By David Wainer, Glen Carey, and Gregory Viscusi
October 4, 2019
Failed efforts to ease U.S.-Iran tensions on the sidelines of the United Nations have left both sides hardening their positions and diplomats warning of growing mistrust and a risk of escalation.
French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe each tried unsuccessfully to bridge the gap between Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani as they shuttled around midtown Manhattan during the UN General Assembly last week.
In the aftermath, European officials are increasingly grim about how the crisis they long sought to prevent will evolve: Iran has continued installing powerful new centrifuges and could soon seek to reconstitute its stockpile of enriched uranium, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.S. has modestly bolstered its forces as well as Saudi and United Arab Emirate defenses in the Middle East, with officials warning more pressure is coming.
“Barring a diplomatic breakthrough, the region appears to be gradually descending into confrontation,” said Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “The Gulf is the most dangerous theater in the world today.”
The General Assembly provided the easiest forum for Trump and Rouhani to meet, since it is an annual event that attracts world leaders often opposed to one other. No special preparations were needed for an impromptu discussion. With that window closed, repairing a relationship that has been broken for more than four decades gets much harder.
As Rouhani landed back in Tehran at week’s end, Trump put an end to speculation that he was mulling concessions for Tehran, something Rouhani’s government says is necessary for dialogue to take place.
The New York Times said Trump was willing to have a phone conversation with Rouhani on the UN sidelines if a face-to-face meeting couldn’t be arranged, but nothing happened and the president appears to have shifted gears since then.
“Iran wanted me to lift the sanctions imposed on them in order to meet,” Trump tweeted on Friday. “I said, of course, NO!”
And while Rouhani this week signaled he largely backed Macron’s failed initiative, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei scolded the Americans, saying their so-called “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran had failed and vowed to scale back compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement Trump withdrew the U.S. from last year.
“We will continue to reduce our commitments and we should do so resolutely,” Khamenei said, according to his official website.
Armed conflict with Iran could occur around one of the world’s key energy choke points. Oil prices have mostly settled following an unprecedented rise after missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities last month.
But tensions in the Persian Gulf region have repeatedly seesawed this year following attacks on tankers and the shooting downing of an American drone.
In one sign of progress, the Saudis agreed to a limited cease-fire in several parts of Yemen including the capital Sana’a, which is controlled by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, as part of broader efforts to end the four-year conflict. But it remained unclear just how far that would go in easing broader Saudi-Iran tensions.
The head of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command met this week with the chief of Saudi Arabia’s navy to discuss strengthening the kingdom’s maritime defenses against “Iranian aggression,” The Saudis and U.S. officials have said that Iran was responsible for the assault on the oil facilities, something the Tehran government denies.
“This visit was an opportunity to discuss our mutual efforts going forward to coordinate defense against provocation and attack,” Vice Admiral James Malloy said in Riyadh.
The setback for diplomacy means there is no straightforward path forward just as Saudis and the U.S. gauge their response to the attacks. And in a sign of growing distrust, Iran’s top leadership castigated their European partners to the nuclear deal, with Rouhani accusing them of being “unable or lacking in desire” to do what’s necessary while Khamenei said his country cannot “trust them.”
For Trump, one silver lining is that European countries, which have worked over the past year to circumvent U.S. sanctions, have moved closer to the American position. While U.S. allies have long criticized Trump for abandoning the nuclear accord, last week France, Germany and the U.K. rebuked Iran for the Saudi attacks and seemed open to going beyond the 2015 accord by including Iran’s ballistic missile program in a proposed future agreement.
U.S. Diplomatic Win
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo touted the European shift as a diplomatic achievement.
“We hope we can get the opportunity to negotiate with them,” Pompeo said in a press conference, adding that the U.S. “made real progress uniting the world” behind its goals “over the past few days.”
Saudi officials in New York hinted they are working to form a united coalition to confront Tehran rather than go at it alone, but warned their patience would run out if more attacks take place.
“We want to make sure that we avoid war at all costs, but we’re not going to sit there with our hands tied while the Iranians continue to attack us,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Energy analysts say investors are not yet pricing in the potential of a full-blown escalation as they bet Iran will think twice before carrying out a major attack that could force a military response from Trump.
Sign of Weakness
“Iran might be more careful in calibrating it’s position as Trump has doubled down on economic pressure and the Saudis will turn much more aggressive if Iran conducts another Abqaiq scale attack,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group, referring to the attacks on the oil complexes. “The contours of regional escalation have not been fully defined.”
Some of Trump’s biggest congressional allies on foreign policy have warned him that failing to respond to the Saudi attacks is making the U.S. look weak. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said on Twitter that a “weak response over this outrageous Iranian aggression only invites more aggression. It will also eventually lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
That view of how Iranians will view Trump’s response was echoed by Paul Sullivan, an expert on energy and the Middle East at the National Defense University in Washington, who warned that a lack of coordinated global action may encourage Iran to see how far it can push the envelope.
“Doing nothing will just incite the hardliners in Iran to do more attacks or to taunt those who are not responding to their attacks,” he said.