The Crisis with Iran – From the Far East to Near East

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | July 10-17, 2019

Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
Photos:; White House; GODL-India


Against the backdrop of escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, London seeks to put together a European-led maritime protection force. Simultaneously, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, was tasked to establish an international coalition to secure freedom of navigation in the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandab.


While tensions between the U.S. and Iran persist, and the sides are busy in leveraging and shaping the terms for future negotiations, developments in the exchanges that the Trump administration is managing in East Asia, with North Korea and China, might have a real impact on the dynamics between the U.S. and Iran.


Following the last-minute summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un, the U.S. administration was reportedly examining a new idea for restarting talks with Pyongyang. Basically, the new American proposal offers to agree on freezing North Korea's nuclear program as a first step towards denuclearization.


This proposal warrants the parties to agree on the scope and nature of the nuclear program, which according to Washington extends well-beyond the complex in Yongbyon. Presumably, this would produce an interim agreement in which, the U.S. will offer a partial relief of sanction imposed on North Korea in exchange for the freeze. Should the parties adopt such an understanding, it will constitute a de-facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state that possesses a large, advanced and long-range surface-to-surface missile arsenal.


The U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who did not participate in the last-minute summit between Trump and Kim, was quick to dismiss these reports. Bolton tweeted: "Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to 'settle for a nuclear freeze by NK'". Bolton's statements were broadly viewed as reflecting an internal disagreement within the U.S. administration between the President and his envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, on one hand, and Bolton on the other.


Simultaneously, the U.S. and China agreed this week to renew the trade negotiations that ran into an impasse two months ago. The Trump-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka at the end of June led to an understanding that facilitated the renewal of talks. The U.S. agreed to wait with imposing tariffs on USD 300 billion-worth of Chinese imports on condition that China would purchase American agricultural produce (which has been so far delayed). In addition the U.S. agreed to review relaxing restrictions on the export of technological products to China and business dealings with Huawei.



How is this related to the U.S.-Iran crisis? What are the implications for Israel?


Iran closely follows the developments vis-à-vis North Korea and is expected to harden its position and demand "equal terms". Tehran will insist on American recognition of its right to enrich uranium and on sanctions relief in exchange for suspending recent measures it took to reduce its commitments to the JCPOA.


U.S.-China negotiations could also affect the crisis with Iran, especially regarding the oil embargo. Recently, China has been purchasing small quantities of Iranian oil, challenging the American sanctions. In response, the more hawkish officials in the White House seek to impose secondary sanctions on Chinese entities.


As in the case of the North Korea file, the Iran crisis has created an internal squabble within the administration between Trump and his senior advisors. While the president is focused and repeatedly vows not to allow Iran to get "nuclear weapons", Bolton contends that the pressure on Iran will increase till it stops its policy of violence and terror. Secretary Pompeo recently stated once again that Iran must be denied uranium enrichment at any level.


The internal debate within the administration is also reflected in the debate held among the Washington-based think tanks and policy wonks. Dennis Ross, a former senior official in the Obama administration suggested to agree on a limited deal that will extend the sunset clauses in return for the relief of sanctions. Ross argued that a "grand bargain" is not in the cards. Other pundits, not known to be supporters of the hawkish group in the administration, such as the commentator David Ignatius and Karim Sadjadpour, have argued that the U.S. should seek to reach with Iran broader understandings that would go far beyond amending the JCPOA.


Under these circumstance, Israel's position might have a significant impact on the internal debate within the administration. Israel needs to form a position on two main issues. Firstly, the sequence of negotiations with Iran (simultaneous and step-by-step vs. "all or nothing"). Secondly, on the objective of negotiations – a narrow agreement amending the JCPOA or a broad "grand bargain" that will cover Iran's regional policies and actions and its missile program.


The next issue of "spotlight" will discuss the pros-and-cons of the alternatives from an Israeli perspective.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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