Interview with Middle East expert Volker Perthes

"Iran will not negotiate its own surrender"

Political scientist Volker Perthes on the American strategy in the nuclear row with Iran, the prospects for a regime change and the question of whether Europe can still salvage the deal. Interview by Paul-Anton Kruger

The Europeans have rejected the ultimatum from Iranian President Hassan Rohani, giving them 60 days to implement their promises to protect Iran from U.S. sanctions. Brussels says if Iran is no longer willing to honour to its commitments, EU sanctions will also be inevitable. Is this the beginning of the end of the nuclear deal?

Volker Perthes: It does rather look as if the American government has managed to ruin the nuclear deal. The Europeans and also the Russians and the Chinese have tried to uphold it. It must also be said: the Iranians have also tried to uphold it and fulfilled their obligations. But the moment Iran starts reneging on particular commitments in relation to its nuclear programme, the agreement is no longer of interest to the Europeans.

Iran has accused the Europeans of not fulfilling their obligations to facilitate economic advantages for the country. Could the EU then fulfil these demands if it wanted to?

Perthes: The EU can do what it’s already started doing: it can tell businesses that European companies are not obliged or allowed to adhere to American sanctions. Unfortunately, however, this has no effect. They can say that it doesn’t sanction imports from Iran and allows banks to finance them. But it can’t force businesses to do this. The EU doesn’t have the means to do what the Iranians are hoping for, namely, secure their oil exports.

What the EU is working on is Instex, a kind of exchange mechanism aimed at facilitating trade with Iran without the need for transactions in U.S. dollars or Euros. But there is little hope that many companies will use this channel. The Americans will regard it as a bypassing of their sanctions and take the same action against participating companies as they would if these had purchased oil directly in Iran. In all of this it is absolutely essential that London, Paris and Berlin continue to represent a common stance. This also includes making it very clear to the U.S. that a policy that forces Iran out of the nuclear deal flies in the face of European interests.

But that also means that the American strategy of gradually hollowing out the nuclear deal and forcing Iran into a corner is working pretty well.

Perthes: Yes, unfortunately that is the case. The American strategy has paid off. And all that’s left for the EU are measures, to which the Iranians then say: those are just words. Not that words aren’t important. The Europeans could turn up the volume a little and explain to the Americans that they believe U.S. policy is nonsensical and dangerous and that it is important for us to maintain this deal, even though elsewhere we view Iranian policy just as critically as the United States.

USS Abraham Lincoln (photo: picture-alliance/U.S. Navy/J. Sherman)
Impending military escalation? A few days ago, the Pentagon moved the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and a bomber squadron closer to Iran, arguing that it had indications that the country could attack U.S. troops. In addition, the American administration announced the relocation of the USS Arlington and a patriot system to the region

If Iran loses its oil revenues and can no longer import consumer goods, this will result in significant economic and social upheaval in Iran, of the kind that cannot be in our interests.

The U.S. government says the sanctions are proving effective. They have meant that Iran has had to reduce its defence budget and that of the Revolutionary Guard, and that militias and allies controlled by Iran are now receiving less money. Does Trump have greater leverage to force Iran to give in?

Perthes: Washington has greater leverage and is indeed managing to restrict the flow of money into Iran and thereby limit the government’s room for financial manoeuvre. Of that there is no doubt. The question is whether this will actually result in a change in behaviour – for example Iran seeking talks with the United States. Iran will not negotiate its own surrender. I donʹt believe the Americans will succeed in persuading Iran to fundamentally change its policy and the nature of its regime, by responding for example to the twelve demands formulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

There have been negotiation offers from Trump and also advances, at least from Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif, to discuss a prisoner exchange. Could this lead to a comprehensive American-Iranian agreement resolving the conflict between the two nations after 40 years?

Perthes: If both sides demonstrated a readiness to enter into bilateral talks on the entire range of issues over which there is dissent, then we as Europeans can only support that. But I don’t see this as the most probable scenario.

My assessment – and also that of the negotiators of the deal – is that we won’t succeed in talking to the Iranians about the whole spectrum of issues. At the point when the Americans table the arming of Hezbollah or support for the Houthis, the Iranians will say, okay, let’s talk about that. But then letʹs also discuss what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen, or what Israel is doing in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank – not to mention Jerusalem. The list is endless. And it’ll lead nowhere, just as it has did during 13 years of talks.

The other scenario is yet more pressure and yet more sanctions. What’s the aim of the Americans’ campaign in your view?

Perthes: The Americans want regime change in Iran without calling it that. Trump has been at pains to distance himself from the regime change policy of George W. Bush. If we’re looking for other ways to describe it, we could say the Americans want to bring about regime collapse in Iran. And the Europeans need to be making it quite clear to Washington that they will under no circumstances support a policy aimed at "regime collapse" in Tehran.

Iranʹs President Rouhani meets representatives of the countryʹs political elite in Tehran (photo: Eternadonline)
Bringing the Iranian economy to its knees "The Americans want regime change in Iran without calling it that. Trump has been at pains to distance himself from the regime change policy of George W. Bush. If we’re looking for other ways to describe it, we could say the Americans want to bring about regime collapse in Iran," says Volker Perthes

Is the idea of driving the regime to implode realistic?

Perthes: It can’t be ruled out, but I would regard it as a very dangerous strategy and one that in all probability carries no guarantee of success. For example, if it came to bread riots, the security forces of the Islamic Republic would be strong enough to gain control. Something like that is more likely to lead to a hardening of the system and not to a democratic-liberal system or to Iran being friendly towards America..

There’s also another scenario – military confrontation – that’s been highlighted yet again by the relocation of an American aircraft carrier in the direction of the Persian Gulf. Is the potential for escalation already so high again that the region could slide into a new war?

Perthes: At the moment, the threat of incident and the risk of misunderstanding is growing exponentially. If an American naval unit is sailing around the Gulf and encounters the Revolutionary Guard there, things could escalate very quickly. If an Iranian speedboat comes too close to an American frigate, if someone feels threatened and opens fire, an anti-ship missile would follow. This scenario does not reflect a conscious desire for war. But tension levels are high and we have two sides who are not talking to each other. In this kind of situation, incidents such as these can escalate. The same goes for Iraq. There are 5,200 American soldiers stationed there, as well as Revolutionary Guards and Shia militias loyal to Iran. Incidents such as these could trigger an escalation spiral. What Trump certainly doesn’t want, it must be said, is an invasion in Iran like Bush in Iraq. His strategy is to exert just so much pressure that Iran buckles. But on the way to attaining this, there’s plenty that can go wrong that could then result in military confrontation. And both sides are perfectly aware that there’s a risk of that happening.

Paul-Anton Kruger

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Professor Volker Perthes, 60, is head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He advises the German government and was involved in mediation efforts for Syria on behalf of the UN. He is regarded as an expert on the Middle East and headed the corresponding research group at the SWP before becoming director of the institute.

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