Iran Review | Ramin Nadimi: A large body of literature has emerged with regard to crises in the international system with its main theme being Iran’s nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of world powers, which is also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). To that literature, one must add an effort by the US administration under President Donald Trump to counter Iran, which has also caused ambiguity about the future course of the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula and its relation to Iran’s nuclear issue. What follows is the text of an interview conducted by Iran Review with two experts on the aforesaid issues.
Professor at University of Tehran
Q: What is your opinion about the impact of the ongoing crisis on the Korean Peninsula on the future course of the JCPOA?
A: In my opinion, this crisis does not have a direct effect on our conditions. However, what is said in this regard inside the United States can be divided into two totally conflicting viewpoints. Proponents of one of these two viewpoints, which is pioneered by the White House, maintain that if the United States does not act to stop Iran now, the country will turn into another North Korea in the near future. Therefore, they mention the case of North Korea as a reason why Iran must be dealt with in a sharp and violent and hard way. On the opposite, the rivals of Mr. Trump resort to the same example but note that the United States has been able to prevent Iran from turning into another North Korea through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In other words, the JCPOA is considered as a factor, which due to mechanisms envisaged in it, has been able to prevent Iran from turning into another North Korea. In my personal opinion, however, the current crisis surrounding North Korea does not have much of an effect on the situation of Iran. Even without the North Korea crisis, world powers would have their own opinion, viewpoint and argument about how to deal with Iran. In addition, there are six different groups in the United States, which demand Iran be the main focus of attention for the president of the United States. These six groups include Israel and its supporters, Saudi Arabia and lobbyists supporting Riyadh, neocon American politicians, and Mujahedeen Khalq Organization (MKO). These six groups have been trying to use any excuse and means to depict Iran as a threat to the United States and have been demanding a harsher approach by the Trump administration to Iran.
On the other hand, European countries believe that the JCPOA has been a good tool and has been able to prevent Iran from completing its quest for nuclear weapons. They have considered this achievement as a great victory for diplomacy, multilateralism and nonproliferation and this is why they keep defending the JCPOA. European countries also bank on the issue of North Korea to promote their own viewpoints. However, even if the crisis of North Korea had not taken place, Europeans would have still continued to support the JCPOA.
Q: What impact will a possible war between the United States and North Korea have on security outlook of Iran and the entire region?
A: What can be said with certainty is that the measure taken by Trump not to certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA has undermined not only the credibility of the United States, but also that of the entire Western world as a reliable partner and actor. At any rate, the fact that we are currently observing how categorically Europeans are defending the JCPOA as a multilateral agreement and are trying at the same time to modify Washington’s position on the nuclear deal is representative of an effort on their part to rebuild the credibility of the West. A clear case in this regard is the case of North Korea. European countries argue that any form of violent treatment of the JCPOA will cause problems for efforts aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis. According to this argument, if the United States violates the JCPOA, there would be no ground for North Korea to agree to any plan, agreement or deal with the West, especially the United States. They will argue that if international obligations of the US are to be ignored every time that a president’s term in office comes to an end at the White House, then the useful life of any agreement reached with the United States will be at most eight years. This issue will reduce chances of success for any diplomatic solution to global crises involving the United States. Now, the question is: in the absence of a diplomatic solution to the crisis regarding North Korea, what other kind of solution can be found for it? The answer is: the United States will have to either accept a nuclear North Korea with nuclear bombs and missile systems capable of carrying nuclear warheads, whose range also incessantly increase, or go to war with North Korea. None of these two options will be desirable and acceptable options for the United States. So, one can say that through its current approach to Iran, the Trump administration has practically done away with one of the options available to it, which is diplomacy. Therefore, at the present time, since accepting a nuclear North Korea is a difficult option for the United States, the possibility of a war between the two sides has automatically increased.
On the other hand, a possible war between the United States and North Korea will be very difficult and complicated. The army of North Korea is able to pose a major threat to regional allies of the United States, such as South Korea and Japan. South Korea and Japan both have advanced missile defense systems, but they will not be able to repel all missile attacks from North Korea, especially if those missiles are equipped with nuclear warheads. This is why the problem with North Korea was a major reason on the basis of which world’s scholars and thinkers insisted that the Trump administration must remain committed to the JCPOA. Since at the present time, two persons who are not very sound of mind are at the helm in Washington and Pyongyang, I cannot definitely say that there would be no war, though the possibility of such a war is very low. However, we must keep our fingers crossed that pressures exerted by China and other countries on Pyongyang would finally make North Korea change its behavior. On the other hand, I hope that we would see wise men in the United States putting pressure on the Trump administration to seek a diplomatic solution in order to resolve this crisis. Any other option, apart from a diplomatic one, would be extremely costly.
