By Yonah Jeremy Bob
September 28, 2019
There was no meeting between US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN.
Both Trump and Rouhani hardened their positions, especially brushing aside French President Emmanuel Macron’s compromise plan from earlier September, which had received serious consideration.
Considering that the Islamic Republic blatantly attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil fields in mid-September, broke the 2015 nuclear deal three times over the course of six months and is threatening to violate the agreement more substantially in November, negotiation seems off the table – as does an escalating conflict.
It may even increase the likelihood of an eventual Israeli preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Former top International Atomic Energy Agency official Olli Heinonen told The Jerusalem Post that Iran’s November escalation could be more serious than its previous violations of the nuclear deal’s limits.
If Tehran either starts enriching uranium to the 20% level or reactivates around 1,000 – or even more – IR-2m centrifuges for enriching uranium, its time line to a bomb could very quickly drop from around a year to closer to six months, as the IR-2m enriches uranium at a much faster rate than Iran’s standard IR-1.
It’s true that Iran’s violations to date have been minor. But its increasingly aggressive military behavior and the failure of the US to respond firmly, as described by Institute for National Security Studies expert Emily Landau to the Post, signal that Iran Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ready for more brinkmanship, and that Trump has yielded the upper hand to Iran in the standoff.
In some ways, it is extraordinary that the situation did not deteriorate to a larger degree sooner.
Since the US pulled out of the nuclear deal in May 2018, it has battered Tehran’s economy hard, including its ability to fund Hezbollah and other group’s terrorist causes in the region.
The blow to its economy and to its regional hegemony plans – though it has tried to continue even with reduced funds – have shaken the Islamic Republic’s stability, even as all signs are that it can ride out the current sanctions with Chinese, Russian and other support until the US elections in November 2020.
An even more immediate escalation might be inevitable, if not for Iran having that outside support, and its hope that a new US president will be elected who will rejoin the nuclear deal and drop the sanctions.
In that sense, neither Trump nor Khamenei actually want an immediate military conflict.
But Trump will not remove the sanctions, and Khamenei seems to want to continually violate the deal and increase military pressure as much as possible – both to improve its leverage for any negotiation, and so that Iran can break out to a nuclear weapon faster if it is unsatisfied with the eventual US election results.
There is still a chance that all of this has been last-minute Iran saber-rattling and that it will soon agree to the French-suggested compromise of partial – not full – temporary sanctions relief in exchange for a temporary return to the nuclear deal limits and holding a meeting with Trump.
It seems that Trump might agree to this formula over Israeli objections – as long as he is not seen as fully retracting sanctions upfront.
But Rouhani on Tuesday conveyed that the absence of trust with Trump means that unlike North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, Tehran is unwilling to hold a media-fest summit prior to substantive progress in negotiations.
In some ways, this is not surprising, as North Korea needed the legitimacy from such a meeting, and Iran feels much stronger diplomatically without needing such a meeting.
All of this means that, even if neither leader wants the standoff to blow up into a conflict before the November 2020 election, it could happen anyway.
Iran’s attack on Saudi oil fields crossed new lines, and its expected nuclear escalation in November may eventually leave little room for Israel to ignore the military implications of the deteriorating situation – even if Trump wishes to use only sanctions.