With Iran threatening to resume uranium enrichment after its self-imposed July 7 deadline, and with the Trump administration focused on increasing economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, tensions are escalating in the Persian Gulf. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to Tehran appears to be for the sole purpose of reducing tensions between the US and Iran and encouraging Iran’s leaders to engage in direct negotiations with the U.S.
“There is possibility of an accidental conflict and a military conflict should be prevented at all costs,” Abe said during a press conference in Tehran on Wednesday.
U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, has since imposed heavy sanctions on the Islamic Republic and now seeks to block all oil exports from Iran. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif threatened the United States, saying, “Whoever starts a war with us will not be the one who finishes it.”
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus dismissed the foreign minister’s comments. “We aren’t impressed,” she said at a press conference. “Iran faces a simple choice: It can either behave like a normal nation or watch its economy crumble.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said that the U.S. would face a “crushing response” if it was attacked.
But is this internecine posturing, or do the Iranians mean what they say? And what does this all mean for Israel?
Eyal Zisser, a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that on the one hand, former President Barack Obama was perceived as weak by the Iranians. This became even more evident when in 2016, the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized two U.S. naval boats and their crews, humiliating them personally and embarrassing America as a whole.
On the other hand, Zisser said, “the Iranians are under pressure because of Trump, and therefore, due to their fear of him, they are more assertive.”
Zisser pointed out that Trump “is tougher than Obama,” and this “deters the Iranians and puts pressure on them.”
“At the same time,” he emphasized, “it pushes them to take more extreme actions, such as the attacks they launched against Saudi Arabia.”
In terms of how this plays out for the Jewish state, Zisser said Israel “tries its best to keep itself out of this American-Iranian conflict, but it is in its interest that Iran will be deterred and will be stopped.”
And while the hope, of course, is that Tehran will be stopped, some are warning that war could still erupt.
‘No one is interested in war’
Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East under Obama, warned that armed conflict could break out.
He explained in a Washington Post article that: “As tensions mount between the United States and Iran, American and Iranian leaders publicly insist they want to avoid war.” However, he warned, “history is littered with accidents, misperceptions, miscalculations, hidden bureaucratic agendas and other factors that produced armed conflicts nobody seemed to want.”
Israel is intent on stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions and has made this clear for years. Whether Iran takes Israeli threats seriously must be assumed, though isn’t always clear from Iranian actions on the ground in Syria and elsewhere. In 2012, speaking during a meeting with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that in spite of American and Israeli declarations that all options were on the table, the Iranians appear to remain unconvinced that Israel was serious about stopping them.
This, according to Netanyahu, must change.
Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS that Trump is “trying to intimidate Iran to come to the negotiating table.”
“Iran is playing a brinkmanship game signaling that they are ready to escalate in order to get money from the Europeans and to soften the Americans in case they decide to start negotiations,” said Inbar.
He added that he wasn’t sure the Iranians are reading U.S. leadership well, and that they might be miscalculating.
“Trump does not want a war,” he said, suggesting that this could be because he wants to be re-elected. “It seems we are in the pre-negotiations stage.”
According to Zisser, “No one is interested in war. I think the Iranians will not cross a red line, but when you play with fire, you never know.”