The impact of a military standoff between the United States and North Korea on Iran cannot be predicted. This war, which most probably will be a nuclear war, can claim the lives of millions and, naturally, will have an impact on global conditions across the world. On the other hand, such a war can shatter the taboo that currently exists about the use of nuclear weapons in war. Meanwhile, the devastating effects of such a war can remind the world of the reality of why Iran has never been trying to build nuclear weapons and will never do so in the future either.
Q: What impact can imposition of new sanctions by the United States on Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have on the security state of the region and what reactions can regional actors be expected to show in this regard?
A: The West Asia region is too big, the current conditions there are too complicated, and problems in this region are too numerous to allow for the IRGC to be the sole actor playing a role in this part of the world. A large part of regional issues and crises emanate from measures taken by politicians, as well as non-state actors and international forces. However, on the whole, the United States seeks to control the role played by the IRGC both inside and outside the country. Reducing the role played by the IRGC will have political and military and economic aspects and will also have to do with legitimacy of the IRGC. This means that Americans and their regional allies are trying to show that the IRGC is the root cause of a large part of the existing problems in the region. They also want to strip the IRGC of the legitimacy that it has as official military force of a country. In addition, they aim to reduce economic capability of the IRGC by imposing sanctions on legal and real persons cooperating with this military institution. The United States is also trying to create conditions under which no party would be willing to engage in economic cooperation with the IRGC. At the same time, the previous arms embargo against the IRGC is still in place. Americans are also trying to create gaps within the Iranian armed forces and further isolate the IRGC. Moreover, Washington is planning to draw a wedge between the IRGC and political forces in the country and, finally, create a rift between the IRGC and the Iranian people in order to strip this institution of its legitimacy. All these measures are among major goals that Americans are trying to achieve through various means, including imposing sanctions on the IRGC, making sharply-worded speeches, and developing a new discourse. Without a doubt, one can claim that from the viewpoint of Trump, now that Daesh and other extremist, violent and terrorist groups are on their way to annihilation in Syria and Iraq, weakening Iran must be pursued as a priority for the United States in the region. The aforesaid six groups, which I have already mentioned as those groups that seek strong action against Iran, are currently doing their utmost to depict the Islamic Republic as the main security challenge in the region.
Q: How the current crisis in relations between the United States and North Korea can possibly affect the future course of the JCPOA? If this crisis culminates in a war between the two countries, what consequences that conflict can have for Iran?
A: The possible impact of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula on the JCPOA will depend on various parameters. The most important factor, which can take this crisis in a direction to affect the JCPOA, will be its scope and spread. In other words, if mechanisms used to reduce tensions prove ineffective on the Korean Peninsula and if this crisis continues and spreads, there are certain ways in which it can affect the JCPOA. First of all, let’s not forget that the JCPOA has come into focus primarily as a dispute settlement mechanism. One aspect of the possible impact of the Korean crisis on the JCPOA is related to security and military matters and I am inclined to discuss this aspect and explain it in more detail. We know that Americans are usually faced with strategic limitations at the beginning of their numerous military conflicts. North Korea is, in fact, considered as a missile power and when this capability is combined with the country’s nuclear capability, it makes Pyongyang capable of firing its nuclear missiles toward mainland of the United States, thus, posing a major threat. This reality will cause the entire body of the United States military power to get involved in a war with North Korea. In other words, the model of a possible war between the United States and North Korea will be totally different from the model of its previous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those models, Americans were able to manage two wars at the same time. In other words, after having entered the war in Afghanistan for a couple of years and having deployed their troops on a large scale and in high numbers to various provinces of that country, they could still launch a new large-scale military operation in Iraq as well. However, the nature of a possible war with North Korea is such that the United States will not be able to do this and, according to all available evidence, North Korea will be able to take the war into the American territory. This means that the entire defense structure of the United States will get involved in a war with North Korea and, in fact, there will remain no free and intact section of that military structure to be used to make plans for further military operations in other parts of the world. Clearly speaking, as a special impact of the war with North Korea, this issue will cause Iran to fall out of the domain of direct military threats of the United States. In my opinion, in case of a military attack by North Korea on Pacific island of Guam, various military command centers of the United States, including the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), will get involved in the military operation and, in fact, the entire military structure of the United States will get involved in this war. A direct effect of this state of affairs is that Iran will not be exposed to any direct threats from the United States.
However, the question that must be answered is will a war with North Korea be able to reduce the possibility of conflict between Iran and the United States over Iran’s missile program, weapons control regimes, and generally speaking, the Islamic Republic’s regional activities? I believe that a large-scale conflict with North Korea will certainly affect US strategy and will reduce the possibility of the United States taking any measure against Iran. Of course, a differentiation must be made here between the effect on the type of policy and the implementation of that policy. I, however, do not believe that a conflict with North Korea will have any effect on the type or contents of US policy with regard to Iran. In my opinion, it is unlikely that the content of Washington’s policy toward Tehran will change as a result of more tensions with North Korea. However, the US capacity and ability for the implementation of its policies will change and this issue results from strategic limitations inherent to security and military structures of the United States. I personally believe that this issue is perhaps the most important effect that further escalation of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula can have on the security of Iran.
