council resolutions passed that would impose sanctions on Iran and for that you need Russia and China. The Russians played a role of essentially Iran's advocate within the UN Security Council, delaying resolution, diluting resolutions but ultimately, went along with those resolutions six times in a row. The Chinese were less involved in the process, period. If you fast forward to today, I don't think that Russia is a tremendously valuable partner for the Iranians when it comes to this issue. They're obviously partners in other ways. For example, in Syria, they work closely together despite some differences because they both want to save the Assad regime and prevent the United States from accomplishing its objectives. But Russia is not a big export market for Iran. Russia doesn't have significant capacity in the Middle East to protect Iran in a way and of course, the two countries have a negative history, a tortured history. If you look at the Iran-China relationship, it's a much more interesting relationship in the modern day because China, which has expanding ambitions around the world, including in the Middle East, I think sees Iran as a country which is strategically important to it, especially for its energy security because Iran is the one country on the Persian Gulf with oil not allied with the United States and it also offers potential land routes for energy to China. However, I think China overall is still pretty indecisive, hesitant, and so forth when it comes to its overall commitment to the Middle East. I don't think China is going to, again, ride in any way to Iran's rescue, not during this decade and maybe not during the next decade. Ultimately, Iran is facing the United States by itself without any key allies. It has some experience doing that obviously, but I think even today is not really looking to Russia and China as Ari said for any significant help here.

Brian Hanson: As we close, I promise I won't ask you to predict the future about what's going to happen here, but I would like to ask each of you to do is to indicate what is the most important thing that our listeners should focus on as events continue to emerge in this dynamic between the US and Iran. In order to understand where things are going, what's the most important thing they should follow?

Michael Singh: Well, look, I think right now the most important thing is what Iran decides to do on its nuclear program. This goes back to the conversation about this 60-day deadline that President Rouhani set. If it's a serious deadline and if Iran begins to ramp up its nuclear activities even in an incremental way, that could force the United States to really make some difficult decisions because increasing its enriched uranium stockpile, increasing the level of its uranium enrichment will cause Iran's breakout time to start to diminish. I really doubt that President Trump wants to hand his successor a reduced Iranian breakout time or, frankly, to deal with a very short Iranian nuclear breakout time in a second term should he win one. It would force some difficult decisions for the United States. Whether that decision is to further escalate ourselves or engage in a different kind of a policy, a different kind of diplomatic process perhaps. That I think is really going to be the driving factor here.

Brian Hanson: And Ari.

Ariane Tabatabai: Yeah, I fully agree with Mike. I think one more thing to be added here is that if the Iranians decide to actually follow in and put their money where their mouth is and start to take on activities after the 60-day period, they will also be looking at a Europe that would be pushed closer to the United States. Currently, the gap between Europe and the US is pretty wide on the nuclear issue, at least. I think the Europeans share many of the same concerns with Iran that the United States has on the ballistic missile program, Iran's regional activities, human rights and so on and so forth, but at least on the nuclear deal, they do believe that the Trump administration did not take the best course of action, that the ideal way to deal with it would have been to keep the JCPOA and talk about extending some of the sunsets and to try to act to the deal essentially. Now, if the Iranians in 60 days begin to enrich uranium at a higher level, for example, or if they resume activities on the heavy water reactor as they've threatened to do then the Europeans will very quickly join the US camp on the nuclear issue and we'll see perhaps a more United EU and US front than we have seen in the past year.

Brian Hanson: So Ariane Tabatabai of the RAND Corporation and Michael Singh of the Washington Institute, this has been a fascinating conversation, very helpful to understand a set of events that are unfolding very, very quickly in a way to track them as they continue. I want to say thanks to both of you for being on Deep Dish again.

Michael Singh: Thank you.

Ariane Tabatabai: Thank you.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you liked the show, do me a favor and tap the Subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, please tap the Share button and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs where you can ask our guests followup questions about anything you heard today or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook.  As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I'd like to send a special thank you to Evan Fazio, who for the last few years has produced this podcast and was present at its birth. We're wishing you all the best in your future endeavors, Evan. Our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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