Looking for foreign success
Yassamine Mather asks what effect the presidential campaign will have on US relations with the Islamic Republic.
When it comes to US-Iran relations, we are truly in volatile, unpredictable times - a bit like Brexit. In late spring and early summer everyone was talking about an imminent attack against Iran’s military bases. The question was not whether such an attack would take place, but when.
Of course, the threat of war is still there. However, we have seen many flip-flops by the Trump administration and time seems to be running out for a military attack, perhaps in the form of air raids. The 2020 US presidential election campaign has already started and there are clear signs that Donald Trump is eager for negotiations and a deal he can sell as his foreign policy success. After all, if you can do a deal with the Taliban, why not with Iran?
The reasons for wanting a war have not changed - the US administration is losing close allies, Trump’s poll ratings are falling, some Republicans are distancing themselves from the president, the economy is doing worse than expected … It is assumed that US gross domestic product will slow down to near 2% in 2019, as opposed to 3% in 2018, and will drop further by 2021. Meanwhile, the real unemployment rate is around 7% (as defined by bourgeois economists, who include in their statistics the ‘marginally attached’ or the ‘discouraged’ - those who have given up looking for work altogether). Everyone is now talking about recession.
All of this adds up to uncertainty in the United States and in these circumstances - as we know from history - conflict abroad is a good diversionary tactic. However, election time brings its own challenges. Yes, Trump needs some clear-cut foreign policy success and the much heralded nuclear deal with North Korea does not really fit the bill. Rather he needs a face-saving ‘peace deal’ - or at least a photo opportunity - with Iranian leaders, so he can say to the electorate, ‘I didn’t accept Obama’s “very bad deal with Iran”, but I achieved my own agreement’. In this context we have seen French president Emmanuel Macron’s ‘relentless’ efforts to mediate between Iran and the United States, and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s visit to the G7 leaders summit in Biarritz. The current semi-secret negotiations in Europe are part of these efforts.
After five hours of talks between Macron and Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, it is widely believed that the French leader is trying to launch a $15 billion credit line to purchase Iranian oil, while seeking US approval for this plan. Iran has given a deadline of September 6 to the Europeans, threatening to resume its nuclear enrichment programme if a deal is not reached by then.
The Macron proposal, which is supported by Germany and maybe the United Kingdom, involves a three-stage process with commitments by both sides that ends with an extended nuclear deal (something Trump can sell as his ‘improved’ version of the nuclear agreement), as well new pledges regarding Iran’s ballistic missile programme and the country’s involvement in regional conflicts.
No doubt the US is considering some of these measures because various regional alliances against Iran are faltering. Qatar was the first country to refuse to join the Saudi-led ‘alliance’ against the Islamic Republic, then the United Arab Emirates pulled out, and now Kuwait is calculating the economic consequences of confrontation with Iran, as it becomes clear that severe US sanctions are affecting the economy of all Persian Gulf countries. The International Monetary Fund has cut its growth forecast for the Middle East to just 1% (down from April’s 1.5%). According to Forbes,
Concerns about geopolitical instability and the impact of the recently-agreed extension to the Opec+ agreement to cap crude production are weighing on sentiment. The latter issue is a particular concern for one of the region’s most important economies: Saudi Arabia. Riyadh-based bank Jadwa Investment recently cut its growth forecast for the kingdom’s economy for 2019 from 2% to 1.6%, due to weakness in the oil sector. It is expecting the oil sector to expand by just 0.3% this year.1
More significantly, the Kushner ‘peace plan’ for Israel-Palestine - labelled the “deal of the century” - which was to mark Trump’s presidency, has turned out to be a total flop. And, of course, US confrontational policies against Iran never had the support of the major European states or the European Union.
All this explains Trump’s U-turn. However, we are still in the early stages of the talks and, as always, the two sides are pursuing conflicting aims. As I have said, Trump will be happy with a photo-opportunity, followed by vague promises of lifting sanctions. But for Iran’s leaders oil and secondary sanctions must be lifted - otherwise the temporary measures they have adopted to rescue the economy will not suffice.
As expected, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is outraged by the Biarritz negotiations and a possible reduction of tension between Tehran and Washington. His frustration manifested itself in Israel’s recent attacks against so-called Iranian proxy forces in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
It is in the midst of all this that on August 30 Donald Trump tweeted a photo of a crashed rocket and the damaged launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre, where, for the third time in a year, Iran’s satellite programme had come to grief. The launch of Payam and Doosti satellites in January and February failed.
The photo was clearly taken by a US satellite and initial reports suggested the secret services were none too happy with the president sharing ‘classified images’. David Schmerler - a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies stated: “A president tweeting out national intelligence assets is a whole new level.”2
Trump’s words were also bizarre: “The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV launch … I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One.” Some interpreted this as a gesture of good will, while others claimed that it was a sarcastic comment.
On September 2, Iran finally acknowledged that an explosion had occurred and blamed a technical malfunction. So far there is no reason to blame any foreign power for the blast. However, the US alleges that Iran’s satellite launches are related to the country’s ballistic missile programme and the Trump administration has placed new sanctions on Iran’s space agency, claiming that such missiles were being developed “under the guise of a programme purported to launch satellites”.
As always, war and negotiations are part and parcel of the same process. Most Iranians still fear the launch of military air raids by US or Israel. Sanctions are taking their toll and, although the Iranian currency has not dropped any further since 2018, utility bills have risen by 30% in 24 months, rents are spiralling out of control, and prices for food, clothing and medicine make life extremely difficult for most Iranians.
Unlike the leaders of the Islamic Republic, the last thing on their mind is the country’s satellite launch capabilities.