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07:55 21 February 2017

FOCUS: Detente policy at risk as Iran-U.S. tensions soar

By Mohammad Gharebag
TEHRAN, Feb. 21, Kyodo

Unlike the previous U.S. administration's detente policy that had opened up new horizons in relations between the United States and Iran, President Donald Trump's hard-line approach has raised bilateral tensions and increased the risk of military confrontation, according to analysts.

"With anti-Iran hawks in senior positions in the Trump administration, a real risk of a U.S.-Iran clash exists because they are seeking to increase confrontations with Iran," former Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian, currently a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University, told Kyodo News.

"By increasing hostilities towards Iran and imposing new sanctions and pressure, Trump unifies Iran's different political factions and pushes (Iranian President Hassan) Rouhani and other centrists towards more resilient positions," he added.

In an interview with CNN last Friday, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said pressure tactics will never work against Iran.

"Everybody over the past 38 years has tested Iran. We do not respond well to threats. We respond very well to respect -- mutual respect -- and mutual interest," he said.

Trump has recently put Iran "on notice," without defining exactly what that means, while accusing it of fomenting terrorism, an allegation that Tehran calls "baseless."

"We have imposed new sanctions on the nation of Iran, who's totally taken advantage of our previous administration. And they're the world's top sponsor of terrorism. And we're not going to stop until that problem is properly solved," he told a press conference last Thursday.

Before and after taking office in January, Trump criticized the landmark nuclear deal that Iran signed in 2015 with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China as "the worst deal ever" and vowed to dismantle it.

Tehran has rejected the possibility of reviewing or renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under which it agreed to limit its nuclear development in return for the lifting of crippling international sanctions, and has threatened to "set fire" to the deal if United States reneges on its commitments.

"It seems unlikely that the JCPOA will be torn up, but likely that new sanctions and forms of pressure will be imposed," Mousavian said.

The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran after revolutionary students took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and kept diplomats as hostage for 444 days.

In 2013, Rouhani, a moderate, was elected on pledges of engaging in more effective diplomacy with the West and working to heal rifts, but his overtures were criticized by hardliners at home.

Rising tensions with the United States since Trump's inauguration puts him in a difficult position ahead of the next presidential election scheduled in May, though he has yet to publically declare whether he will run for a second term.

Fresh sanctions against Iran could endanger the country's fragile economy.

"If Trump increases tensions and imposes new sanctions, Rouhani will not pursue any detente policy with the United States," said Mousavian, author of the book Iran and the United States: An Insider's View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.

Instead, the president would focus on maintaining and improving ties with other major economies and powers, he said.

Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the Washington-based International Crisis Group, told Kyodo News that Trump's election is a double-edged sword for Rouhani.

"It simultaneously threatens his achievements with the nuclear deal and doubles the need for his team of smiling diplomats and economic technocrats to shift the blame to the United States and keep the country's economy afloat," Vaez said.

"The hardliners in Iran will use Trump's every word and deed to prove that they were right about America's untrustworthiness and Rouhani's naivete," he added.

Since Trump came to power, Israel, which viewed Iran-U.S. rapprochement under the previous administration as a challenge to its security, has become hopeful of more U.S. pressure being brought to bear on its arch-foe, which it depicts as an existential threat.

According to analysts, efforts to curb Iran's growing role in the Middle East, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, could see emergence of a unified front involving the United States and regional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In an interview with Fox News last Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the threat of Iranian hegemony in the region, coupled with that posed by radical Islam, is bringing some Arab countries closer to Israel.

"So they don't view us anymore as their enemy, but increasingly they see us as their ally against a common threat," he said. "People are saying 'wait a minute, this roaring tiger, if it's not stopped, it'll devour all of us'."

Vaez said Trump's administration "is keen on demonstrating its resolve against Iran to traditional U.S. partners in the region."

"It is thus prepared to take bigger and bolder risks, that increase the possibility of inadvertent clashes that could easily spiral out of control," he said.

Trump has continued to threaten Iran, saying "nothing is off the table" and warning Iranian leaders that his administration is different from the previous one which was "too kind," even as Tehran says it was under the heaviest-ever sanctions during Barack Obama's time in office.

"I think the president (of Iran) or Ayatollah is going to realize that there is a new president in office. This president is not going to sit by and let Iran flout its violations or apparent violations to the joint agreement," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word in country's vital issues, said in a public speech on Feb. 7 that Iran is "not afraid of U.S. threats."

Its powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has rejected U.S. threats as "empty" and vowed retaliation for any aggression. "If the enemy makes the smallest mistake, our missiles will roar down on their heads," air-space division commander Gen. Amir-Ali Hajizadeh said.

Mahdi Motahharinia, a Tehran-based university professor and political researcher, told Kyodo News that the new U.S. government is presenting Iran with a stark choice: "either should accept the leadership of United States in the region -- which would be against the Islamic Revolution's goals and its dignity -- or enter a confrontation with it that could ignite another fire in the region."

Motahharinia said the prospect of foreign aggression could unite the country's various political groups behind Rouhani, who has a good chance of being reelected in May, giving him a key role in forging the strategy for dealing with United States.

Rouhani, he said, would "try to act in a way to not destroy the former detente efforts, while not showing weakness in dealing with Trump."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday at the Munich Security Conference that the United States is "fully committed to ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon capable of threatening our country, our allies in the region, especially Israel."

Zarif countered by saying Sunday at the same conference, "We are not going to produce nuclear weapons. Period."

==Kyodo

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