Where are the USA and Iran heading?
The first ultimatum has expired. A boundary has been crossed. But where is the next limit? Do they know the way; can they negotiate the all pitfalls in this treacherous terrain? Where do they actually want to go, what is their goal, and who can help prevent them from straying onto the wrong path? In short: do the rulers of the Islamic Republic have a strategy?
At the press conference on Sunday at which Iran announced it would begin enriching uranium beyond the 3.67 percent limit, it was difficult to discern anything that might have been called a strategy. A second ultimatum, also lasting 60 days, was to begin. Should it bring no result, further steps would follow, said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.
Araghchi did not say what these steps would be. He could not or was not allowed to name them, nor is that his job. Such "steps" are determined elsewhere, not in the State Department.
The man who decides foreign policy
Two days before this press conference, another media audience was given for those wishing to learn more about the direction Iran intends to take. On that day, Ali Akbar Velayati had gathered selected Iranian media around him. And when Velayati talks about foreign policy, you know he is simply passing on what Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful man, is thinking. Velayati was Iran's foreign minister for 16 years – his current Wikipedia entry includes 37 jobs. The most important: foreign policy advisor to the revolutionary leader.
Twenty percent enrichment will be the next step if Europeans fail to meet their obligations in the next 60 days. This is the level of enrichment needed for medical purposes and for equipping the Buschehr nuclear power plant, Velayati said. But this power plant is currently defective and has been out of order for months. Should Europe keep its promise, we will immediately return to the nuclear agreement, Velayati continued.
Europe willing and able?
A few hours before Velayati appeared in front of the press in Tehran, something occurred off the coast of Gibraltar that best demonstrated where Europe stands at the moment. The British Navy seized an Iranian oil tanker that was on its way to a Syrian refinery. Britain had acted at the request of the U.S., a spokesman for the Spanish government said. Since then, a British court has ruled that the tanker may be detained for another two weeks. So much for Europe's willingness to help.
Soon after Sundayʹs announcement in Tehran, nearly all the European foreign ministries had announced their concerns and warned Iran against violating the nuclear agreement. In other words, Europe can do little more than repeat that it wants to keep the agreement alive.
Since the USA's withdrawal, however, this agreement is clinically dead, at least for Iran. And the historically unprecedented U.S. sanctions have turned it into a worthless piece of paper. Ultimatums, sanctions and worried faces are the diplomacy of our days. How far are we going to go, where is this going to end? Read Twitter, if you want to know where the world is heading, the maxim seems to have become – and don't just read Trump's tweets, where he announced two weeks ago that he had called off an attack on Iran just ten minutes earlier.
The regime in Tehran also uses Twitter to conduct its own brand of diplomacy: "We have already overthrown a president once, we can do it again. If Trump listens to Pompeo, we can assure him that he will remain a one-term president. If he listens to Truck Carlson, however, there may be another option." What does this tweet tell us? Is it a warning, a cry for help, or an offer? It comes from Hessamodin Ashna, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's closest advisor. The 55-year-old runs a centre for strategic studies, which Rouhani himself founded years ago. Ashna is a clergyman who discarded his clerical garb some two years ago and is very active in social networks.
Hostage-taking or willingness to talk?
What does his latest tweet tell us? If Trump listens to his foreign minister, Mike Pompeo, who favours a hard line against Iran, then what happened to Jimmy Carter will happen to the incumbent president. Carter's presidency coincided with the Islamic revolution and the hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran. The latter dominated the U.S. presidential election campaign: Carter lost and became the "one-term president": the hostages were released exactly on the day his successor Ronald Reagan took his oath of office. But if Trump listens to Truck Carlson, his favourite host at Fox News, Iran and the U.S. could do business. Carlson spoke out vehemently against war on the day the attack against Iran was due to start. This is said to have prompted Trump to change his decision.
What is the Iranian presidential advisor trying to tell Trump? Is Iran planning something like the hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats? Or is he offering willingness to talk if the U.S. refrains from an attack? Or is it nothing more than the usual analysis – that Trump will lose the next presidential election if he becomes involved in a war with Iran?
There's no such thing as a short war
Be that as it may, Trump tweeted afterwards that an attack against Iran would not be a normal war, but a short and very painful operation. And the Iranian Foreign Minister twittered back: "There will not be a short war. Trump might start a war, but he won't be the one to end it." Neither side seems to have a plan.
What is certain, however, is that American sanctions are increasingly impacting the everyday lives of Iranians. Fifty percent of the population live below the official poverty line, a parliamentary commission that deals with social issues stated three weeks ago.
These poor people should not, however, be tempted to rebel against their rulers, which is no doubt what Trump would like to see them do. After all, Khamenei recently replaced the leading commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basidj, the people's militias.
The new appointees have recognised the signs of the times and, on taking office, pledged to destroy any plans Trump may have inside Iran. In other words, any future protests will be seen as collaborating with the enemy.