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Foreign Policy

Turning Point for Iran in Game with US

Oct 02, 2019
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

The game between the United States and Iran, which has been heating up since the drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, has recently taken a turn that does not favor Iran. Since the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, which supported the deal, issued a joint statement after they met at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept 23. The statement sided with the U.S. and blamed Iran for attacking the facilities in Saudi Arabia and urged Iran to agree to new talks on its nuclear and missile programs, as well as regional security issues.

It is surprising that Britain, France and Germany have clearly stood on the side of the U.S. while exerting huge pressure on Iranian diplomacy. Since the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran has relied on European support and has adopted a strategy in which Europe copes with moves by the United States. To preserve the Iran nuclear deal, the European countries have also made efforts to keep Iran committed by setting up the INSTEX instrument of settlement for commercial accounts to maintain normal business relations.

However, Iran is not satisfied with Europe just paying lip service, and it has countered U.S. action by resuming uranium enrichment and taking other steps to gradually withdraw from the nuclear deal. Without a doubt, Britain, France and Germany have helped the United States and pressured Iran over the attack on Saudi oil facilities, reflecting their dissatisfaction with Iran’s gradual withdrawal from the deal in recent years. What is even more intriguing is that the three European countries have not only blamed Iran for the attack on Saudi facilities but also publicly echoed the U.S. position that a renegotiation should cover Iran’s missile program and regional security issues.

Iran, having lost its diplomatic support from Britain, France and Germany, will be passive and isolated in this round of the U.S.-Iran game. Thus, it is possible for it to look to lift the U.S. sanctions. It seems to be having a tough time washing off the drone attack. Although Yemen’s Houthi forces repeatedly claimed responsibility, the proof held by the United States and Saudi Arabia weaken the Houthi claim. Instead, the three European countries have shifted to a firm stand on the side of the U.S. Europe’s tough position will also make Iran’s recent step-by-step phasing out of the nuclear deal lose its meaning, because the original intent of the strategy was to speed up the implementation of support for Iran by Europe.

Therefore, it is necessary for Iran to create a new diplomatic plan to avoid the unfavorable turn of diplomatic events. That is why Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif floated a trial balloon on Sept 23, saying that Iran could reach a new agreement with the U.S., with Tehran’s permanent denuclearization offered in exchange for a permanent end to U.S. sanctions. Forced into a corner, Iran kicked the ball back to the U.S. side.

A more interesting incident is that when the United States and Iran were in a state of mutual hostility and U.S. President Trump declared that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded,” news came unexpectedly that Trump had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, in the current U.S.-Iran game, the attack on the Saudi oil facilities is not necessarily the straw that breaks the camel’s back and brings the United States and Iran into military conflict. Neither side can afford the cost of an all-out war, and Trump, who faces the challenge of re-election in 2020, is not willing to lose votes over a war. Nor is he willing to lose the Nobel Peace Prize he is so concerned about.

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