US-Iran: an election showdown?
Relations between the US and Iran are at a modern-day low. But with both facing renewed waves of Covid-19 and severe economic downturns, and with the US’s sights trained on China, does either country have an interest in further dangerous escalation? With the upcoming US presidential election on 3 November, what are the signals from the Trump and Biden camps?
Today, Iran’s economy is in tatters following additional sanctions imposed by the US, and has been hit hard by the pandemic. In March, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif accused the US of moving from ‘economic terrorism’ to ‘medical terrorism’ for refusing to lift sanctions in support of government efforts to cope with the coronavirus outbreak. Despite calls by Human Rights Watch to ease the restrictions, the US slapped Iran with another round of sanctions in May.
Debate rages in Washington, DC over the effectiveness of US President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Proponents insist the crippling sanctions will bring Tehran to its knees and back to the negotiating table, if not spur regime change. Opponents say it empowers hardline figures, undermines US national security strategy, some even claiming the campaign has backfired. Despite two measures in the US House of Representatives to limit Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran, there is little to stop an operation should the US decide to take action. A recent attack on the Natanz facility, the location of Iran’s advanced nuclear centrifuges, is a clear sign of a willingness to escalate an already tense situation. In the words of Brian H. Hook, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, ‘We have seen historically that timidity and weakness invites more Iranian aggression.’
In response to Trump’s decidedly untimid approach, Iran has become belligerent, in June firing a new generation of cruise missiles during war games in the Indian Ocean and in July testing a Shahab-3 medium range missile capable of fitting a nuclear weapon, acts the New York Times deemed ‘carefully calibrated effort(s) at escalation — and as a message to Europe’. Additionally, and ominously, it carried out a mock attack on an aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz from underground sites, considered so provocative that two US bases in the region went on alert status.
But how hypothetical are such threats, particularly in the run-up to the US presidential election? Rhetorical spats and shows of military strength aside, whether or not tensions escalate into a full-blown confrontation may depend on Trump’s chances of re-election.
Should Trump lose
If Trump and his allies at home and abroad judge that he will not win a second term in office, he may face pressure to take action against Iran before the change in administration. Such an action, colloquially referred to as an ‘October Surprise’, is not unprecedented in American politics when a president wants to influence the outcome of an election. Politico magazine cites 11 examples in the past 100 years, and 2020 may provide another.
The UN, notably China and Russia, recently rebuffed a US attempt to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran that expires on 18 October. Continued Iranian provocations — such as proxy attacks on US and allied interests and direct displays of military capability — may be intended by Tehran as messages of deterrence, but to the US and others be seen as provocation and, more dangerously, justification for a response.
‘The chances for a mistake or of miscalculation are high’, says General Mark Kimmitt, former US Assistant Secretary of State. ‘The high level of Iranian weapons testing, proxy activity and defensive posturing in a region with significant US military presence could lead to an unintentional blunder which could spiral out of control’.
It is unlikely that Tehran sees any benefit in confrontation, and in both the case of a Trump loss or victory, the most likely confrontation would not be deliberate. From Tehran’s perspective, if a Trump defeat appeared likely, provoking or being provoked into an altercation with the US would be irrational, given an impending change in administration and an expected softening in US policy under a Biden administration.
Biden’s advisors have already hinted that he would be amenable to reinstating the JCPOA. As Biden’s foreign policy advisor Anthony Blinken recently told CBS News: ‘We disagree fundamentally with the approach the administration took on Iran... If Iran comes back into compliance with the deal, then yes, Joe Biden said we would do the same thing, but we would use that as a platform to try to build a stronger and longer deal working with our partners.’ For Tehran, the best course is to play jiu-jitsu and do anything possible to avert a war and hold on for another six months then try to negotiate a better deal.
Similarly, says Dr Seyed Majid Tafreshi, a former Iranian ambassador and an international law researcher, ‘Although Trump has proven himself an irresponsible president, even he wouldn’t start a war that would have tremendous spillover effect on his country and his successor after he leaves office. Let’s not forget that Trump has always claimed that he is not going to start any war and always criticized previous US presidents for their irresponsible decisions that cost billions of taxpayer dollars.’
Should Trump win
In many ways, the positions are reversed should Trump remain in power. It will be Iran who has the most to gain from confrontation, for no reason other than its inability to withstand another four years of the steadily escalating maximum pressure campaign. The internal threat to the regime would be intolerable.
Yet, some circles in Tehran — what some might consider ‘hardliners’ — are actually banking on a Trump victory. They may despise Trump, but they are inclined to believe that a second term for Trump would work in Tehran’s favor in the long term. They argue that his administration’s highly divisive policies have gone some way toward isolating Washington, DC from the international community and eroding its leadership role.
In an interview with an Iranian journalist, Zarif said: ‘Allow me to venture a prediction that Mr Trump’s re-election chances are still more that 50%. If a Trump re-election appears as likely as Zarif supposes, the surge to confront will likely come from the Iranians. They can hold out until the election, but not for four more years, and an intentional conflict, ranging from stepping up its proxy war in Iraq to a deliberate attack on a naval vessel in the Gulf may demonstrate the unbearable cost to the US of furthering its comprehensive aggression against Iran.
The chances of a pre-election confrontation in the Gulf is tempered by the current volatile environment, including Covid, the worldwide economic downturn and a host of country-specific challenges. One might bet on fear, deterrence and bureaucratic inertia to maintain the status quo. Trump’s best chances of re-election are to focus on domestic issues, not start a war, and his predilection to personally deal with aggressive foreign leaders might be the best chance to mitigate conflict. Tehran’s fractured decision-making centers of power, too, argue against a confrontation, as it would be difficult to reach a consensus among all factions unless the US attacked first.
But should confrontation ensue, the consequences would be dramatic. The Iranian economy and US domestic policy are in shambles and significant military activity, ranging from underground missile tests to extensive Iranian operations conducted by proxies throughout the region, make confrontation by miscalculation as likely as through deliberate decisions. In any case, the situation bears watching — the region is on tenterhooks and any minor confrontation could quickly spiral into region-wide conflict. While war may have been avoided in January, it will take close scrutiny and cool heads to ensure that an Archduke Ferdinand moment does not come before the end of the current US administration.
Tanya Goudsouzian is a Canadian journalist who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for over 15 years. She is former Opinion editor of Al Jazeera English Online. Follow her on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian
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