West’s Iran dilemma means standoff likely to persist
How to deal with Iran? This is the problem nobody quite knows how to solve. Some states ignore what Iran is up to and appear not to care. Others oppose it but cannot agree on how to address the situation. They fear being sucked into another calamitous Middle East imbroglio.
Last week, the EU imposed its fourth round of sanctions against Iranian targets since the current round of protests kicked off in Iran last September. The US is also ramping these up, as is Britain. Those states that have not yet done so are considering whether to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist entity. The UK may do this in weeks, if not days, not least after British officials claimed in October that the IRGC had orchestrated at least 10 plots to kidnap or murder in the country in 2022.
All of this confirms what most observers have long believed: The talks on the nuclear file are going nowhere. US President Joe Biden confirmed this in December, when he was filmed stating that the “deal is dead, but we’re not going to announce it.” The US midterm elections hammered another nail into the coffin, as the Iranians know that they may face a hard-line Republican president in 2025 who is opposed to any deal. Nobody wants to declare the last rites just in case a miracle comes to pass. The fear is that, if the Iranian leadership wants it, Iran will cross the nuclear threshold. Even Israeli strategists privately admit that the region may have to learn to live with a nuclear Iran, as frightening a prospect as that is.
Internally, the Iranian regime is crushing what is left of any optimism to resolve its checkered relations with the US and its European allies. It is cracking down on protesters in the most brutal fashion, resorting to mass arrests and executions. The death penalty is being used as a weapon of mass intimidation. As ever, everything is blamed on shadowy foreign hands. Reports suggest Iran may even execute a pregnant woman who is accused of burning a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini.
It is policymakers’ greatest fear that actions in the Gulf could lead to a situation careening out of control
The clear message to all those who oppose this regime both inside and outside the country is that it is going nowhere. There is a steep cost to opposing it. Thus far, since Mahsa Amini was killed in detention back in September, Iranian forces have killed hundreds and arrested thousands.
Externally, Iran is also not backing off. It remains active in Syria and Iraq. It continues to supply weapons to the Houthis. It may even be pushing Palestinian Islamic Jihad to take the fight to the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza. The decision to supply Russia with drones and rockets for use in Ukraine is hardly designed to impress the US. Tehran could have taken a neutral stance and kept well clear of a fight that it is not involved in, but clearly the Iranian leadership wants to cozy up to President Vladimir Putin and demonstrate its capabilities to NATO states.
Iranian leaders arguably have a vested interest in keeping the war in Ukraine going because, as long as Russia and the US face off in Europe, the option of any military intervention in Iran is simply off the cards. Nobody can be sure where a military option would land up. An accidental war is a dangerous possibility, given the complete lack of trust on all sides.
Imagine the consequences of a war. The global financial system can barely handle the shockwaves of the Ukraine crisis in terms of escalating energy and food prices. Most economies are buckling under these pressures. No serious leader wants a war in the Gulf and the consequent apocalyptic impact on the global economy. If Israel took unilateral action, it would risk a monumental falling out with Washington. It is policymakers’ greatest fear that actions in the Gulf could lead to a situation careening out of control. Few are gung-ho.
The Iranian leadership knows this. It explains the boldness of its approach. It has lived with the specter of a military strike for many years, remembering that President Donald Trump in 2019 called back US planes 10 minutes before they were due to strike Iran.
So, what are the options to handle a more assertive and problematic Iranian regime? It is not as if American and European politicians are hugely divided about Iran. Last week, the US House of Representatives voted 420-1 to express solidarity with Iranian protesters. And given the cross-party support, the British Parliament is likely to approve any designation of the IRGC.
Sanctions are the easy opt-out, as in the past. Sanctions were the tool of choice when dealing with Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Syria under Bashar Assad. The US, EU and UK will never want to look weak, so will have a carousel of new sanctions targets ready to wheel out at appropriate junctures. Iran is quite used to this. The IRGC and others have their own lucrative sources of income, including through organized crime and smuggling. For a long time, they have sanctions-proofed their key assets and income streams. Sanctions have a poor record of altering the behavior of such regimes, especially as time goes by. The regimes adapt and even make profits from the embargoes. It is the people who suffer.
Others call for the withdrawal of ambassadors or the closure of embassies. Unquestionably, the Iranian regime’s behavior justifies this. But there is more than an element of empty virtue signaling here. Does Iran really care? For example, if Britain was to close its embassy again, the UK would lose its eyes and ears in Iran and not be able to provide any assistance to British nationals. Precedent shows that it will not change the regime’s behavior.
All this points to the absence of a genuine strategy. In fairness, easy options are in short supply. Negotiations are nigh on impossible. Killing off the nuclear talks might be pointless so preserving these faint chances might appeal. Iran will not cave into pressure and has its own menu of demands, few of which are acceptable in Western capitals.
The greatest threat to Iran comes from within and the regime knows it. Despite all the oppression and brutality, Iranian protesters led by women have shaken the regime and made the world sit up. Their bravery is testament to the sort of future Iran could have. The international community should find a way to back their protests without undermining their legitimacy or diluting the Iranian-owned nature of their cause. Iran, of course, could adopt a major course correction internally and externally, but sadly this seems unlikely. A dangerous and precarious standoff looks likely to persist.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. Twitter: @Doylech