Why an Iran-United States war is unlikely and what’s next for the 2015 nuclear deal

On January 3rd an American-led strick killed Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a very important thing for Iran. The event has lit a crisis that’s already eclipsed all major international happenings worldwide. What particularly interests me is how much the word war has been uttered. In Brazil, where I live, for instance, those either uniformed and/or misinformed have flooded social media with memes (some unquestionably hilarious, I must say) that herald an upcoming world war three. All mockery put aside, just how likely would an Iran-United States war be? In addition, what can we expect for the 2015 nuclear deal?

“I want to say that the Brazilian people does not aggree with the US’ president’ opinion”

A brief history of Iran-US relations: Mosaddegh-Pahlavi-Khomeini

Mosaddegh (left), Pahlavi (center), Khomeini (right)

No present-day event and its possible unfoldings can be fully grasped without a gaze into the past. Let’s then take a brief look at Iran-US diplomatic relations¹. Oil-related divergencies set the tone for the first round of Iran-US skirmishes. In the early 1950s Iranian leaders sought to regain control over their nation’s most valuable resource — oil — which for years had been ran by foreigners, the British, particularly.

In july 1952 the multi-skilled and nationalist Mohammad Mosaddegh became prime-minister and held office until august 1953 when he was overthrown by the Iranian coup d’état. The move had been orchestrated by an American-British dual (both the US CIA and the UK’s M16 partook in the operation) and fueled by one of Mogaddegh’s nationalist intended policies: the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry.

Politically, it can be argued that Mogaddegh’s move sought to pressure on for a more equitable deal for his country. Nonetheless, back then, a the dawn of the Cold War, a leader nationalising anything meant communism, something which the USA and its allies, like the UK, were willing to fight voraciously.

The foreign-backed and foreign-inflicted Iranian coup d’état of 1953 that ousted Mosaddegh opened the way for a West-friendlier Irianian leadership Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (who had been in exile)— as well as warded off the West’s worry of a communist-inclined Iran. Pahlavi ran the country with an iron-fist until he himself was outsted, in yet another revolution, in 1979.

Under the rule of Pahlavi, particularly throughout the 1970s, Iran went on to become one of the US’ most important assets in the region: while the US regarded Iran as an invaluable supplier of energy (oil), Iran looked at the US as an indispensable supplier of protection. At one point in the seventies Iran gobbled up tens of millions of Dollars worth of military gear to ramp up its military capabilities. In no time Iran’s increased ofensive capabilities would tilt in its favour the balance of power in the region and spur other contending countries to boost up their capabilities too.

Another point worth mentioning during the American-Irianian love affair of the 1970s is the Jimmy Carter adiministration (1977–81). During his time in government, Carter paid great lip service to the human rights cause, but only as far as it did not conflict with the interests of his country’s foreign policy (a fine example of how politics may trump humanitarinism). Despite the notorious human rights crimes attributed to Iran’s cold-blooded secret police, Savak (which the US helped to establish), Carter warmly welcomed the Shah in a White House reception and declared: “ Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world”.

Pahlavi down, it was the Ayatollah Khomeini that ascended to power and there remined for ten years. If Pahlavi had been ousted on the grounds that he was, but a brutal, cold-blooded US puppet, Khomeini meant for the disgruntled Iranian opposition a new lease of life, albeit his reign would not be trouble-free.

Under Khomeini’s rule Iran witnessed one of the bloodiest conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century as major powers faught in proxy wars through local groups. It was during the eighties, for instance, that the US-Irak relations would come ever closer through generous war financing packages as the US backed Irak forces in the fight against Iran’s new rule under Khomeini.

Fastforward some three decades. Since Pahlavi fall from power, the 2015 nuclear deal was the closest to the relative peace of the 1970s that the US-Iran relations witnessed. Later on I am going to comment on the deal. All in all, both nationalities hold decades-long grudges againts one another: for instance, if Americans can recall the notorious Iranian hostage crisis, when fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981; the Iranians, on their side, vividly remember the supposed bombing of the flight 655 (a commercial flight) by US forces in the late 1980s which killed hundreds of Iranian citizens.

Iranian bodies floating at sea after US bombing of Flight 655, in the late 1980s (left). Two americans made hostages during the 1979 diplomatic standoff (right).

Why war is unlikely

I believe a large-scale conflict is unlikely to come about for one reason. Iran’s rage only finds substantial support within certain paramilitary groups, like Hezbolah and Hamaz. Iran’s likeliest allies for a “fair” war against the American military might — China and Russia — have called for talks, not tanks. A similar stance was shared by France (a likely US ally), although recent history has shown that having little or none allies is not an obstacle for the US.

Not being backed by another great power would not be an obstacle to the US. When it invaded Irak back in 2003 on the grounds of safeguarding the world against a madman’s (i.e. Saddam Hussein) sky-high pile of weapons of mass destruction, the US’ calls to arms garnered little support — and at times fierce opposition — amongst great powers. France’s Jacque Chirac opposition was emblematic. Nonetheless, the US went on with its scheme even in defiance of a UN resolution against it.

