The effects of Trump’s policies mean hardliners are getting emboldened in Iran. With communication lines being severed, the Republicans are sleepwalking toward the possibility of open conflict
Since President Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal last year, Iran has remained in the deal and abided by its commitments under the agreement. In the face of economic sanctions and mounting pressure from Washington, Tehran has not yet reacted directly and threats from Iranian officials have mostly been in rhetoric. Iranian moderates have tried to rally Europe, a key supporter of the nuclear deal, against Washington to defy economic sanctions. And Iranian hardliners, who have always opposed the nuclear deal and engagement with the West, seem to have been mostly contained until now. But much has changed over the course of the past year and Iran is now signaling that it might shift gears soon.
It is no longer just Iranian hardliners who are vocal against the United States and Europe. Moderates are slowly joining them. And unless there is a breakthrough in the Trump administration’s policy towards the country, it’s clear Tehran will continue to move further away from the West.
I spoke to the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York a few days ago. He told me that, although he doesn’t think war between Iran and the United States is imminent, “accidents can happen” that then spiral into a military conflict. And it was apparent that he was here in the United States in an effort to prevent that.
I asked Zarif about these “accidents” and he gave the example of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway where most of the world’s oil exporters pass through. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) control the Strait of Hormuz on the Iranian side and communicate with ships going through this narrow passageway. A lack of this vital communication can easily lead to conflict. Concern over this was heightened recently by President Trump’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization and Iran’s retaliation in designating the US Central Command similarly.
Zarif also mentioned the January 2016 incident in the Persian Gulf when two US Navy boats entered Iranian waters and were captured by the IRGC. Back then, Javad Zarif and his American counterpart John Kerry had a direct line of communication following their two years of nuclear negotiations. That direct line let the two top diplomats control the situation, secure the quick release of American sailors, and prevent a potential escalation. But today there is no such line of communication between the Iranian foreign minister and US Secretary of State. So a similar incident in the Persian Gulf could quickly get out of hand.