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Like with N. Korea, Trump thinks his pressure strategy will force Tehran to negotiate – Iran scholar

The US has ordered a military buildup in the Middle East, citing a rising threat from Iran. Are the two nations on the brink of all-out conflict? We ask Mohsen Milani, executive director of the Center for Strategic & Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mohsen Milani, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, welcome to the show. It is great to have you with us, Mr. Milani. You’ve been saying that chances of an all-out war between the U.S. and Iran are very slim now, as no side is really interested in an open conflict. But recently Pentagon has sent the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and B-52 strategic bombers to the Persian Gulf to prevent “Iranian miscalculation”, as U.S. Defense Secretary has put it. What possible miscalculation can there be on the part of Iran, what is there to prevent?  

Mohsen Milani: Thank you for having me on your programme. As I have said before, I think, the chances of a military confrontation or a full-fledged war between the United States and Iran are very slim at this time. I say that because of the statement that have been made by the Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as well as by the President of the United States Donald Trump. Recently, Donald Trump has said very clearly, very explicitly that he is not interested in getting engaged in another endless war in the Middle East. The danger, however, is a miscalculation by either Iran or the U.S., or an event instigated by some regional players,and that Iran has to respond, and then the U.S. has to respond to the Iranian response, and then this can get out of control, and then we might have a limited military confrontation. This is why it is very important for Iran and the United States to open channels of communication between their top leaderships or at least between the military leaderships of the two countries, so that we can prevent a miscalculation or a limited military confrontation between the two countries, because if there is a military confrontation, even if it is a limited one, it is not going to serve the interests of the United States, interests of Iran or the interests of the regional players, because their war with Iran is not going to be limited to a war with Iran: it's going to become a regional conflict. 

SS: One of Iran’s top military officials has already said that Iran will send American warships “to the bottom of the sea” with some “new secret weapons”. Is Iran exaggerating its military capabilities or do they really have some superweapon nobody has heard about? 

MM: I do not know if Iran has a secret nuclear weapon. I doubt it very much. I will take that more as a propaganda or a psychological warfare on the part of Iran, than a serious threat. In case there is a military confrontation between Iran and the United States, you do not have to be a genius to figure out the outcome of it. The United States will prevail. 

SS:U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is saying that sending warships to the Gulf is aimed at deterring, not provoking Iran. Mike Pompeo is also saying that this is done against the possibility of Iranian attack on Americans or American interests. If Iran is really planning to do anything against the Americans, will this latest development really deter Tehran from action? 

MM: Yes. Excellent question. If you look at the Iranian foreign policy in the past at least 18 or 20 years, you can see that they have developed what they think is a deterrence capability. They have networks of militia organisations – their own militia organisations that have been trained and supported by Iran. And the thinking is that in case there is a retaliation against  Iran by the United States, Iran can retaliate not from its own soil but from the soil of other countries. This was the logic, the entire logic behind creating the Hezbollah in 1981-1982 in Lebanon. The logic was that “we are going to train and arm Hezbollah, you're going to give it striking capability; in case Israel attacks Iranian facilities, we might have the capability to strike against Israel”. That is the logic behind what they are trying to do. And the United States is sending a very clear message that they are aware of this and they are going to retaliate forcefully. And, hopefully, as a result of what has happened in the past two weeks, the wiser heads are prevailing in Tehran and Washington, and there seems to be some de-escalation of tensions between the two countries. 

SS: Is the United States ready to use the troops it has near Iran or are they there just to provide psychological pressure on Tehran? 

MM: My take is based on what I have seen so far. The situation in the Middle East right now is very fluid, extremely fluid. So, I might have to change my views five days from now. But based on everything I've seen so far, this is more of a psychological warfare, and an intense psychological warfare is going on between the two countries. There is no question about this. But at the same time the U.S. is not taking likely the possibility of some sort of a confrontation with Iran. If you look at the operations of Iran in the past 40 years, they have made a huge important strategic decision: never to confront the U.S. directly. And during the occupation of Iraq by the U.S. Iran provided support to its militias. But Iranian forces, to my knowledge, never confronted the U.S. directly. And it's very unlikely that Iranian forces are going to confront the U.S. directly at this time. 

SS: A week ago Trump has literally threatened “to end Iran”, now he sounds more conciliatory saying that he doesn’t want war with Iran. What’s behind the American president’s changing rhetoric? Should we take his aggressive stance seriously? 

MM: I think we have to take every word that the president says seriously. However, what he is doing about Iran is precisely what he has done with North Korea. You respond to your enemies or to your rivals decisively, forcefully, but then you also leave a window of opportunity for the other side to begin negotiations. The President Trump believes that his maximum pressure strategy against Iran, imposing crippling sanctions have profoundly undermined the Iranian economy, and that sooner or later Iran is going to come to the negotiating table. And, therefore, he occasionally makes a statement such as the one that you refer to, about which I also send the tweet, and then a few days later he comes out with this statement about his lack of desire and interest in a regime change in Iran. But more than that, I do not think that there has ever been an American president who has so explicitly stated that he is not after regime change in Iran. Not only is not after regime change in Iran -  he went one step further and he said something extremely important that, I hope, Tehran takes seriously, and that is under the present leadership, he said, Iran can become a major economic and political force in the region. 

