Iran crisis: A high-stakes bet on who blinks first

By James M. Dorsey 15 January 2020

Two sets of US government cables suggest that Iran hawks in and outside the Trump administration appear to have the upper hand as European countries give hardliners a helping hand by attempting to force Iran to seek a diplomatic solution to a crisis that threatens to engulf the Middle East in yet another military conflict.

Disclosure of the cables advocating a military strike such as this month’s killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani coupled with the withdrawal of a US State Department olive branch that was intended to reassure Iran about the Trump administration’s intentions appear designed to persuade the Islamic republic to back away from its strategy of gradual escalation.

The strategy aims to engineer a situation in which a return to negotiations on the basis of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program is the only way to avoid an all-out war. The Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and has since imposed ever harsher economic sanctions on Iran.

Hardliners in Washington believe Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests days after millions of Iranians came out to mourn Mr. Soleimani’s death in what Iranian leaders project as a rallying around the regime is a proof of concept of their approach.

The hard-liners’ strategy was spelled out in a series of unclassified memos sent by David Wurmser, a close associate of John Bolton, while Mr. Bolton was serving as national security advise to President Donald J. Trump. The memos projected a US military operation on the scale of the killing of a Mr. Soleimani as a way of destabilizing the government in Tehran.

Mr. Wurmser’s advice was in line with proposals for destabilizing Iran presented to the White House by Mr. Bolton in the months before his appointment. Mr. Bolton was fired by Mr. Trump in September of last year.

“Iran has always been careful to execute its ambitions and aggressive aims incrementally to avoid Western reactions which depart from the expected. In contrast, were unexpected, rule-changing actions taken against Iran, it would confuse the regime. It would need to scramble,” Mr. Wurmser wrote.

 Such a U.S. attack would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival… Iranians would both be impressed and potentially encouraged by a targeted attack on symbols of repression,” Mr. Wurmser added.

The leaking of Mr. Wurmser’s memos coincided with a cable from the State Department to US diplomatic missions worldwide that walked back an instruction earlier this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to limit contacts with Iranian opposition and exile groups in a bid to reassure Iran that the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Pompeo cable seemed to be a first step at bridging the gulf of distrust between Washington and Tehran that makes a resolution of the two countries’ differences all but impossible. Iran has long been convinced that regime change is the main driver of US policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Pompeo’s instruction came on the heels of Mr. Trump’s decision not to respond to Iranian missile attacks on US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Mr. Soleimani.

With the government in Tehran on the backfoot as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and renewed anti-government protests, leaders of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, appear to be buying into the strategy of the Washington hardliners.

The Europeans, responding to Iran’s gradual withdrawal from its commitments under the accord as part of its strategy of gradual escalation, this week triggered its dispute resolution mechanism, that could put Iran’s actions on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and lead to a re-imposition of international sanctions.

British prime minister Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by telling the BBC that he would be willing to back an as yet non-existent proposal by Mr. Trump for a new agreement with Iran. “If we are going to get rid of it (the nuclear accord), then we need a replacement,” Mr. Johnson said.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the two-pronged stepping up of US and European pressure on Iran will be sufficient to engineer a breakthrough in efforts to avert escalating tension and a return to the negotiating table.

So far, Iran’s response suggests tensions may have to further escalate before parties, all of whom do not want an all-out war, pull back from the brink.

In a first, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, insisting that all foreign forces should leave the Middle East, warned, in response to the European move and statements, that British, French and German troops may be in danger.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr. Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting.

Said a Western diplomat, spelling out European thinking: “This allows us to buy time while making clear to Iran that they cannot continue on this path of non-compliance with no consequences.”

For now, it’s a high stakes poker bet on who blinks first.

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  • sam555sardana@rediffmail.com'
    samir sardana
    January 19, 2020, 6:26 am

    The Ukranian plane crash stinks !

    As soon as the Iranian BM were in the air – the Iranians would and should have closed their airspace ! Why did they not do it ? It takes a second.

    That the Ukranian plane veered to the IRG HQ near the airport,or that the radar or transponder pods,on the plane were off or put off – is all bullshit.The Iranian ADS would know all the commercial flight schedules of the day,and would also know the RCS of a Boeing,and the time of its takeoff (from its own airport!).

    Even if the Americans jets were to make a raid into Iran – the ADS at the land border,would pick them up and the jets would fly at 20-25000 feet.The Ukranian plane was at take off stage -less than 10000 feet. How could the Iranian ADS at Tehran,assume that the projectile was a Cruise Missile – at low altitude ?

    American jets were in the air in Iraq,even before the BM launch by Iran – and must have been tracked by the Iranian ADS and Radars.

    Not 1 American Killed in the Ukranian Flight ! Not 1 EU killed in the flight ! 90% were Iranians ! That is why the Iranians came out on the streets – AS IRANIANS WERE KILLED ON THE FLIGHT !

    Ain’t no coincidence ! It is the Americans who might have jammed the communications between the flight and the Iranian ADS – and also jammed the Iranian ADS – to cause the Iranian Hit ! The aim was to discredit the IRG and the Iranian Elite – by making the Persians kill Persians on Persian Soil – blowing the myths around the Quds,Basij, IRG and the clergy – and start a Tahrir !

    There can be no other reason ! Americans can jam any Iranian ADS – except the S-400 systems – as also,proven by the IAF raids in Syria – right upto the Syrian Presidential Palace.The Yankii hacked the Iranian Nuke enrichment plants – hacking into the Being coordinates and radars,would be a cakewalk.

    Iranians/Russians allow the killing of Soleimani , Iranians Miss all the targets in Iraq , Do not close their airspace after launching of BM AND SHOOT DOWN A NATO PLANE FULL OF IRANIANS – with no American or EU casualties !

    S-T-I-N-K !

    During Indo-Pak conflict in 2019 the Hindoo worms shot their own chopper near the IB.That was due intense radar clutter and noise and EW from both sides of the border.dindooohindoo

    The Ukranian plane was shot 10000 feet in the air – in TEHRAN, hundreds of miles from the IB with Iraq ! And there is a complete RECORDING by some human on the ground – who was there at the right time and right place. 2 Missiles were fired ! TWO ! The 2nd was to make sure – a MAN behind the MANPAD !

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