OPN IRAN-1561988089175
People shop at the old main bazaar in Tehran, Iran, on June 23, 2019. The most-visible place to see the effect of the economic hardship most face comes from walking by any money-exchange shop. Depreciation and inflation makes everything more expensive, from fruits and vegetables to tyres and oil all the way to the big-ticket items, like mobile phones. Image Credit: AP

The US president threatened to obliterate the Islamic Republic of Iran in response to the Iranian president’s suggestion that the White House is “mentally disabled”. President Donald Trump has slammed Iran’s leadership as “selfish” and “stupid” to ignore his offer to return to the negotiating table. The Iranian leadership now maintains the door to diplomacy is shut. Both sides in this ongoing drama have sunk to the level of personal insult. In a different context such exchanges could be a cause for mirth but at a moment of escalating tensions that could so easily culminate in all-out war, nobody is laughing.

The president’s nth-minute U-turn on his approval for strikes on “a handful of sites” in retaliation for Iran’s shooting down of a US drone was broadly welcomed by Congressional lawmakers, among them prominent critics of the president. America’s traditional allies are shying away from conflict. Most have ignored Trump’s call to assist in the protection of shipping in the Gulf, and with the possible exception of Great Britain and Australia, they have no appetite to take on Iran militarily. A headline in the New York Times “War with Iran, Count us out Europe says” speaks volumes.

Iran’s economy is in dire straits. Its currency has lost more than two-thirds of its value. Iranians are losing their jobs. Inflation is rocketing. Iranian oil exports have hit all time lows. US sanctions were either aimed at forcing Hassan Rouhani to reach out to the White House cap-in-hand or, at best, to galvanise the population to effect regime change. In reality, neither of those scenarios is probable.

Iran does not want war with the United States simply because it would ultimately lose. And unlike several of his hawkish advisers, Trump doesn’t want war either. The potential for an error of judgement on either side is great.

- Linda S. Heard

The regime cannot afford to look weak before its superpower nemesis due to domestic concerns. Mixed messages from the White House and the State Department have not engendered an atmosphere conducive to trust. Kudos to President Trump for standing up to Iran, but will his strategy bear fruit?

History tells us that sanctions rarely have the desired effect. Venezuelans are hungry and lack basic medicines but President Nicolas Maduro retains the loyalty of the army and substantial public support.

Russia has been sanctioned by the US and the EU and although its economy has weakened as a result it remains stable. North Korea is massively sanctioned yet the regime survives.

Limits breached

The Palestinian economy is in a shambles, partly due to the Trump administration’s withdrawal of aid as well as Israel’s freezes of Palestinian tax revenue. Even so, the Palestinian National Authority has refused mega monetary incentives to accept Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’.

Ten years of biting United Nations sanctions on Iraq over its mythical pursuit of WMD hurt the population badly but failed to dislodge Saddam Hussain. His overthrow took a large scale military offensive and an invasion that fomented sectarian divisions, bore a bestial terrorist group and ultimately placed Shiite-dominated Iraq in the ayatollahs’ pocket.

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Democratic presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard insists “war with Iran would make the Iraq War look like a cakewalk”. I doubt many could argue with that. Besides an unknown toll on human lives, oil prices would go through the roof culminating in a worldwide recession.

Admittedly Trump’s hot and cold blasts did pay off to some measure to temper the North Korean leader’s aggressive stance but Iran’s ideological leadership is a different animal. The regime has dug in its heels giving JCPOA signatory states a deadline. Unless the Europeans come up with a method of circumventing US sanctions, Tehran will increase its uranium stockpiles in excess of the 300 kilogram agreed limit. (Latest reports suggest that Iran has breached a 300kg limit on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium). How the EU will respond has yet to be clarified.

Error of judgement

Given that sanctions on Iran, though punishing, are unlikely to bring Iran to heel especially since certain of its powerful allies are not on board, and war would exact a terrible cost for all concerned, is there another solution?

Iran does not want war with the United States simply because it would ultimately lose. And unlike several of his hawkish advisers, Trump doesn’t want war either. The potential for an error of judgement on either side is great.

Perhaps this is the moment for the Arab world to intercede. After all, the track record of the US and its European allies has been abysmal in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. There have been no good outcomes and that’s an understatement.

Iran’s interference in Arab countries, particularly Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, cannot be permitted to continue. But the one avenue still untapped is talks between GCC states and the Iranian regime that could permit Tehran a face-saving exit from its predicament on strict conditions that it stops funding and arming proxies hostile to Arab states, ends its attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman and adheres to IAEA nuclear inspections and monitoring. There are no guarantees that such face-to-face interactions would change the hostile status quo, but with war clouds looming, surely the simple art of diplomacy, particularly when Iran is being squeezed from all sides, is worth a try.

Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.