Peter Jenkins CMG was UK Permanent Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency and UN organisations in Vienna after serving as UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. He specialises in nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, and trade policy issues. He is an expert on the Iran nuclear issue.
Prior to the drone attacks on Saudi oil installations on 14 September it was possible to hold an optimistic view about the outlook for navigation in the Persian Gulf, the relaxation of some of the sanctions that the United States has imposed on Iran, and the survival of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
There had been a perceptible easing of tensions in the Gulf in preceding weeks. The Iranians, having bared their teeth in response to belligerent noises from the other side of the Atlantic, to remind their Gulf neighbours (and the rest of the world) of what an outbreak of hostilities could entail for them (and global oil supplies), had been showing restraint. The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) had heeded the Iranian signalling, had announced troop withdrawals from the Yemen, where they and the Iranians have been backing opposing sides in a civil war, had re-opened channels to Tehran, and had reportedly exerted a restraining influence on President Donald Trump when the latter was debating how to punish Iran for destroying a U.S. drone.
In Washington President Trump had just sacked John Bolton, the architect of a U.S./Iran policy of “maximum pressure” and long-time champion of regime change in Tehran. Rumour had it that President Trump was hearing from advisers that attacking Iran would cost him re-election. And the signs were that what Trump really craved was a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani in the margins of the UN General Assembly.
Meanwhile President Emmanuel Macron and French officials had been working to bring about just such a meeting. News of this had surfaced during the Biarritz G7 summit over the weekend of 24 August. President Macron’s aim, it seemed, was to persuade President Rouhani to meet President Trump by persuading the American President to assent to the creation of a $15 billion line of credit and the resumption of Iranian oil sales to Italy, Spain and France. This relaxation of U.S. policy would make possible, it was hoped, a recovery of trade between Europe and Iran, largely stifled by U.S. extraterritorial sanctions, and bring Iran back to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Whether this diplomatic initiative would succeed was still uncertain when the Saudi installations went up in flames. President Rouhani’s public reaction to the French proposal had been more reserved than President Trump’s. “Iran is always ready to talk but first the United States should act by lifting all illegal, unjust and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran. The key for positive change is in the hands of Washington. If they come back to their commitments, we too will fully implement our commitments.….We seek to resolve issues in a rational way; we are not after photographs” he had said on 27 August, adding: “If nuclear weapons are the U.S. concern, let them be assured that we have never wanted nuclear weapons because our Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa outlawing them. We don’t intend to make an atomic bomb. Our military doctrine is based on conventional arms.”
But on 3 September, addressing the Iranian parliament, he had said: “If Europeans can purchase our oil, or pre-purchase it, and we can have access to our money, that will ease the situation and we can fully implement the [nuclear] deal.”
Underlying the French initiative has been a wish to preserve the JCPOA, which European leaders treasure as a European diplomatic accomplishment and as an instrument for nuclear risk reduction. For a year following President Trump’s May 2018 decision to pull the United States out of the agreement and initiate “maximum pressure”, Iran looked to Europe to mitigate the effect of U.S. policy. Their patience ran out six months ago. Since then they have resorted to a JCPOA provision whereby a party can cease performing its commitments in whole or in part if it deems another party or parties to be guilty of significant non-performance. Iran deems Europe to be guilty of failing to deliver the economic benefits that Europe pledged in 2015. Iran hopes that its progressive non-performance will spur Europe to do a better job of defying the United States and delivering economic benefits.
So far, no doubt on purpose, Iranian non-performance has not entailed an increase in nuclear risk. If pursued over time, however, this tack will lead to a major devaluation of the JCPOA, if not its demise. So, the French initiative was to be applauded.
An obvious question now is whether the 14 September attacks have dealt it a fatal blow. As of the time of writing (16 September) it seems probable that they have. U.S. statements over the last 48 hours have suggested a determination to hold Tehran responsible for the attacks. As long as this is the U.S. line, it is hard to imagine the American and Iranian Presidents shaking hands.
There are reasons to doubt Iranian responsibility. Yemen’s Houthis have claimed responsibility for the attacks, have hinted at support for them from within Saudi Arabia, have attacked Saudi installations in the past, are known recently to have acquired long-range drones, and have an interest in persuading Saudi Arabia to end its murderous Yemeni air campaign. The Iranian government has denied responsibility, made its point about the vulnerability of Saudi and U.A.E. oil exports earlier in the summer, and had no interest in deterring the White House from assenting to the French initiative.
However, it cannot be excluded that Iran’s conservative Revolutionary Guards carried out the attack, without government consent, to scupper the possibility of a Trump-Rouhani meeting. The Guards are against any intergovernmental contact with the United States.
In any case, blaming the Iranians is expedient for the Trump administration: it avoids their having to concede that a Houthi attack will have been a form of retaliation for Saudi attacks which enjoyed material support from the United States.
So, we must assume that the outlook for diplomacy to preserve the JCPOA has darkened. We must expect this to have negative consequences for nuclear risk calculations. And we must hope that the Trump administration rejects any thought of a quick counterpunch that could trigger a spiral of violence and, instead, takes any evidence of Iranian responsibility for the weekend’s attacks to the UN Security Council for a measured, proportionate response.