In May 2018, more than a year ago, when the US threw the hard-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran out of the window of the Oval office, it did not come as a surprise, for Donald Trump was only fulfilling the promise he had made to his voters during his presidential election campaign the year before. When the deal was thrown out, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made a speech in Washington and laid down 12 demands that, if Iran fulfilled them, would pave the way for normalisation of US relations with Iran and bring ‘peace’ in the Middle East. Among other things, his demands included an end of “proliferation of ballistic missiles”, “withdraw all forces under Iran’s command throughout the entirety of Syria”, “End the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps-linked Quds Force’s support for “terrorists” and “militant” partners around the world”, and end its “threatening behaviour” towards its neighbours i.e., the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
None of the demands was about making Iran abide by the deal (because Iran wasn’t in violation) and only two were strictly about proliferation of nuclear weapons and/or uranium enrichment, although no evidence existed, and none exists to-date, that shows Iran was/is developing uranium beyond its limits or that it was/is taking steps towards potential proliferation of nuclear weapons. By focusing on Iran’s regional policies and influence, the US showed that it only wanted Iran to roll back and end expansion of political influence.
However, while Iran’s influence remains very much intact in Syria and in Iraq and elsewhere, Mike Pompeo’s recent offer to engage “unconditionally” with Iran in talks shows that the very author of the 12 demands has backed out of his otherwise non-negotiable conditions of talks with Iran. “We are prepared to engage in a conversation with no preconditions. We are ready to sit down with them,” said Pompeo in a news conference in Switzerland on June 2, 2019, although he also said that the US would continue to make efforts to roll back Iranian influence in the region.
What really is important here is the question of why is the US offering unconditional talks to Iran at a time when its (the US) president thinks that their sanctions on Iran are really working?
Donald Trump was recently in Japan where he minced no words in highlight how his sanctions were really ‘working’. To quote him, “Iran, when I first came into office, was a terror. They were fighting in many locations all over the Middle East. They were behind every single major attack, whether it was Syria, whether it was Yemen, whether it was individual smaller areas, whether it was taking away oil from people. They were involved with everything…..Now they’re pulling back because they’re got serious economic problems. We have massive — as you know, massive sanctions and other things. I mean, we just said the other day: steel, copper, different elements of what they used to sell. The oil is essentially dried up.”
However, despite the fact that Donald Trump thinks that his sanctions are working, he, too, seemed to sound a reconciliatory note during his press conference in Japan and said “and I think we’ll make a deal. I think Iran — again, I think Iran has tremendous economic potential. And I look forward to letting them get back to the stage where they can show that. I think Iran — I know so many people from Iran. These are great people. It has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership.”
The Trump administration is, as is evident, in a U-turn mode. One wonders why would that be the case if sanctions are working and why not let Iran ‘sink’ in the sea of sanctions and force it to emerge as a ‘reformed’ actor? This would obviously be the case unless the sanctions, as opposed to what Trump said in Japan, aren’t actually working. While sanctions have certainly hurt Iran’s economy; US sanctions have essentially failed to modify Iran’s policy the way the US and its allies would have ideally wanted.
A second reason for why the US is now finding itself in a U-turn mode is that Iran, instead of capitulating, has raised the stakes by moving an inch closer to closing the Strait of Hormuz. According to some analysts, if the Strait is blocked and the flow of energy from the Gulf—which is about twenty per cent of the whole world—-is completely shut down, it could lead to the price of oil reaching $200 a barrel, or much higher over an extended period. This would potentially crash the derivatives market, creating an unprecedented global depression. The Bank for International Settlements said last year that the “notional amount outstanding for derivatives contracts” was $542 trillion.
While it is not for the first time that Iran has threatened closure, what really makes it a serious threat today is that stakes have equally been never higher for Iran or even for the US.
While the US officials continue to mention that they would continue to pursue Iranian roll-back, there is little to no gainsaying that achieving this is hard to materialise, given that Iran, even after facing toughest ever US sanctions, has managed to bring the situation to a stalemate where the U.S. now feels compelled to change the tone and initiate the talk of ‘unconditional talks with Iran.’
This is a paradigm shift, evident also from the way US naval deployment has already started to decrease in the Persian Gulf. The USS Abraham Lincoln, which was scheduled to move towards the region, has stopped in the Arabian Sea, some 200 miles off the coast of Oman. Naval officials are also praising Iran for its professional behaviour. Rear Adm. John F. G. Wade, commander of the Lincoln strike group, said Iran’s naval forces have adhered to international standards of interaction with ships in his group. There are thus already signs of no-conflict in the Gulf and mediation and talks to ease down the military stand-off even if a deal doesn’t immediately take place.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.