Opinion: the current tensions in the Middle East can be traced back to the United States withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal

Tensions between Iran and the US have come to the most dangerous point yet since US president Donald Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. Iran's leadership were taken by surprise when Trump fulfilled his electoral promise to unilaterally pull out of the deal with the intention of starting a new round of negotiations that would include Iran's ballistic missile development programme. Iran has been denouncing his offers from day one and refused to yield to US threats of war and economic starvation.

Trump's government has used the classic "carrot and stick" approach. Soon after quitting the nuclear deal,the US re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran which have hit its oil revenues hard and cut the country off from the international banking system. At the same time, Trump has repeatedly insisted he is ready for direct negotiations "to make Iran rich again".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Dr Andrew Cottey from UCC on Donald Trump's opposition to the Iran nuclear deal

But Iranian leadership claims that Tehran has successfully resisted the impact of sanctions and will not trust the US by getting into further negotiations. Furthermore, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, has centred his efforts on persuading European signatories to the original deal to compensate for US sanctions if they want Iran to abide by the deal and remain compliant with its conditions.

While the tone between Iran and the US was one of the normal diplomatic argument until May 2019, Iranian officials threatened a few times to change their commitment to the deal, especially regarding financial expectations around the INSTEX financial mechanism. This threat came to pass on the first anniversary of the US withdrawal from the deal when the Supreme National Security Council of Iran announced a step-by-step plan for reducing commitments. This came with an increase in the level of enrichment and uranium reservations, something which concerned European signatories to the deal.

Iran's reactionary steps were mostly due to the substantial impacts of sanctions on its economy and oil market, as the inflation rate shot up to more than 40%. Some reports also pointed to a fall in sales of Iranian oil to below 500,000 barrels per day, compared to the post-deal period when Iran was exporting nearly six times that number. Later, Iranian leaders upgraded their strategy concerning oil sanctions with president Hassan Rouhani saying "if Iran can't export its oil from the Persian Gulf, no other country can".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, academic and Iranian expert Azadeh Moaveni on Iran's decision in May 2019 to suspend some nuclear deal commitments

Simultaneously, the generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened the US and its allies by flaunting Iran's military control over the Persian Gulf and especially the strategic Strait of Hormuz chokepoint through which 40% of the world’s oil supply passes. Along with the increasing tensions and in response to the Washington's "maximum pressure campaign" against Tehran, Iran's military forces have increased their patrols in the Persian Gulf.

The US-Iran confrontation entered a new phase on 4 July last when the British Royal Marines seized an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar. They claimed the ship was carrying two million barrels of crude oil to Syria and that the action was justified under the EU sanctions against Syria, a move which was also supported by the US government. This led to a shift in the Iranian leaders' language when Ayatollah Khamenei and his military generals promised retaliation in the Persian Gulf.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Middle East analyst Hazhir Teimourian on the international reaction to events in the Strait of Hormuz in July 2019

Two weeks after that, Iran's forces seized two British oil tankers in the Strait of Hormoz. Whilst one of them was released on the same day, the other one has been kept under Iran custody ever since. These confrontational actions and reactions damaged the former diplomatic alliance between Iran and the European signatories to the deal and Europe joined the US to initiate an international marine coalition to safeguard oil supply in the region. 

While Iran is still negotiating with European signatories over ways to keep the deal alive, its military presence in the Middle East is said to be increasing and intensifying regional conflicts, including the ones in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In addition to recent missile attacks near the US Embassy in Baghdad, allegedly carried out by Iran-backed Shia militia, several clashes were reported between Iran's proxies and Israeli forces in the above-mentioned countries during the last few months.

From RTÉ One's Nine News, the US accuses Iran of this week's Saudi Arabia oil refinery attacks

The role of Iran in the war between Yemen Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia coalition in particular has become hugely controversial as it affects the global oil market. With the support of Iranian drones and missiles, Houthis have attacked different spots in Saudi Arabia, including airports, oil pipelines and installations. This week's destructive attack on Aramco oil facilities immediately impacted on the oil market with an unprecedented increase in oil price and fall in Saudi oil production. Riyadh, London and Washington have all accused Iran of being behind these attacks and have warned about a military reaction. 

As a result of all this, developments in the region has become unpredictable. The jolt in the 2015 Iran deal, hailed as the mechanism of saving peace in the Middle East, has been gradually causing instability in the region. On the one hand, Trump has been seeking direct negotiation with Iran through applying hard pressures, just as he did in North Korea, all done probably with the US 2020 presidential election in mind.

READ: 40 years of politics, change and protest in Iran

But on the other hand, Iran is struggling with a major economic crisis and is retaliating by flaunting its military power in the region. It's clear that the risk of war between the two countries has escalated more than ever before, with US officials discussing a military response and Iran’s generals openly talking about "full-scale war".


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