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Why Iran-US war of words won't turn physical

Despite their escalating rhetoric, neither Iran nor the United States has the incentive nor the ability to take the new cycle of tension to a military confrontation.
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 01:  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (L) yields the briefing room podium to National Security Adviser Michael Flynn  February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. Flynn said the White House is "officially putting Iran on notice" for a recent missile test and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As much as the United States' new tone toward Iran is worrisome, and as much as the Islamic Republic's Jan. 29 ballistic missile test is disconcerting, Tehran and Washington are unlikely to collide directly.

In both capitals, decision-makers see an urgent need for harsh rhetoric — albeit for different reasons. The Iranians see a need to show resilience vis-a-vis an explicitly hostile US administration. Meanwhile, the latter wants to make clear to both its domestic and international audience that the Obama era is over. This involves signaling that the easing of tensions with Iran has ended. It also involves reassuring regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel that Washington would not engage in a rapprochement with Tehran at their expense.

Indeed, it should not come as a surprise that US national security adviser Michael Flynn's warning that Iran "is officially on notice" came shortly after lengthy phone calls between the White House and both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud.

But escalating rhetoric aside, the reality is that US policy toward Iran has largely remained intact.

In the 13 months since the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has repeatedly conducted ballistic missile tests. And it is entitled to do so. In UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which endorses the nuclear deal, Iran is "called upon" not to carry out tests of missiles "designed" to carry nuclear weapons. There is no legally binding prohibition of such launches, unlike in UNSCR 1929 — the last and most harsh UN resolution against Iran over its nuclear program — which is superseded by UNSCR 2231.

To be clear, the nuclear deal does not address Iran's missile program. Moreover, the world powers with which Iran negotiated UNSCR 2231 — apart from the United States — did not display any appetite to insert legally binding text on Iran's missile tests.

Thus, as provocative as the missile tests may be, it is hard to see them providing a legal basis for the United States to spearhead new multilateral sanctions, leaving Washington with the option of adopting unilateral sanctions, which it did on Feb. 3.

While it took the Trump administration less than two weeks to slap sanctions on Iran, the idea that there was a sanctions freeze in Obama's final year in office is inaccurate. In fact, the latest sanctions were prepared by the previous administration.

In January 2016, not long after the implementation of the nuclear deal, changes were made to the Visa Waiver Program, which excluded Iranian dual nationals and anyone who had visited Iran in the preceding five years. Moreover, last December, Obama refrained from moving to veto the congressional vote on a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act. While these sanctions are unrelated to Iran's nuclear program, they undoubtedly undermine the impact of the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions.

Iran has reacted to the escalating rhetoric and sanctions by stressing that its missile program is defensive in nature, promising retaliatory sanctions, and by carrying out new military drills

Yet, there is little incentive for Iran to greatly alter the status quo. Iranian leaders see the JCPOA as much more than just about the United States. It is an international arrangement with world powers — including the European Union, which Iran holds in high regard as a multinational institution. They see this arrangement as beneficial to Iran's economic and security calculations. Foreign investment, albeit limited due to remaining US sanctions, is trickling in. The EU oil embargo has been lifted and major contracts in the area of petrochemicals, civic aviation and transport are increasingly sealed. Additionally, the JCPOA provides a sense of security to Iran. It is highly unlikely for any party to the agreement to green-light military action by another party against Iran. Hence, Iran has little incentive not to abide by the nuclear deal.

As such, while the cycle of escalating rhetoric is discomforting at a time of deep uncertainty and conflict in the Middle East, it is important to see that it has its limits. Short of outright regime change, the United States has in fact rather limited options to weaken and contain Iran.

Given its experiences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the United States will launch full-scale unilateral military action against Iran. It could move to arm a third country to hit Iranian infrastructure. This was tried with Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Today, Saudi Arabia could be such a third country. But given the lack of appetite in Riyadh for direct confrontation with Tehran, and considering the downward spiral in the Saudi military intervention against Yemen — the poorest country in the region — it is unthinkable that Saudi Arabia would take such a step. Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iranian nuclear sites. But considering the low chances of success and the potentially dire consequences, including retaliatory attacks by Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, it can be argued that such threats primarily serve a political purpose.

Less costly measures aimed at weakening and containing Iran, such as sanctions, have been tried and tested. The Obama administration managed to put in place an unprecedented multilateral sanctions regime targeting Tehran. Yet, it was under those very sanctions that Iran’s nuclear program evolved into what the international community came to perceive as a major threat to global security. Consequently, the Obama administration tried diplomacy. And it worked. The JCPOA reduced the capacity and increased the transparency of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions. And as the International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly certified, the deal is working.

Bearing in mind the nuclear deal is fulfilling its objectives, the limited military options to contain Iran, and perhaps most of all the likely US inability to forge an international consensus against Iran in case of its unilateral breach of the accord, the security establishments of both Israel and Saudi Arabia have publicly urged Washington not to dismantle the JCPOA.

While reveling in the newfound reassurances from Washington, it can thus be argued that Riyadh and Tel Aviv understand the limits of the cycle of escalation and mostly take solace in Trump's unwillingness to realize their nightmares under Obama.

In this vein, the Trump administration can be expected to do whatever it can to minimize the economic benefits Iran will reap under the JCPOA. It will likely seek to discredit Iran's regional policies to prevent the normalization of the Islamic Republic's ties with the world, while also diminishing the political capital the deal affords Iran. But it will do this short of breaching the accord.

Thus, while likely to squabble about respective obligations and further drift away from rapprochement, neither Iran nor the United States has the incentive or ability to take the new cycle of tension to a military confrontation.