Q: The United States has been claiming that there is a close relationship between ballistic missile programs of Iran and North Korea and the two countries are intimately cooperating with each other for the production of unconventional weapons. So, don’t you think that a conflict between the United States and North Korea will encourage Washington to take forceful measures against Iran in order to prevent it from turning into a second North Korea?
A: I don’t believe that the risk actually exists that Iran may become subject of a limited military attack by the United States in order to destroy its missile and other defense capabilities. As I have already mentioned in an article titled “Mad Dog’s Dream,” which was published by Hamshahri Diplomatic magazine, I still believe that there is no possibility for a military attack on Iran under the present circumstances, because technically speaking, the necessary infrastructure is lacking for such an attack. In other words, at the present time, there is no complete defensive capability to totally head off the offensive capability of Iran’s ballistic missiles. Since most of the existing missile defense systems such as S-300, Patriot, THAAD and other existing defense systems have been designed to intercept incoming missiles in the high or medium phases of their trajectory, Iranian and North Korean missiles are able to get through those medium air defense systems due to their special design. Therefore, from a technical viewpoint, the function of any missile defense system cannot be impeccable in practice and in the war theater. On the other hand, missile defense systems are bugged by technical limitations when they have to deal with missiles, which outnumber their intercept capacity. Such limitations make complete defense in the face of an offense very difficult. In line with their strategic mental structure, Americans usually begin a war with relative certainty about gaining a victory through a minimum degree of casualties. In my opinion, Americans will only embark on a new war when they are sure that their missile defense capability can prevent the enemy from inflicting heavy losses and casualties on American forces through missile attacks. In other words, they will only embark on waging a new war when their new advances in the field of military technology enables them to gain determining superiority at the warfront. However, such technical superiority does not exist for Americans at the present juncture.
Q: Will imposition of new sanctions by the United States against the IRGC lead to a determining change in the security state of the region and Iran? And what will be possible reactions to be shown by regional actors to this development?
A: In my opinion, imposing sanctions on the official military force of a country, in addition to an arms embargo, mounting pressures, increasing threats, and diversifying threats against a country can lead to serious future changes at military strategic level of that country. There is, however, some sort of strategic rationality in Iran’s decision-making process. In other words, there is a positive relationship between political rationality and strategic logic in Iran according to which, if threats against the country move to a higher level, the structure of the country’s strategic logic changes in proportion to it. In view of this relationship, one can reach the conclusion that after imposing sanctions on the IRGC, the structure of the strategic logic of Iran’s military forces will have to change as well. This means that under present conditions, the United States is selling arms to Iran’s regional rivals and adversaries and strengthens them, on the one hand, while on the other hand, ignores Iran’s right to boost and guarantee its security without leaving any other way for Iran to address its security concerns. Therefore, Iran will have no choice, but to change its strategic logic as well as models used to identify its enemies at high levels, including in the text of high-level strategic documents of the country. Under these circumstances, the outcomes and consequences of Iran’s new understanding of regional threats at a tactical level can be very vast and pervasive. These outcomes can range from preventive measures all the way to intangible efforts made to satisfy Iran’s security considerations. Under these conditions, Iran’s asymmetrical security approach, which has been always a thorn in the side of Americans, will be further bolstered. On the whole, imposition of such sanctions will increase tactical complication and uncertainties surrounding the situation in the region as a result of which this measure by the United States will not help resolve security enigmas of West Asia in any useful way.
Q: A recent trip by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to Moscow was followed by an agreement between the two sides according to which Moscow will sell S-400 missile batteries to Saudi Arabia. What effect, in your opinion, this development will have on defensive state of our country?
A: I do not believe that buying S-400 missile batteries by Saudi Arabia will have any important strategic impact. After purchasing S-400 missile systems as well as the US-made THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile system, in addition to Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 missile defense batteries and the optimized version of PAC-3 missile system, there will be practically no void in Saudi Arabia’s missile defense systems. However, it must be noted that Saudis already possessed many of these missile defense systems. Therefore, from the viewpoint of technical matters and the defense model (high- and medium-phase missiles), buying S-400 missile systems will not provide them with any more capability than already provided by THAAD missile systems. Therefore, this purchase will not lead to any special change in defensive arrangements of Saudi Arabia, and is more of value as a factor to boost Riyadh’s morale. And the final goal, of course, is to give a concession to Russians to get their support. In general, apart from some tactical attractions of S-400 missile systems, buying them will provide Saudi Arabia’s army with no more military added value.