Khaled Al Khalifa is a Bahraini International Fellow at the U.S. Army War College (Academic Year 2020). He has deployment and service experience in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf. He has an interest in Middle Eastern security and defense studies. He can be found on twitter @KhalidBinAli. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing Iran in 2020 Regarding the United Nations Arms Embargo and the U.S. Elections
Date Originally Written: May 18,2020.
Date Originally Published: June 5, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes in the importance of efforts that lead to stability in the Arabian Gulf and the wider Middle East. However, these efforts must start with a true understanding of the environment.
Summary: The United Nations (U.N.) arms embargo will end in October 2020. U.S. President Donald Trump sees this as a failure of the Iran deal, which allows Iran to acquire sophisticated weapon systems. Iran altered its behavior in response to recent actions undertaken by the Trump administration, but Iran also sees opportunity. Stemming from this position, Iran will attempt to undermine the Trump administration through grey zone actions in the near future.
Text: The Islamic Republic of Iran is entrenched in a fierce and continuous grey zone competition, where it pushes an incremental grand strategy designed to achieve net gains to protect it from adversaries and assert itself on the world stage as a dominant regional power. Iran established itself in the regional and international arenas as an aggressive competitor by using an array of tools to further its position. This competitive nature can be traced to much older times when Iran’s policies were hegemonic and aspirational. The current status of Iran’s outlook is not much different; in fact, it became more deliberate and ambitious after it developed the capable means to achieve slow but cumulative gains. Soon after the 1979 revolution in Iran, the institutionalization of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps(IRGC) provided the Islamic Republic with a hybrid tool to control the economy and pursue an eager foreign policy. On the international stage, the Iranian nuclear program enabled Iran to increase its diplomatic signaling and allowed it to engage in negotiations with the West. Regionally, the IRGC oversaw the expansion of the Iranian geopolitical project by asserting itself directly and indirectly through links with state officials used as proxies or the sponsorship of militias and terrorist organizations. The sanctions imposed through the United Nations Security Council in 2006 were taking their toll; nonetheless, Iran remained defiant, signaling a high tolerance. The nuclear deal relieved Tehran, bought its leadership some time, and freed up financial resources to continue funding their geopolitical project. Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraq, the Houthi militia in Yemen and the tremendous lethal and financial support for the Assad regime in Syria, coincided with the 18 months of diplomatic talks that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The P5+1 partitioned the deal by separating it from addressing Iran’s malign behavior and focusing on the nuclear program exclusively. The exclusion of Iran’s support to terrorist organizations and nonstate actors through IRGC handlers in the deal resulted in a signal of acquiescence where Iran’s geopolitical project continued in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond.
The JCPOA was a political and economic win for Iran; it received $1.7 billion from its frozen assets and had economic trade deals with Europe, while it maintained its malign geopolitical activities. In 2015, some U.S. allies in the region voiced their concern privately and while others did so publicly by saying “Iran will get a jackpot, a cash bonanza of hundreds of billions of dollars, which will enable it to continue to pursue its aggression and terror in the region and the world”. Iran was winning in the grey zone to the point it began to boast to the world and taunt its rivals. Nonetheless, this euphoria didn’t last long. In May 2018, the United States government led by the Trump administration decided to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose the sanctions that were lifted under the deal. This move was explained in a White House briefing by the president citing a compelling list of reasons that the deal fails to protect America’s national security interests. Iran’s response was more of the same, it used its nuclear program to signal defiance and maintained its hostilities to the region.
Recently, Iran probed its regional and international competitors in a series of actions which were designed to identify a threshold of tolerance below armed conflict and continue operating right below it. In June 2019, Iran shot down a U.S. military drone and attacked two oil tankers near the Straight of Hurmuz, disrupting one of the world’s most important oil and gas passageways. In September of the same year, Iran launched a drone attack on one of Saudi Arabia’s most important oil processing facilities, which significantly impacted the oil market and crude prices. In December, a rocket attack killed an American contractor and injured several others in Iraq. Although no official claim of responsibility was made, the U.S. held Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian backed militia, responsible. As a result, the U.S. retaliated by targeting Hezbollah in Iraq and, not long after, Qassim Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC. These actions caused a short escalation from Iran, which resulted in more U.S. targeting of Iranian proxies in Iraq. Since then, Iran has halted its hostile activities and reverted to using its nuclear program diplomatically as a bargaining tool.
Iran is observing two events that are important for it to calculate its next moves—the arms embargo expiration date and the U.S. elections in November. The U.S. is leading an effort to extend the embargo in coordination with the U.N. Security Council and urge the other E3 countries of China and Russia to support this action. This effort is a continuation of the “maximum pressure” campaign, which started after the U.S. withdrew from the JCPOA to coerce Iran into a new deal. Iran’s President threatened a “crushing response” if the arms embargo was prolonged as reaching that date is a significant political goal. The rapprochement established under the Obama administration created diplomatic channels, which resulted in understanding and agreement between the leadership of both countries. Iran is keen on reestablishing those channels to work towards lifting the sanctions and sticking to the terms of the JCPOA. The political investment, past gains, and official Iranian statements all indicate their high interest in reverting to the JCPOA days. Therefore, the U.S. elections is an important date on Iran’s calendar. Concessions before those dates are not foreseeable as the Trump administration continues to signal an open door to negotiate a new deal that guarantees the curtailment of Iran’s nuclear path and addresses Iran’s behavior in the region and around the world. Any move that Iran makes before those dates will be designed to incur audience costs against the Trump administration. An election year amid a pandemic crisis offers enough obscurity for Iran to remain in the grey zone and continue its destabilizing activities and policies.
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