Where is the U.S.-Iran Crisis Headed?

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | May 15 - 29, 2019

Aircraft carrier
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense


Generating and evaluating the plausibility of scenarios of the evolving crisis between the U.S. and Iran requires assessing the policies and objectives of both parties.


What does the Trump administration seek to achieve with its "maximum pressure" policy? As President Trump repeatedly declares, the objective is to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table. Administration officials continue to refer to the "list of 12" (outlined by Secretary Pompeo last May) that include unrealistic demands from Iran, including complete waiving of the right to enrich uranium, the withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces in Iraq and Syria and more.


From the outset, the administration has been ambiguous regarding the question whether the "basic requirements" are an opening position up for negotiations and bargaining (in line with President Trump's business approach) or a set of demands designed to scuttle negotiations – a fig leaf for the administration's real objective – regime change. Recently, the ambiguity appears to be clearing.


Senior officials' briefings and statements seem to suggest that the 12 "basic requirements" are subject to negotiations aimed to produce a revised nuclear deal that would guarantee a constant one year breakout time (BOT) with no "sunset" clauses. In addition, the new deal would impose restrictions on developing nuclear-capable missiles.


On one hand, the administration refrains from publicly declaring that the "basic requirement" are an opening gambit for negotiations. On the other hand, the administration is frustrated that the regime in Teheran believes that the pressure is intended to overthrow it and ignores reiterated statements (including those coming from Trump himself during his state visit to Japan) that the U.S. does not seek regime change in Iran. Likely, various mediators, particularly Omani officials, have recently carried these messages (and perhaps even guarantees) to their Iranian interlocutors.


Simultaneously, the administration decided to dial-up the heat of its "maximum pressure" by cutting off sanction exemption to all countries purchasing Iranian oil. To deter Iranian possible counter-measures against American interests and troops, the U.S. has beefed up its deployed forces in the Gulf coupled with blunt, but not very credible, messaging ("If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran"; "unrelenting force").


What does Iran seek to achieve? Conventional wisdom has it that Iran's announcement that it will no longer comply with some of its commitments under the nuclear deal and that it intends to increase the level of uranium enrichment in two months' time is intended to pressure the EU to put in place the instruments to bypass the American sanctions and allow Iran to export oil and maintain its access to financial markets.


Simultaneously, Iran launched proxy attacks against oil tankers and facilities in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to press the U.S. to weaken the sanctions that prevent it from exporting oil and severely harm its economy, while deterring the U.S. from taking military actions against it. This is also against the possible backdrop of Iran choosing to realize its threats to expand its nuclear program and clearly violate its commitments under the nuclear deal.


However, it's possible to offer a different, and not less plausible, assessment of Iran's conduct. A blatant violation of Iran's commitment under the nuclear deal is not expected to lead Europe to comply with Iran's demands to bypass American sanctions. Actually, this might trigger European sanctions against Iran to the point of Europe joining the U.S. and mounting isolation of Teheran. Furthermore, it seems Iran does not have high expectations with regards to the INSTEX mechanism. Back in January, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Amir Ali Shamkhani, stated that Europe's window of opportunity to help Iran to realize the financial benefits of the nuclear deal has closed. Furthermore, it does not seem plausible that the Iranian regime believes that the American administration will cave-in and relief the pressure of sanctions in face of terror attacks and military threats.


So what is left? First, under American pressure, the Iranian regime clings to the principles of the revolution and the Islamic Republic, specifically the resistance to outside pressure and to the U.S. This is intended to project power at home and to prevent combustive link between domestic and external pressure, which could threaten the regime.


Furthermore, Iran is seeking to enhance its bargaining position through advancing the nuclear program and demonstrating its damage capacity in the Gulf. This will allow Iran to leverage strong bargaining cards in future negotiations. Unlike the negotiations on the previous nuclear deal during which it continued to expand its nuclear program, under the current circumstances, if Iran chooses to return to the table, it will come empty handed and will not even be able to demand a freezing the sanctions in return for freezing the nuclear program. Therefore, Iranian leaders are repeating the same message – Iran will not agree to enter negotiations with the U.S., which Khamenei has defined as "poison". Notwithstanding, under certain conditions or in dire straits, it is possible that like his predecessor, Khamenei will agree to sip from the "poisoned chalice" and agree to negotiations, as he already did in 2012, when he approved secret negotiations with the U.S. in Muscat.


In the timeframe left till U.S. presidential elections (November 2020), one can delineate three core scenarios with potential overlaps:


  • Negotiations (possibly indirect) between Iran and U.S. – the likelihood of this scenario will grow if the administration agrees to limit its demands from Iran to the nuclear realm and if Iran improves its negotiating posture that will allow it to enter negotiations from a stronger position.
  • Controlled Friction – the U.S. continues to apply pressure while Iran strengthens its posture. Both sides make it clear that they do not want war and succeed to control their forces on the ground and to prevent unintended escalation.
  • Military escalation – the tension created by the actions of both parties – seeking to enhance their respective deterrent postures – gets out of control. As both sides know that either side prefers to avoid war, they might miscalculate in taking risks and carrying out actions, assuming that these will not trigger escalation. Following escalation, the parties might return to one of the two other scenarios.



What are the main drivers that will affect the realization of these core scenarios or their variation?


  • Time factor – as we near the U.S. elections, it is likely that the Iranians will prefer to wait-out the elections hoping for a transition to a democratic president, whom will return to the original nuclear deal. Iranian assets accumulated in the nuclear realm till then will serve Iran in this scenario as well because it is likely that the terms for resurrecting the original nuclear deal and its character will be subject to negotiations.
  • The intensity of the domestic pressure on the Iranian regime – this will be affected also by the amount of oil that Iran will be able to export despite the American sanctions, along with the level of domestic unrest in face of the economic crisis.
  • The pace that Iran will set for expanding its nuclear program.
    Domestic power struggles between the stakeholders and power brokers in the U.S. administration and in the Iranian regime.



What does this mean for Israel?


Israel has to prepare – in all aspects – for the possibility of Iran expanding its nuclear program.


A future scenario of U.S.-Iran negotiations requires Israel to coordinate the Iran policy with the U.S. administration through private channels. First of all, it will be important to verify that the administration is not compartmentalizing Israel and not surprising it (as the Obama administration did with the secret talks with Iran in Oman). Second, it will be important to determine Israel's "redlines" – should those focus on the nuclear realm? Would Israel settle for modifying the existing nuclear deal or will it insist on a broader "package" including regional aspects of Iran's actions?


Against the backdrop of continued and increasing tension in the Gulf and around the Middle East, Israel must enhance its alertness and readiness to defend Israeli assets that might be targeted by Iran that has threatened to attack the interests of the U.S. and its allies.


These challenges will require, among other, enhanced intelligence readiness to identify Iranian activities in the nuclear realm and in the other regional arenas, particularly those on Israel's borders.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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