A year after the American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, the relations between the United States and Iran hit a new low. The Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade organised an expert roundtable on the 29th of May to interpret Iranian-American tensions and to discuss the chances of the eruption of a new Gulf war. The participants of the debate included Ádám Éva, researcher of the Antall József Knowledge Centre, Erzsébet N. Rózsa, senior research fellow of the World Economy Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and professor of the University of Public Service, and László Csicsmann, associate professor of the Corvinus University of Budapest. The discussion was moderated by Máté Szalai, senior researcher at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade assistant professor at the Corvinus University of Budapest.
Máté Szalai started the discussion with some introductory remarks. He enlisted the main steps of the escalation process since the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal in July, 2015 through the American withdrawal until May, 2019. He drew attention to the fact that Donald Trump criticised the deal even in his presidential campaign repeatedly and also indicated his desire to withdraw from it, which he managed to accomplish in May, 2018. According to Szalai, the chain of events can be interpreted in the framework of the “game of chicken” scenario of game theory – accordingly, rhetorical threats can serve as a conciliatory tool since they incentivise cooperation by making the price of non-compliance higher.
Ádám Éva continued with the interpretation of the management of the Iranian crisis in the framework of the Middle East strategy of the United States. The “maximum pressure policy” was articulated in Washington only in 2018, but the foreign policy of Iran has always been interpreted as a threat by American decision-makers since the revolution of 1979. He emphasized that in the last 40 years, the hardliners of both sides prevented rapprochement. The question of Iran is closely connected to the events of the Afghan and the Iraqi wars as well as to the American withdrawal narrative started by the Obama administration. According to the researcher, the Trump government indicated several times that it does not wish to behave like the policeman of world politics, and it wants its regional allies to take up a bigger role in the management of regional crises. The plan to build up an “Arab NATO” served this ambition. Due to the diverse interests of the participating countries, the endeavour failed, which is why the US relies more on cooperating with Israel and the Gulf countries.
The withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement fits the strategic considerations of the United States which prefers bilateral initiatives over multilateral ones. Nonetheless it is clear that there is no consensus regarding the management of the Iranian portfolio in the Trump administration – voices supporting a military intervention and those supporting diplomatic solutions are present parallelly. It seems that President Donald Trump currently belongs to the second group.
Erzsébet N. Rózsa talked about the nuclear program and the possible nuclear ambitions of Iran. As an introductory thought, she highlighted the fact that due to the nature of nuclear technology it is almost impossible to detect the exact intensions of states as most pieces of equipment and facilities can be utilised for peaceful and hostile purposes at the same time. The nuclear agreement of 2015 aimed at closing the technical routes to Iran which could lead to the construction of a nuclear weapon, which is why it wanted to limit the ability of Tehran to produce a device based on either uranium or plutonium. Moreover, Iran is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which enables the international community to conduct unannounced inspections. Consequently, from a professional point of view, the two treaties provided an adequate framework to ascertain the civilian nature of the Iranian nuclear program.
A year after the American withdrawal, Tehran announced in May 2019 that they would not respect the regulations of the Iranian nuclear deal which refer to the threshold of uranium enrichment (5%) and the quantity of enriched uranium (300 kg). These steps do not pose a serious threat so far as the level of enrichment will probably be at 20% (and not at a weapon grade enrichment of 85-90%), while when it comes to the quantity of enriched uranium, Iran does not yet possess the said amount. Moreover, we cannot see any direct sign of the ambition of developing a nuclear weapon, though many argue that the missile program of Iran constitutes a cause for concern by itself.
László Csicsmann described the effects of American sanctions on the Iranian economy. The “resistance economy” program proclaimed by the Iranian leadership aims at withholding the American pressure, nonetheless the most serious economic challenges of Iran are a result of structural problems and not of sanctions. After the election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013, the new government wanted to find a solution to such problems (e.g. high unemployment rate and economic imbalances), which led to tendencies of improvement in 2014 without any changes in the international sanction environment. The Iranian society articulated grave economic expectations towards the Iranian nuclear agreement of 2015, which were further strengthened by the government rhetoric. It is true that in 2016, after the multilateral sanctions were lifted, Iran witnessed a GDP growth of 13.4%, but this was mostly due to increasing oil exports and not to the successful management of structural problems.
It was in this environment when the United States introduced primary and secondary sanctions. As a result of such measures, the volume of oil exports declined to the 2012 level, nonetheless reliable data are not available since we cannot exactly see who buys Iranian oil currently. The economic protests of 2018 should not be underestimated, though they did not pose a threat to the survival of the regime. The European Union intended to maintain trade with Iran through the economic mechanism called Instex, nonetheless due to the low volume of Iranian-European trade, the initiative did not yield serious results. Consequently, the Iranian economy is oriented more and more towards China and India.
In the discussion following the presentations, the panellists agreed that the chances of the eruption of a new Gulf war remains law since neither regional nor global actors are interested in such a conflict. Nonetheless, we can expect “accidents” like the recent attack on oil tankers in the Gulf and the continuation of rhetoric tensions, while neither incidental escalation nor a limited intervention is out of the question. Currently, the leverage of the European Union, similarly to Iran, is very limited as it is the United States which would be able to solve the current crisis. Nonetheless, Washington has many issues on the table in the Middle East which requires serious attention.