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Situation around Iran: perspectives and scenarios - Interview with Israeli expert Samuel Barnai

21 August, Islamic Republic of Iran President Hassan Rouhani said that if Iran's oil exports were cut to zero, "international waterways will not be so safe." The president's statement actually coincided with Mohammad Javad Zarif's statement that Tehran could act "unpredictably" in response to "unpredictable United States policy under President Trump."

A statement by top officials has been a reaction to the US withdrawal of nearly 2,7 million barrels of Iranian oil from world markets as a result of Washington's decision to reinstate restrictions on fuel supplies from the Islamic Republic, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the day before. In an interview with US TV channel MSNBC, the head of the State Department expressed confidence that the US government will be able to continue implementing its "maximum pressure" strategy on Iran.

The situation in the region has deteriorated significantly since mid-May, when the United States, as well as a number of European and Middle Eastern states, blamed Iran for a series of attacks on tankers near the Strait of Hormuz. According to most experts, Iran is taking these steps by withdrawing from the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and renewing sanctions against the country. In May 2018, the US president stated that the United States had evidence that Iran was continuing to develop nuclear weapons, thereby violating the CFP. Iran, in response to US actions under paragraph 26 of the CFP, has announced the first phase of suspension of a number of nuclear treaty items (in the case of enriched uranium and heavy water reserves). In particular, the value of low-enriched uranium stocks exceeded the 300 kilogram mark was exceeded. 7 July 2019 Tehran announces the second phase of the SEDD commitments and the start of the uranium enrichment process above the 3,67% nuclear agreement.

The Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies talked with Doctor of Philosophy Samuel Barnai (Jewish University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University in the Negev) about the development of the situation around Iran, the effectiveness of imposed economic sanctions, the possibility of conflicts and vice versa, will hamper as well as the potential actions of other players, including China and Russia.

What does the recent statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif mean about the readiness to withdraw from the nuclear deal? What are the possible scenarios for the situation and what might be the reaction of Washington and the EU to them?

- Zarif's statement, in my opinion, is an attempt to demonstrate that Iran is an equal political entity with the United States. However, for the Donald Trump administration, Iran's withdrawal from the CFP will not be a problem, as Washington continues to claim that Iran is conducting a double game and is using the agreement for its own purposes, including. as a cover for the development of its nuclear program. Iran's possible withdrawal from the CFP is a problem for Europe, so some European countries are trying to keep the agreement. France and Germany (signatories to the FTA) are of particular interest in this, and they have significant differences with the Trump administration on many issues. In addition, recognizing the fiasco of the treaty, they should either join the US position (which is currently unlikely) or offer a new solution to the problem. Europe is currently unable to come up with a plan that suits all parties.

- Iran says it continues to enrich uranium in response to the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. What can this be, and what tools can be put in place to curb the Iranian nuclear program?

- The escalation may increase. The set of pressure measures on Tehran is not large: additional sanctions (possibly with the accession of some European countries, most notably the UK) and military pressure (as a last resort).

- How likely is it that Iran could create nuclear weapons of mass destruction?

- The threat is quite high. In addition, over the years, Iran has been actively developing delivery capabilities through the agreement.

- Economic sanctions do not change Tehran's foreign policy yet. How do you evaluate their effectiveness?

- The main problem with sanctions is that some countries do not explicitly or indirectly support them. The expectation that sanctions will lead to a socio-economic "explosion" within the country has not yet materialized. The Iranian regime has demonstrated that it is still able to suppress individual and even mass protests. It should not be forgotten that Iran is an open country for emigration, and those who disagree with the regime can simply leave. This reduces tensions in society, and expatriates can financially help their relatives from abroad.

- How can Tehran reduce the effectiveness of sanctions? What is the role of the Allies on the SVPD of Iran (primarily the Russian Federation and China, as well as France and Germany) in the resilience of this country to economic pressure?

- The easiest way would be to find a compromise with the US. But this is unlikely. Germany, France and China are not allies of Iran, and relations with Washington play a much more important role than Iran. It is also difficult to consider Russia as a full-fledged ally of Iran, as we see in the example of their complicated relations in Syria. If Trump, with his policy toward Europe, and China in the first place, strains relations with them, those countries may take a more pro-Iranian stance.

- However, a more pro-Iranian stance can only be declarative, since China and the EU should resolve their issues (trade tariffs, etc.) rather than using Iran to manipulate the US decision. Did I understand correctly?

- I agree with you. Economic issues play a major role for them. But if consensus on tariffs is not found, the general atmosphere of relations will be negative and the possibility of declarative demarches on peripheral issues, including Iranian ones, will increase.

- Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has recently stated that he can capture any ship in the Persian Gulf, even if accompanied by US or British forces. What are the consequences of this statement?

- I prefer to consider the consequences of actions rather than statements that may be dictated by the domestic political situation in Iran itself. If Iran does go to mass seizure of ships, then the reaction can be extremely fierce (down to the military). Freedom of navigation has historically been a priority of US and UK foreign policy. The Gulf countries and China are also interested in this. Iran is well aware of this.

- What are the possible actions of the US and allies in the event of escalation in the Gulf?

- Washington will try to force Iran to cease its seizure practice. Up to the military action against the objects of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. Pressure on pro-Iranian forces in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon will also be applied.

- How do you assess the likelihood of a military scenario and what could become a trigger for the use of force against Iran?

- It's a "million dollar question." Virtually anything can become a trigger. The "red line" for Iran is the cessation of free shipping in the Gulf and the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. One should not forget about such factor as "artist's excess".

- How will Russia and China behave in the event of a sharpening of the situation? Can Tehran count on their real support?

- It is unlikely that Russia and China will go for open military support for Iran. In the case of China, the chances are zero. Russia may provide enough diplomatic support to the UN Security Council and / or supply new weapons to Iran (though this is also not guaranteed).

Yuriy Poita, Head of the Asia Pacific Section of the CDACR