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Amid soaring US-Iran tensions, a look at why and how the situation escalated this far

While the US has ended waivers on imports of Iranian oil, Iran withdrew partially from the 2015 nuclear deal earlier this month.

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New Delhi: As tensions between the United States and Iran escalate, there are fears of the possibility of another US military intervention in the Middle East. While the two countries do not want a war, it is plausible that a set of miscalculations and misinterpretations might escalate the situation further.

ThePrint takes a look at how the crisis between the two countries reached this stage.

The 2015 nuclear deal

Over the past month, the US had imposed harsher sanctions on Iran, ended waivers for import of Iran oil to some of Iran’s key buyers, including India, and moved an aircraft carrier (USS Abraham Lincoln) and B-52 bombers near the Persian Gulf.

These unprecedented moves come roughly a year after the US unilaterally left the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Earlier this month, Iran announced partial withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and said over the next two months, it would begin retaining uranium and heavy water. Heavy water can be employed in reactors to produce plutonium, a fuel used in nuclear warheads.

Iran has also asked the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China to find a way to allow Iran to conduct banking transactions and sell its oil. Iran has said if these countries fail to meet its demands, it would then resume its uranium enrichment programme without any observable limits, and thus effectively restarting its nuclear weapons programme.

Trump doesn’t want war with Iran

To understand the shift towards a hawkish Iranian policy, one needs to take a look at US President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Throughout his campaign, Trump had propagated a hawkish stance on Iran. He had promised his electorate that once he comes to power, he would renegotiate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and put an end to Tehran’s use of proxy wars across the Middle East.

After several changes in the composition of Trump’s national security team, pragmatists, such as Jim Mattis, made way for Iranian hawks. At present, Washington’s Iran policy is driven by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Bolton is known to be a long-time hawk on Iran. He has been calling for a regime change in Tehran for a decade now. Bolton had even authored an op-ed in The New York Times in 2015 titled ‘To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran’.

Talking about Bolton, Trump had said last week, “John has strong views on things. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing. Isn’t it?”

Reports from Washington suggested Trump did not agree with Bolton’s idea of taking Tehran head-on. A recent report in The Washington Post highlighted Trump’s line of thought on this.

“They (Bolton and Pompeo) are getting way out ahead of themselves, and Trump is annoyed. There was a scramble for Bolton and Pompeo and others to get on the same page,” an official told The Washington Post.

The report also suggested Trump did not want a military confrontation with Iran and preferred a diplomatic approach and wanted to negotiate directly with Tehran’s leadership.

Given Trump’s aversion to war, a military conflict remains unlikely. But regardless, Trump has followed a hardline stance on Iran, and this hardline policy has completely disregarded the complexities and interests of Iran.

Also readUS-Iran tension rises and Trump takes aim at China

Iran’s shrinking economy

Trump’s aggressive Iran policy has completely overlooked the position of moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the majority of the leadership of its elite security forces, Iran Revolutionary Guard, are radicals who deeply mistrust the West.

Back in 2015, Rouhani was the most prominent backer of the nuclear deal and he had to negotiate with his country’s radical leadership to get them to back it. Now with Trump’s actions, he finds himself in a weaker position.

Iran’s moderate leadership had convinced its radical forces about the nuclear deal, saying it would lead to economic growth and integration with the global economy.

The deal indeed helped Iran. The economic sanctions were lifted in 2015, and the Iranian economy saw 12 per cent GDP growth in 2016. Its economy moderately grew at 4 per cent in 2017 as well. Then in the summer 2018, the US withdrew from the deal.

Since then, Iran has witnessed a near economic collapse. According to International Monetary Fund estimates, Iran’s GDP is estimated to shrink by 6 per cent in 2019. Ever since the US has left the deal, Iran’s currency lost 60 per cent of its value and the inflation has risen to 50 per cent. More starkly, food prices have risen by 85 per cent. To make things worse, Iran’s oil production has continued to fall.

Trump administration’s recent hawkish policies have not only angered Rouhani, but also weakened the position of moderates in the domestic political system. Conversely, it has strengthened the position of the radicals, who now argue that trusting the US was a misplaced idea, to begin with.

Shift in US Middle East policy

There has been a fundamental shift in the US Middle East policy under Trump.

Most of the Gulf countries are single crop (oil or gas) economies and are likely to face problems as the global economy reduces its oil dependence.

In comparison, Iran has the potential to develop into a diversified economy.

Given this fact, former US President Barack Obama took a bet on Iran. With the 2015 deal, the US was not only trying to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, it was also trying to reorient Iran towards itself in the long run. Obama’s shift in perspective led to a very testy relationship with the leadership of Gulf monarchies and Israel.

After coming to power, Trump changed the direction of America’s Middle East policy to its traditional position. This was demonstrated by the fact that Trump’s first foreign visit was to Israel and Saudi Arabia. At the heart of the recent crisis, lies this American reorientation.

Also readInside India’s barrel of concerns: US sanctions, alternative to Iran oil and good old ties


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