By James Stavridis
January 16, 2021
Iran’s announcement that it would begin enriching uranium to 20%, well over the limit of 4% set in the 2015 nuclear agreement, sounded a clear warning in advance of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. The Iranians followed up by seizing a South Korean tanker in the Arabian Gulf, claiming it was violating environmental standards — a rich accusation from a nation that has planted mines in the Strait of Hormuz.
The US, for its part, recently deployed long-range bombers fitted with cruise missiles to the Gulf, and the aircraft carrier Nimitz is on station (after a brief and perplexing announcement that she would sail for home). The US also has cruisers and submarines with tomahawk land-attack missiles in the region, poised for action.
What is happening in Tehran, and how will US-Iranian relations spin out in 2021?
As the old saying goes, all politics is local, and Iran is no exception. The political heat is rising in Tehran as presidential elections approach this summer. Poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has increased popular discontent. The economy is battered by US sanctions, entering its third consecutive year of recession.
Additionally, anger over the killing of General Qassem Soleimani by a US drone strike in Iraq a year ago this week remains on a slow burn, with promises of retaliation. Hatred of Israel was stirred by the assassination, allegedly directed by the Mossad intelligence agency, of a key Iranian nuclear scientist. The new Abraham accords aligning Israel and Gulf Arab states, orchestrated by the US, represent an increasingly tight bond of the anti-Iran alliance.
All this leaves the ayatollahs and Iran’s secular politicians desiring to show strength against the US.
I spent much of my naval career on the Gulf, and have serious respect for Iranian military capabilities. Especially when I was embarked in a nuclear aircraft carrier, I was concerned about Iran’s capability to deploy diesel submarines in those shallow waters against our heavy combatants.
The Iranians would routinely “buzz” our ships with aircraft and high-speed small boats, while peppering the airways with “death to Satan” sloganeering. They have enough mines to at least temporarily shut down the Strait of Hormuz, through which flows around 30% of the world’s oil. And their growing capability in cyberwarfare is well documented.
Everyone needs to recognize that Iran could inflict a great deal of misery on the world economy in general and the Middle East in particular.
Given the impending departure of the Donald Trump administration, which has pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign, the Iranians are playing their hand smartly. Clearly, they will undertake a series of military and diplomatic moves intended to show the US and its allies that it will not be possible to simply resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal with additional restrictions on Iranian ballistic missiles and terrorist activities — both of which are red lines for the ayatollahs.
Iran’s leaders will want to demonstrate to their population that they are acting with determination against US “aggression” and are not begging to return to the nuclear deal. Indeed, much as the Biden team hopes to strengthen the old agreement, Iran’s leaders will seek to weaken it.
All this is further complicated by the involvement of Russia and China as principals in the original pact. China in particular has been moving strategically closer to Tehran, consummating a whopping 25-year, $400 billion investment and military cooperation deal last summer.
For Team Biden, the best course is initially to go not to Tehran, but to Brussels. Only by getting the European Union allies in full alignment can the US hope to reconstruct a workable accord with Tehran.
This multilateral approach should be supported by a three-part military-diplomatic strategy: Maintaining significant defense capability in the region — at least a carrier strike group — to discourage adventurism and further tanker-seizing; constructing a negotiating position that includes both carrots (some immediate sanctions reductions) and sticks (threat of longer-term isolation from global markets); and promoting engagement to allow diplomacy to play out before any further confrontation.
While it’s probable that things will play out slowly in advance of the Iranian election, it is impossible to rule out a black swan event in the waning days of the Trump presidency, especially given all the distraction in Washington right now. The odds of the Trump team conducting a military strike seem low. However, the chances of a miscalculation on the waters of the Arabian Gulf are far from negligible, given Iran’s latest provocations.
Over the years, I’ve bought many Persian carpets while deployed in the region, including some Tabriz-style rugs that I cherish. When you walk into a carpet shop in the Middle East, expect that the initial price on offer will be far, far too high to pay. Iran wants a starting point with the Biden administration that is well above the value of the rug on offer at this point. Buyer beware.