US probity, not tricks, would convince Iran
With the first round of renewed US sanctions against Iran due to come into effect on Aug 7, Washington-Teheran ties would further deteriorate throwing the Middle East into chaos. In response to US President Donald Trump's statement on Monday saying he would "certainly meet" with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and without preconditions if Rouhani were willing, Iranian officials said on Tuesday that if Trump wants talks, he should rejoin the Iran nuclear deal that he pulled out of in May.
Trump's willingness to hold talks with Rouhani, after the war of words between the US and Iran, is a silver lining. But the question is: Will the US rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and hold back the sanctions?
To stress its strong objection to perhaps the most severe US sanctions, particularly the ban on its oil exports, Iran has turned to "brinkmanship", by threatening to prevent other Persian Gulf states from exporting oil. That Teheran has threatened to destroy the capital cities of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Trump's earlier threat that he would make Iran "suffer consequences… which few throughout history have ever suffered" show the two sides have raised their intimidation levels to a historic high.
Iran has probingly announced that it will restart some of its uranium enrichment program and increase its security for a while in the Strait of Hormuz to ensure the safe passage of its vessels. And in early June, Rouhani proclaimed that Iran holds the advantage in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, which was instantly interpreted as a veiled threat to blockade the strait.
Actually, Qasem Soleimani, a major general in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, asserted on July 5 that Iran would halt the region's oil exports if Washington tried to stop Teheran from exporting its oil－the lifeblood of Iran's economy. Oil market experts estimate that once shipping in the Strait of Hormuz is disrupted, the world could face a daily shortage of up to 17 million barrels of oil－more than 50 percent of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' total oil exports－and the oil price could surge from about $70 a barrel now to $250 a barrel.
Despite the United Nations recognizing the Iran nuclear deal (officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany and the European Union being signatories to it, the US' withdrawal could eventually make it invalid, thanks to Washington's sanctions which in turn could pressure the other signatories to review the deal.
The Trump administration has also pulled the US out of many other international and multilateral deals such as the 2015 Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement on the pretext of safeguarding the US' core interests. But Trump's decision on the Iran deal is aimed more at winning the midterm election and increasing his chances of being re-elected US president, as well as to maintain the US' supremacy in the Middle East.
Besides, the camp in support of the Iran nuclear deal seems divided. While France, the United Kingdom and Germany are reportedly willing to consider additional terms for or upgrading the deal, China and Russia hold their ground that there should be no change to the deal. Yet it is hardly possible for China and Russia to sustain the deal on their own.
Moreover, few governments and enterprises could bear to sacrifice their trade and other relations with the US to support Iran. The EU's trade with the US totaled about $700 billion last year with a surplus of $151.4 billion, while its trade with Iran was only about $25 billion. That BNP Paribas and Chinese telecom giant ZTE have been fined billions of dollars for doing business with Iran is just a small example of how the US misuses its power.
More than safeguarding international non-proliferation regime, the US' new Iran policy attempts to unilaterally resolve the Iran issue. It reflects the hawkish stance of Trump's foreign and security policies not only in the Middle East but in other regions as well. Trump's policies are aimed at intensifying the US-Iran conflict, placing a new obstacles in bilateral relations and complicating the Iran nuclear issue.
Iran will not succumb easily to US threats, because it is far from being ready to fall for the US carrot by sacrificing its massive strategic investment and gains. Yet once the US imposes the unprecedented sanctions on Iran and forces other countries to sing from its songbook, Iran would be isolated again and end up facing an economic crisis as its foreign exchange earnings would go into a free fall.
And if Teheran defies Washington's sanctions and starts its nuclear weapons' program, thereby sparking a new round of nuclear arms race, Israel might be prompted to declare war against Iran drawing in the US as an ally－and the Middle East would be plunged into another but far more devastating war.
The onus, it appears, is squarely on Trump to prevent a catastrophe in the Middle East.
The author is a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.