Unsurprisingly, Israel, a fierce opponent to the 2015 nuclear deal, lost not time in announcing its all-out support for the US. Brazil seems to want to pair up with the US, although the incubent president has rightly recognised that the country has no military capability. Brazilians went on a “meme diplomacy” to smooth things out.

Tit-for-tat: more of the same

I would not expect a direct Iran/allies vs. US/allies to break out, but I would expect the historical tit-for-tat, that is: more of the same. Paramilitary groups can stir up trouble towards the US (as it has been the case over the years), but these groups, albeit somewhat powerful, are not states (i.e. countries). Not being a country means that such groups lack the financial might to bulk on military capabilities that can surpass that of a country.

Of course they can — as they have been — be financed by states, but what that leads to is not an all-out direct war between countries, but a proxy war (when country A attacks country B not directly, but through a “third” party). The Syrian civil war mostly raged on through proxy wars. More of the same also means the occasional news of terrorist attacks. These might not take place in US soil, as mainland security scrutiny has incresed since 9/11. Alternatively, then, American personnel and outposts, like embassies, may carry on being targets.

A death blow to the 2015 nuclear deal: what to expect?

The Trump administration has shown a tendency for bold and unilateral actions: in early 2017 the US was pulled out of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), leaving in Asia a void that was swiftly filled by China. In June of that same year Mr. Trump announced that his country was to withdraw itself from the 2015 Paris Agreement on the grounds that the issue of climate change itself was a cooked-up hoax. In may 2018, much to the horror of long-standing European allies such as Great Britain and France, and to the delight of Benjamin Netanyahu’s nuclear-armed Israel, Mr. Trump lived up to his campaign promises and ditched the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

In a nutshell, the US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China brokered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as it is technically known, in 2015. The agreement is the outcome of a number of rough years of negotiations. When it was finally passed, in July that year, it was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough (at least by those who saw it as such). Iran had accepted tight restrictions on its nuclear-related activities, especially its uranium-enrichment programme.

In addition, the country also had agreed to comply with the United Nations’ close and intrusive inspections carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The other countries, in their turn, agreed to lift all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran (other types of sanctions were kept, like those levied on it because of human rights-related issues). In a nutshell, the deal was a great bargain for Iran, since those sanctions had been crippling the country’s economy (closely inspect the chart down below).

The brokers of the 2015 nuclear deal

If the US’ withdrawal, in 2018, left the accord seriously crippled, the recent killing of Qasem Soleimani takes it out of its misery. Shortly after the killing of Soleimani Iran announced that it would no longer comply with what little remained of the 2015 deal.

What does that mean? In a text I wrote back in May 2018 commenting on the ditching of the deal I argueded that the American backsliding move on the 2015 nuclear accord would send out ambiguous messages towards the nuclear disarmament regime (this means, in a nutshell, a doctrine, led by nuclear armed nations, which tries to bar the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide). That is particularly counterproductive if one considers the US’ interests of a denuclearised North Korea, another nuclear-thirsty country (a state that is not part to any nuclear weapons treaty and thus can legally develop them).

Will Iran follow through with its promisse of not respecting what remained of the nearly defunct 2015 deal? Nuclear weapons have been more of a political rather than a military weapon. As far as it is known by the general public, Iran does not posses any Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), nuclear ones included. Its political leaders claim that Iran’s nuclear programme is for peaceful ends (energy-oriented). Moreover, the Persian country is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — as well as a number of other WMD treaties — which not only bars it from pursuing a military-oriented nuclear programme, but also subjects it to heavy international surveillance.

Hence, what mostly led Iranian leaders to the diplomatic talks in the years preceeding 2015 to broker a deal were the crippling economic sanctions that have been taking their toll on the country’s social and economic — and thus military — development for over 40 years. These sanctions target Iran’s big industries — oil, steel and coal — and anyone affiliated with the government. This could include banks, insurance and construction companies, ships and aircraft.

Economic growth has been constrained by sanctions: Iran’s economy was badly affected for severl years by sanctions imposed by the international community over the country’s nuclear programme

Considering how much those sanctions have battered the Iranian economy and overall development, it then becomes no hard tark to understand its willingness to negotiate: ultimately what Iranian leaders and diplomats sought to achieve was relieving the country from some of the pressure of the sanctions. Doing so was — and still is — more urgent of a goal, in the short term, than it is to increase, in the long term, its uranium enrichment to the point where nuclear weapons can be developed, if the Iran deems it necessary(uranium needs to be enriched up to at least 90% for nuclear weapons to be fabricated).

That being said I believe that Iran may carry on threatening the West with the comeback of its urunium enrichment programme insofar as it may lead Western nations to ditch some of the sanctions they’ve been slapping on Iran as a form of good deed after the US’ withdrawal. The West, not only the US, but also the nations that remained in the 2015 deal do not wish Iran to develop a military-oriented nuclear programme. As for the uttered world war III, highly unlikely. What we will probably read about on the news are small-scale tip-for-tat on Iranian & its allies and US & its allies outposts.


¹ To write the first part of my text I draw heavily on ABC News’ “A Brief History of US-Iran Relations”, available on youtube.

An International Relations degree holder; a language, history and economics aficionado; and a soon-to-be Economist who sees writing a thought-untangling act.

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