[A series of explosions at Iranian military and industrial sites in recent weeks have highlighted the volatile politics of the Persian Gulf region and increased fears that growing tensions between the United States, Israel, their Arab allies, and Iran could yet result in an armed confrontation. To explore the background and context of these events, Quick Thoughts Editor and Jadaliyya Co-Editor Mouin Rabbani interviewed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft Executive Vice President Trita Parsi. Parsi is also the author of widely praised books on US-Iranian relations. The Quick Thoughts series provides background, context, and detail to issues that are, or should be, currently in the news.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What is your assessment of the recent explosions at Iranian military and industrial sites, and suggestions that these are the result of an Israeli, US, or joint campaign to destabilize Iran?
Trita Parsi (TP): There is no smoking gun available, but based on statements by Israeli officials, they certainly do appear to want the Iranians to think that they are behind it. That would make sense within a strategy by the Israelis to goad the Iranians to lash out and strike back at Israel or the US, which could either escalate into a military confrontation or at a minimum kill the political will in Europe to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) alive. There is a sense that governments supportive of the Trump administration are worried that he's likely to lose the November elections, and see the next few months as their last chance to kill the JCPOA once and for all.
MR: How do you view the impact of the US “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran?
TP: If the aim of the maximum pressure campaign was a new agreement with Iran and a change in Iranian policies, it has been a clear and undisputed failure. However, this was likely never the real objective. The forces that promoted the maximum pressure policy wanted it to either escalate into war between the US and Iran, or for it to lead to the collapse of the Iranian state as this would shift the regional balance of power away from Iran and towards Israel and Saudi Arabia. But this too has failed, even though the suffering in Iran is immense as a result of the sanctions. In some ways, Iran’s ability to withstand this campaign may paradoxically strengthen it, in the sense that future US administrations may be less inclined to go down the sanctions path; if this unprecedented degree of pressure failed to collapse the Iranian state, then why go down the sanctions path again?
MR: How do you interpret the recent reduction in tensions between Iran and the Arab Gulf states?
TP: The events of last summer, when the Iranians shot down an American spy drone and most likely targeted Saudi oilfields, signaled clearly that if war were to break out, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would pay an extremely high price. They would not be able to count on US protection, and they would be extremely vulnerable to Iranian military capabilities.
This appears to have caused a rethink in Abu Dhabi, if less so in Riyadh. Whether Abu Dhabi's rethink is tactical or strategic remains to be seen.
What the episode also showed was that the US military posture in the region has disincentivized some of its regional allies from pursuing diplomacy with regional rivals. Hiding behind US military might was more attractive. But once it became clear that the US is unlikely to go to war with Iran on their behalf, these governments rediscovered the utility and value of diplomacy.
Ultimately, we need significant diplomacy between the states of the Persian Gulf. There is simply no other way to achieve peace.
MR: Earlier this month it was reported that Iran and China are in the final stages of negotiating an economic and security partnership agreement. Would such a deal be significant?
TP: Depending on the details, it will likely be quite significant. But this shift has been long in the making. Already back in the mid-1990s, when the US first went down the sanctions path with Iran, US commentators warned that this would push Iran into the arms of China. Now that the US under Trump has shown that it doesn't respect its own signature and is not interested in finding a way to co-exist with Iran, Tehran has had little choice but to gravitate towards Beijing.