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.
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.
© 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.