SS:  Alright. So U.S. official line is that the sole purpose of American sanctions on Iran is to bring Tehran to the negotiation table and produce a much “better” and “fairer” nuclear deal. However, I’ve heard opinions that Washington is in fact aiming to push Iranian economy into dire straits and provoke a revolution. Is that the real goal of American sanctions? 

MM: I think it is very difficult to talk about what the real goal of the U.S. administration is. We do know that there is a major ideological split between the president's national security adviser Mr. John Bolton and perhaps to a lesser degree Secretary of State Pompeo, and the President. The President is not interested in regime change or in a war with Iran, as he has shown in the case with North Korea. However, Mr. Bolton is on the record for desiring a regime change in Tehran. So, for Mr. Bolton and the people who are in favor of regime change the logic of this maximum pressure is that we are going to put as much economic pressure, psychological pressure, political pressure, international pressure on Iran to bring Iran to the negotiating table, so we can get a better deal. Their thinking is: if Iran doesn't come to the negotiating table, there could be a possibility of implosion in Iran, or there could be a possibility of regime change. If you look at what has happened in Iran in the past year, the economic sanctions and the policy or the strategy of maximum pressure have created huge economic problems for Iran, the kind of which I don't think Iran has experienced at least since the start of the Iran-Iraq war in the past 39 years. However, we have not seen the kind of internal uprising or internal demonstrations, that the advocates of regime change thought they would see.These sanctions are crippling the Iranian economy and, unlike what a lot of people say, the Iranian government is hurting for sure. But more than the Iranian government it is the Iranian people that are hurting, and I hope these sanctions could be lifted as soon as possible. 

SS: 76 former U.S. military top brass have signed an open letter to Trump calling to avoid further confrontation with Iran and turn to diplomacy. Do you think moves like these can really change anything in U.S. policies towards Iran? 

MM: I do believe that these kinds of letters, this kind of pressure by distinguished American military officers, who have served the country well, do have an impact. We might not see the impact in terms of public statements, made by the American official, but I have no doubt that behind the closed door they do have profound impact. And that letter was nicely written and very thoughtful. 

SS: Mr. Milani, In mid-April Iran's foreign minister Zarif said that Europe is lagging behind its commitments to save the Iranian deal. UK, Germany, France have established the so-called Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges aimed at going around the U.S. sanctions against Iran. But Tehran says it's not enough. What exactly does Iran want to see? I mean, does Iran expect the EU to start outright trading its sanctioned goods and confront the United States? 

MM: Yes. Excellent question. The basis of the nuclear deal that was signed between Iran and six global powers was that we would have real limitations on Iranian nuclear programme and for that the crippling sanctions would be lifted. Well, Iran has essentially implemented its obligations and the International Atomic Energy Agency has at least 16 or 17 times confirmed that Iran has done its share of its obligation. Unfortunately, the other six global powers, particularly the Europeans and the United States, have not. They did not do what they promised to do. Now, after President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal the Europeans tried to somehow manage to convince Iran not to get out of the nuclear deal and the instruments that you referred to was a sort of a compromise. But, unfortunately, the Europeans have not delivered at all. That mechanism has not worked because the Europeans are really placed between a hard place and a hard rock: they cannot abandon the U.S. because the U.S. is their strategic ally and at the same time they do not want to see the end of the nuclear deal. They have to deliver more. And the reason why Iran has decided to take some measures against the nuclear deal is to put pressure on the Europeans to deliver. And it's now time for the Europeans to either deliver or Iran might take additional actions. 

SS: But deliver what exactly? That is the question. 

MM: To allow at least the transfer of medicine and agricultural products to Iran at this time and then later on to allow sales of oil and other things by Iran. The reason why Iran made this decision to undermine some provisions of the nuclear deal is because Iran is not getting any of the benefits it was supposed to get under the deal. And so the Iranians strategic patience has ended. They are saying either we have to get some benefits from the nuclear deal or we’re essentially going to come out of it. So this mechanism that Europe has set up could be expanded. At this time it is only, from what I understand, for agricultural products and medicines, although it hasn't even been operationalised fully. But then it has to be expanded beyond that. The question is: will Europe decide to go ahead and do this when the United States opposes that? I doubt very much if they are going to be able to deliver. 

SS: But can Iran really drop the deal altogether?I mean, isn't the current deal situation better than no deal at all? 

