Sabotage in Fujairah Shapes a Big Question Mark
Regardless of who was actually behind the sabotage of four ships at the UAE port of Fujairah, the event may mark the start of a second phase in the latest between the Islamic Republic in Iran on the one hand and the United States and its regional allies on the other.
The first phase started a year ago when President Donald Trump decided to reactivate a set of anti-Tehran sanctions suspended by his predecessor Barack Obama. Initially, it seems that Trump aimed at persuading the decision-makers in Tehran to return to the negotiating table to seek a deal which would then be registered in Trump’s name. Unlike his predecessors, Trump presented tangible demands to the mullahs in the shape of a 12-point desiderata signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Khomeinist leadership reacted as it had always done in its choppy relationship with the Americans. It started implementing Pompeo’s wishes while pretending it was not budging one inch. As always the hope was that Washington would welcome such signals and decide to also quietly ease the sanctions for example by extending the exemption granted to eight countries for importing Iranian oil.
The Iranian tactic had always worked with six previous American presidents. In 1980, the mullahs held secret talks with President Jimmy Carter’s administration and agreed to release the US hostages in exchange for unfreezing of some of Iran’s assets. They even signed a humiliating accord with Washington in Algiers. However, when the crunch came they refused to release the hostages in time to help Carter win re-election.
The same scenario was unfolded under Carter’s successor, President Ronald Reagan. In a series of secret negotiations they gave Reagan everything he wanted in exchange for secret deliveries of American arms with the help of Israel. But, once again, the mullahs made sure that Reagan would reap no political no benefit for himself or his party. In fact, the “Irangate” scandal briefly threatened to wreck the Reagan presidency.
The “goodwill-breeds-goodwill” secret talks with President George W. H. Bush produced a similar result as did the fantasy of the “Grand Bargain” under President Bill Clinton, who went out of his way to flatter the mullahs.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had more or less similar experiences. Bush gave Tehran what amounted to a say in post-liberation Iraq’s politics and issued a bizarre statement that sounded like inviting Tehran to join the US as an equal partner in ensuring regional stability. As for Obama, he ignored international law and practice to cajole the mullahs into his surrealistic “nuke deal”.
In every case, the American president hoped for turning an adversary into a partner and demonstrate that dramatic change in public. And in every case, that hope was dashed. Tehran’s tactical retreat was never acknowledged in public and the mullahs were back to cheating on their promises at the first opportunity.
Tehran’s attempt at trying the same tactic with Trump found its most open expression when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to New York and proposed secret talks on what he termed “a prisoner exchange”, meaning the release of American hostages in Tehran in exchange for a number of condemned criminals in US jails.
The message had previously been relayed to Washington via the Swiss and the Omanis.
However, the Trump administration was and is still, looking for something different. They want talks that are public and focused on the concrete aim of re-writing the Obama “nuke deal”, making the freeze on Iran’s missile project permanent, disbanding the Iranian expeditionary force in Syria and signaling the beginning of the end of Iranian meddling in the affairs of other countries through surrogates, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
For the first time in almost 40 years an American administration is demanding a change of strategy by Iran. Needless to say, a regime that has profited from the retreat-and-cheat tactic for four decades finds it hard to do so.
Thus, the best that Tehran can hope for in this new phase is to freeze things at present level.
“Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei says he needs to sell 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to provide for his regime’s basic expenses, such as paying the civil service, the military and hired foreign fighters, like Hezbollah, not to forget paying for what is left of Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus. Tehran has already frozen more than 4,000 development projects and increased the price of petrol domestically and cut many subsidies to save money. Further, it hopes to secure part of the income it needs through contraband oil sales via Iraq, plus soft loans promised by Russia.
The one thing that Khamenei hopes to avoid is the humiliation of entering into public talks with the Americans. And that is precisely what Trump wants. Trump hopes to enter his re-election campaign with the claim that not only has he presided over a booming economy, but has also managed to rewrite “bad trade treaties” with the European Union, Canada, Mexico and even China, while calming the North Koreans, taming the Iranian mullahs and flushing out the Venezuelan “communists.” It is clear that Tehran and Washington have diametrically different aims. Yet, both may share a desire to avoid military confrontation.
The question, however, is whether that desire is shared by all factions in Tehran and all key players in Washington. On that score, the sabotage in Fujairah looms like a big question mark.