Exclusive- Facing Trump: Tehran Ponders Three Options

Exclusive- Facing Trump: Tehran Ponders Three Options

Thursday, 10 May, 2018 - 05:45
President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion on tax reform at the Cleveland Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., May 5, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
London - Amir Taheri
Where do we go from here? This is the question making the rounds within the establishment circles in Tehran as they contemplated Iran’s response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to dump the nuclear deal inherited from his predecessor Barack Obama.

One thing is certain. The deal was designed to suit Obama’s strategy on Iran which was aimed at helping the “moderate faction” win the power struggle against the radical faction that controls key elements of the Iranian state and embark on a process of changing the Iranian behavior in certain fields. That objective hasn’t been achieved and Obama’s successor appears more interested in regime change in Tehran rather than change within the regime.

Judging by the debate raging in the official media in Tehran and comments made by prominent figures in the parliament and President Hassan Rouhani’s Cabinet, Iran is studying three responses.

The first, which could be labeled a hard response, would see Iran resuming uranium enrichment above the 20 percent level and halting talks with Russia to relocate its stock of already enriched uranium outside Iran. Tehran could also suspend talks with China to redesign the Arak plutonium plant to make sure it cannot be used for producing heavy water on the way to building a bomb.

Another option is to slowdown the process of inspection allowed in 22 out of 32 sites designated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as “of interest.”

Beyond he strict nuclear issue itself, the hard response could also include heightening Tehran’s support for insurgents in Yemen, the militias in Iraq, the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, the Lebanese branch of “Hezbollah,” and the two Palestinian groups close to Iran: “Hamas” and “Islamic Jihad for Liberation of Palestine.”

The hard response could also include the seizing of more Western hostages, especially American with the help of “Hezbollah” sleeper cells wherever possible, including Latin America.

The medium response could include efforts to retain what is left of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by using the mechanism it offers for the resolution of disagreements among the participants. Thus Iran could lodge a complaint within 24 days with the so-called “supervision group”, consisting off deputy foreign ministers from the P5+1 nations plus Iran to address Iranian complaint against the US decision.

If the committee fails to come up with a solution, the issue would be referred to the ministerial commission which meets once every two years but could also hold emergency meetings if demanded by one member. And if that group also fails to suggest a resolution, the issue could go to the United Nations Security Council.

All that would keep the diplomatic process going, at least on the surface, while Iran and the remaining 5 nations wait-out Trump. The US president’s position could be weakened in next November’s mid-term elections if his Republic Party loses control of one or both houses of the Congress. In any case, the mechanism foreseen in the JCPOA could last up to 18 months and by that time Trump would be a lame-duck president angling for re-election.

The medium option would enable Rouhani’s Cabinet, backed by former President Mohammed Khatami’s faction, to claim that it is Iran that has isolated the US and that the economic hardship imposed by Trump’s new sanctions would be temporary. On that score, Rouhani could benefit from strong support given to JCPOA by prominent US politicians, including Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, not to mention the European Union’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini. Both Kerry and Mogherini are expected to embark on a tour of key capitals to support the Iranian position and denounce Trump’s move.

On Wednesday, statements made by Rouhani and his close aides, including his First Assistant Eshaq Jahangiri and his Chief of Staff Muhammad-Baqer Nobakht, indicated a preference for the medium option. A number of influential members of parliament, including Deputy Speaker Ali Motahhari and Muhamad-Javad Bahonar also spoke in favor of the medium response. Motahhari went even further by suggesting that, as a sign of goodwill, Iran accepts to address “concerns” about its policies in the Middle East.

The third response could be dubbed “soft” and aimed at depriving Trump of his real or feigned grievances. Trump’s first demand is to halt the development of log-range ballistic missiles by Iran. In a sense, Iran has already done that with a number of public declarations including one by Chief of Staff General Muhammad-Hussein Baqeri saying that no new missiles with ranges of more than 2,000 kilometers would be developed. Since no deadline has been fixed for the freeze, Iran could claim that Trump’s charge that Iranians are reproducing missiles to carry nuclear warheads over long distances is open to question.

Tehran also could, as Motahhari has suggested, offer concessions on its presence in various Arab countries. In fact, sources in Brussels confirm that Tehran has already “engaged” the European Union over Yemen with an offer to gradually distance itself from the Houthi rebels in Sanaa.

Tehran is also under pressure from Moscow to relocate its “de-escalation zone“ in Syria from areas bordering Lebanon and the Golan Heights, something that causes concern in Israel and the US, to Deir Ezzor on the Iraqi border. In Iraq, the current general election is likely to reduce Iran’s influence by producing a parliament more interested in reviving Iraq as a regional power than kowtowing to Tehran. In Lebanon, Tehran could order “Hezbollah” to adopt a low profile, at least for the time being, helping the Europeans claim that the “Islamic Republic” is moderating its behavior.

The soft option could also include the release of some of the 39 hostages that Tehran holds at the moment, starting with freedom for British and other European Union citizens. According to Tehran sources, Kerry and some other American friends of Iran are also urging a “gesture” toward American public opinion by releasing some of the US hostages.

On the nuclear issue itself, the soft response could include persuading Russia to set a timetable for taking the remaining stocks of Iranian enriched uranium for conversion to fuel rods.

However, there were signs on Wednesday that the soft response would be opposed by the radical Khomeinist faction that looks to “Supreme Guidance” Ali Khamenei as leader. Khamenei has warned on several occasions that if the US drops the JCPOA Iran should “burn it”. And Wednesday the daily Kayhan, believed to reflect Khamenei’s views, banner-headlined: Time to Burn the Nuclear Deal!

Kayhan has tried to sap the very basis of the soft response, that is to say trust in the Europeans.

Whatever Iran decides, it may be that Trump, perhaps without wanting it, has done Iranians a big service: Forcing them to decide whether they want to continue acting as a vehicle for revolution or return to global scene as a nation-state behaving as nation-states do. Obama’s deal fudged the issue to provide him with a “legacy” that has unraveled. Trump may also be looking for his “legacy” which could include closing the chapter of revolution in Iran.

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