MM: At this time yes. But the way the Iranians are thinking is that if these sanctions continue for another year or two and if the U.S. succeeds in bringing Iranian oil exports to zero, which is very unlikely, but right now, from what I understand, it's below 600 thousand barrels a day from what it used to be 2.4 million barrels a day, then it could have drastic economic consequences inside Iran. So they have to act preemptively. They can probably go on for another year or two but more than that it's going to be very difficult. Therefore, they are trying to put pressure on the Europeans to make some changes. But ultimately in my judgment, in my personal opinion, the United States and Iran should begin to renegotiate the nuclear deal. 

SS: So President Rouhani said recently that Iran will stop implementing some of its commitments under the nuclear deal. EU, Germany, France, UK have harshly reacted to this move saying that they won't accept ultimatums from Iran. Do you feel like Tehran has been testing the limits of the Europeans’ goodwill and their patience with Iran is now kind of running out? 

MM: I think the decision Iran made is important. But in my judgment it's more of a symbolic gesture. It is not going to really change the dynamics of Iran's nuclear programme at this time. But it is a serious warning to the Europeans and, I think, the U.S. that Iran is not going to continue to be pressured economically and not restart its nuclear programme. There is so much pressure you can put on a country and then you reach a point where that country can no longer accept the status quo. So the Iranians are trying to prevent the situation to reach a point where they have to completely get out of the nuclear programme. I think if they do, it would be a huge mistake for the Islamic Republic of Iran. As far as I'm concerned, they should stay in the nuclear programme and, as I said, begin negotiations with the United States, with Washington. 

SS: So in the wake of the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal Iran turned eastwards to China but now reports are coming that in January 2019 the volume of Iran-China trade was only half of that in January 2018. Chinese international companies are still exposed to U.S. pressure and China stopped buying Iranian oil. So how much of a lifeline can Iran count on here? 

MM: Not very much. The problem is and I think that's... I do not want to justify what the Europeans have done but part of their argument, and it makes some sense to me, is that while the European governments, especially the Germans and the French and the Brits, while they really want to help Iran economically they have no control over their private sectors. And their private sectors, if they have to choose between the Iranian market versus the U.S. market, again, you don't have to be an economic genius to figure out that they would go with the U.S. market. And the problem, however, for Russia and for China is not as severe as it is for Europeans because in both countries many of the companies are controlled by the state. So they might be able to help Iran a little bit more than the Europeans can. But ultimately if this sanctions regime is sustained Iran will have eventually no choice but to make drastic decisions about its nuclear programme. 

SS: So President Rouhani suggests holding a referendum on staying in the nuclear deal. What is the purpose of a referendum like that? I mean, how is Iranian popular opinion relevant to the global diplomatic game around its nuclear programme? I mean, it's not like President Rouhani or the Supreme Leader ever really asked people if they want it... 

MM: Yes, he has suggested this idea but he has not answered the questions that you have asked. His thinking is that there is a division within the leadership of the Islamic Republic. It is not so much that decisions in Iran as decisions in a lot of other countries are not based on democratic principles. The reason why he is focusing on the referendum, he believes the only way the division, the factional fights about how to approach the U.S., how to approach the West, can be solved only through a referendum because the two sides of the governing elites in Iran, one side hoping to open up Iran toward the markets and having a more balanced foreign policy between Russia, China and West versus the hardliners who are much more inclined to improve Iran's relationship with the East, with Russia, with China. He believes that we have reached a point of impasse within the governing elite and the only way we can break that impasse is through a referendum. So the referendum is more of an attempt to address the contradictions and the disagreements and the lack of consensus within the governing elite than to really listen to what people want. 

SS: So Iran's foreign minister once again has suggested that the Gulf States should sign a non-aggression pact. Who specifically is Tehran inviting on board? The biggest player in the region - Saudi Arabia - is United States’ ally and is strongly anti-Iran and the only true friend Iran has in the region, well, is Iraq, I guess... 

MM: Well, the situation in the region is that we have actually two different camps. We have the camp of hardliners in the region led by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates who seek to have a more hardline policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. And then we also have countries like Qatar, like Kuwait, like Oman and definitely like Iraq and Lebanon who do not want to see a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran and who believe in a more conciliatory posture toward the Islamic Republic. Now, the proposal by Iran for a non-aggression treaty is a good idea but really it's not realistic for two reasons. Number one, as long as Iran does not address its problem with the United States it cannot have a normal relations with the major countries in that region. That is a fact that Iran should have learned in the past 40 years. Secondly, but perhaps even more importantly, the threat perceptions that the Iranians have is very different than the threat perceptions that the Arab countries in the region, especially the hardliners, have. For Iran the real threat comes from the United States and the perception that the U.S. is really after regime change. Now, for the Arab countries the real threat is what Iran is actually doing in the region. The formation or a creation of various militia organisations and what they think is Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the different Arab countries. As a result of the different threat perceptions it is very unlikely that the Arab countries would agree with this idea. It's an interesting idea but I'm afraid it is not a workable idea at this time.

SS: Alright. Thank you very much for this interesting insight. We were talking Mohsen Milani, the Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, discussing whether the war of words between Tehran and Washington risks spilling over into armed conflict.

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