A few years ago I attended a meeting in Tehran when an Iranian official unexpectedly started with a joke. “Three social scientists, an Arab, an Iranian and an Afghan, undertook a research field trip in Iraq just after the US invasion. They were captured and couldn’t explain to the Americans’ satisfaction why they were there, so they were tried, found guilty of spying and sentenced to death.
“The Americans said they could each have one last wish before they were shot.
“The Arab said he wanted no favour from the Americans and they could shoot him straight away, so they did. The Iranian said he wanted the opportunity to explain why he was legitimately undertaking research, how important that research was, why the Americans were wrong to detain him and why his death would be a great loss to the social sciences.
“The Afghan then said, ‘Shoot me now before the Iranian starts talking.’ ”
As with much self-deprecating humour, it is as revealing as it is humorous. There is a strong thread of exceptionalism that runs through the Iranian national identity, and with it a strong belief in the righteousness of its actions.
It is not dissimilar in some ways to Americans’ belief in their own exceptionalism, albeit Tehran’s version is based on a different foundational premise and is normally played out on a much smaller stage.
It is worth understanding this when looking at the way current tensions with the US are playing out. Donald Trump during his election campaign had always derided the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — better known as the Iran nuclear deal — as a bad deal, partly because he believed he could get a better agreement, and undoubtedly also because he saw it as a way of dismantling Barack Obama’s legacy. The problem is he has never really articulated what a better deal would look like, what incentive there would be for Iran to renegotiate, or how his allies and partners could help him achieve his aim.
Trump and some of the early and well-regarded advisers in his cabinet including former defence secretary Jim Mattis were no friends of Iran and viewed Tehran’s regional actions as destabilising and antithetical to US interests. But Mattis also noted the robustness of the JCPOA verification regime and favoured staying in it because he felt there were other ways to contain Iran, the US needed to keep its word and its allies on side, and there was no obvious purpose to withdrawing.
Washington could have chosen a different tack in containing Iran. There are more current concerns shared by liberal democracies about Iran’s destabilising regional behaviour: supporting semi-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, a range of militias in Iraq and the Houthi movement in Yemen. And aiding radical fringe groups in Bahrain rather than advocating for democratic reforms to help the Shia majority there is another example of Tehran eschewing the responsible course of advocacy for the irresponsible one of militancy.
A continued American program of targeted sanctions, political pressure and support for meaningful political reforms in countries such as Bahrain, to reduce the attraction of Iranian entreaties to marginalised groups and actors, could have achieved longer-term strategic aims without the risks of confrontation.
Instead, the White House has tried to portray the impasse with Iran as a nuclear proliferation issue even though there is no evidence Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
This week, National Security Adviser John Bolton claimed any new deal would need to “eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons program”. At the same time, Trump reiterated the desire to stop Iran gaining a nuclear weapon when he told reporters: “They’re not going to have a nuclear weapon … We’re not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon.”
The problem is, nobody has claimed Iran is, or has any plans to, develop nuclear weapons.
Indeed, paragraph three of the JCPOA’s preamble notes that “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”. So we now have the rather strange situation where the White House has pulled out of an agreement in which Iran undertook never to develop nuclear weapons, in order to get it to renegotiate a deal in which Tehran presumably will be asked to undertake never to develop nuclear weapons.
And to weaken the efficacy of this stance even further, one of the leading advocates of this policy is Bolton, the same person who infamously declared in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq that “we are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction”.
With Bolton as the lead salesman it is little wonder Washington is finding it difficult to drum up support among its traditional allies for its campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran.
There is little confidence among those same allies that Washington knows what it is doing with Iran, or its desired strategic end state. And there is significant disquiet among those same allies that it is only now, after the US’s unilateral actions brought an expected asymmetric response from Tehran, that Washington is seeking their support.
Any analysis of likely Iranian responses to increased unilateral pressure by the US should have concluded that at some point Iran would respond by exacting a cost on its neighbours to show that unequivocal support for the US’s “maximum pressure” campaign wasn’t cost-free.
The May attacks on four unladen commercial vessels in the Gulf of Oman were a sign of things to come, and it isn’t unreasonable to think it should have been foreseen as a possible short-term response to the campaign.
Before ratcheting up the sanctions pressure, maritime coalitions could have been developed by the Trump administration and security measures put in place to limit Iran’s ability to respond in the Gulf.
Yet it is only now, after six ships have been attacked and a US drone shot down by an Iranian missile, that the US is trying to establish a form of regional maritime coalition that would observe, rather than escort, commercial shipping in the area. This type of broadbased multilateral coalition building should have been a precursor to an effective sanctions regime, not an afterthought.
The problem now is that Washington’s approach and Tehran’s response has and will force a range of actors to address issues they would rather not have to.
On the political front, Tehran has announced it will breach some of the elements of the JCPOA in the near future, such as the stockpiling of more than 300kg of low-enriched uranium.
It has given European signatories until July 7 to come up with an alternative trading mechanism that allows Tehran some sanctions relief, otherwise it will forsake further elements of the JCPOA.
Tehran will likely try to keep the JCPOA on life support while exceeding its limits in several areas in the belief this can serve as a bargaining chip in the future, so that it can agree to change its policy while in reality simply bringing it back to the original agreement.
The problem is, nobody quite knows what elements the White House seeks to renegotiate and the Iranians have indicated that they have no intention of renegotiating an agreement with which they were complying.
The European countries are caught in a bind. Upset at Trump’s unilateralism and the potential impact of the secondary sanctions on their private sector, they have had little choice other than to reluctantly fall behind the White House’s sanctions regime while trying to keep the JCPOA alive. But Tehran is also tyring to force their hand by demanding they come up with an alternative financial trading instrument that will in all likelihood not be able to satisfy Iran’s requirements.
For Australia, this is a problem the Morrison government would rather not face. We aren’t a signatory to the deal but are a close ally of the US and have personnel in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is likely we will be called upon to provide diplomatic support to Washington. It is a tough decision for Canberra to have to back Washington in criticising or even sanctioning Iran, a country with which we have diplomatic relations and that was abiding by an agreement that we welcomed. Tehran’s decision to absent itself from some of the requirements of the JCPOA may give Canberra enough wriggle room to be able to criticise Tehran’s actions.
Washington has given some fairly explicit red lines to Tehran about targeting US personnel directly or indirectly, and Iran has reacted strongly enough to date that it feels it has made its point. Iran has struggled through sanctions regimes before and it probably believes that it can again.
It is also likely banking on the fact that Trump has in the past evinced an aversion to continued conflict in the Middle East, has a short attention span for difficult foreign policy issues, will be facing re-election in just over a year, and that if the past is any guide it is unlikely Bolton will be a long-term national security adviser.
Iran will also be betting that it will not face a unified international front against it and can play one or several actors off against the US to make it difficult for Washington to take any unilateral military action. Russia and China are certainly no friends of Washington, and European multilateralists have little appetite for Trump’s “America-first” policies.
But the more Tehran opts out of the requirements of the JCPOA the less incentive European states have in standing by the deal and the harder it is for Iran to portray itself as the aggrieved party.
A conflict in the Gulf is still unlikely at this stage. But in a situation where two sides incrementally react to the other’s provocations, the possibility for miscalculation by either side is always present.
And when one pits American exceptionalism against Iranian exceptionalism, that danger is even greater.