United States and Iran Panel Discussion
The United States and Iran:
The Politics of Confrontation and Escalation
In view of the rising tensions between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf
region, Webster University Geneva’s International Relations Department recently held
a timely panel discussion on the topic with the participation of three experts. The
panelists included Professor Bijan Djalili, Professor of International History from
the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IUHEID), and Dr.
Francis Piccand, Chief of the Research and Analysis Center at the Swiss Federal Department
of Foreign Affairs. The Panel was chaired by Dr. Jubin Goodarzi who is Associate Professor
and Deputy Head of the International Relations Department at Webster’s Geneva campus.
The panelists discussed and analyzed various aspects of the current crisis that has been building up since May 2018, when US President Donald Trump announced that the United States was unilaterally withdrawing from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) and imposing sweeping sanctions on Iran, much to the dismay of the other signatories. As the economic sanctions have taken hold, leading to the gradual strangulation of the Iranian state and society, Tehran has responded by signaling that it would no longer be bound by the terms of the JCPOA, and has taken steps to expand its nuclear program and to assert itself in the Middle East, leading to heightened tensions between the US and Iran, particularly in the Persian Gulf region.
Francis Piccand stated that Iran would not gain anything by violating the JCPOA and taking steps to build a nuclear weapon. He also asserted that an American military strike on Iran would strengthen the position of hardliners in Tehran who believed that acquiring a nuclear weapon was imperative. He believed that Washington did not have a coherent policy on Iran, aside from putting “maximum pressure” by imposing further sanctions on Iran. Piccand argued that Donald Trump was also trying to win the support of the American public in order to ensure victory in the 2020 presidential elections, and he had no desire for any foreign entanglements, especially a military confrontation. He then focused on the need for diplomacy to stabilize the situation, and emphasized the readiness of Switzerland to mediate in order to defuse the current crisis. Piccand noted that the Swiss president had visited Tehran in 2016, and Bern continued to support the JCPOA.
Professor Djalili believed that the Trump administration had made a mistake by abandoning the JCPOA and by pursuing an aggressive and confrontational policy toward Iran. Concomitantly, he warned that Iran’s moves by breaching the 300 kg threshold on enriched uranium and by resuming work on the heavy water reactor at Arak were counterproductive. He also highlighted the fact that irrespective of the escalating tensions with the US and the toll that the sanctions are taking on the country, Iran was already facing three major domestic crises. He explained that first of all, the ruling clerics had lost political legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian people in view of their repressive policies and the absence of political liberalization and openness. The second crisis was of a socio-economic nature. Even without the imposition of foreign economic sanctions, due to the government’s mismanagement of the economy which manifested itself also in terms of waste and corruption, economic malaise had set it. There was high unemployment and inflation, and shortages of certain items. The third crisis and major challenge facing the state was an ecological one, best exemplified by the shortage of water supplies. While climate change had contributed to the current state of affairs, population growth and ill-conceived policies regarding water usage had resulted in a dire situation. Professor Djalili elucidated that although the Trump administration’s policy regarding Iran were misguided, many of Iran’s woes both on the foreign and domestic front were self-inflicted.
In his presentation, Jubin Goodarzi posited that the current crisis could have been avoided. Although Donald Trump had stated from the very outset, even during his 2016 presidential campaign, that the JCPOA negotiated by the Obama administration had been flawed, and he would abandon the agreement if he became US president, he did not do so for almost one-and-a-half years after he assumed office. During the annual session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2017, Trump requested a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, several times, only to be turned down since Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is opposed to direct, bilateral talks with the US. Goodarzi believed that Trump would be willing to negotiate and come to terms with Iran even if a new agreement was similar or identical to the JCPOA as long as he could take the credit for it. The US president wanted to do away with the legacy and achievements of Barack Obama, a man whom he virulently despises. The situation had been exacerbated by the fact that many of the pragmatic people around Trump such as Rex Tillerson and General H.R. McMaster had left, and their successors, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, were hardline hawks, bent on regime change in Iran. Goodarzi pointed out that in view of the recent incidents in the Persian Gulf such as the downing of the American drone, due to the absence of direct channels of communication between the US and Iran, there was a risk that they could miscalculate and inadvertently stumble into a war although neither side sought a military confrontation. He concluded by stating that those in Washington who believed that they could bring about regime change in Iran through a popular uprising by making life inside the country intolerable for the people were engaging in wishful thinking. The people were adverse to violence, chaos and instability. They just want some semblance of normalcy in their lives.