This article explains the recent tensions between Iran and the United States, and presents it as a case of the ‘Security Dilemma’ theory in practice.
The Persian Gulf Crisis 2019-20
The JCPOA was signed between The E3/EU+3 (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, and the United States, China, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the Islamic Republic of Iran, to permit nuclear capabilities for Iran exclusively for peaceful purposes, in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.
Under this accord, Iran had to reduce its Uranium stockpile by 98% to 300kg, maintain its level of enrichment at 3.67%, reduce the number of centrifuges, and only keep one of its Uranium enrichment plants active. It also had to redesign its reactor at Arak, so it could not produce weapon’s grade Plutonium. Until 2031, Iran is not permitted to make heavy-water reactors.
Further, it was to permit itself to regular inspection of their nuclear site by the global nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In return, Iran gained over $100bn of frozen assets overseas, and was permitted to allow trading in oil in international markets and use the global financial system for trade.
Trump Administration’s Revoking of the JCPOA
In 2018, the Trump administration reimposed some of the sanctions in Iran, despite Trump's election promise to reduce involvement in the Middle East. Countering the re-impositions, Iran threatens to resume Uranium enrichment. In May 2019, Iran suspends nuclear deal commitments, and gives other signatories a 60-day deadline to protect it from US sanctions, before resuming Uranium enrichment. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Iran had already increased Uranium production, but is unclear by how much.
In May 2019, the US increased military deployment in the Persian Gulf, reportedly to prevent what the termed was a “campaign” between Iran and its proxies to threaten US oil shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Tanker Crisis
In June 2019, two tankers were set ablaze in the Gulf of Oman, using mines. The US blamed Iran for these blasts, but Iran denied the charges.
In the same month, Iran Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a US surveillance drone, escalating tensions and causing the US to name the IRGC as a terrorist organization.
In July 2019, the British Royal Marine Commandos seized an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, as it was suspected to be en route to Syria, in violation of EU sanctions. The US declared that anyone assisting the ship would be considered an accomplice of terrorist groups, namely the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
In retaliation, Iran seized British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Iranian tanker was released six weeks later, on the condition that they do not unload their cargo of 2.1million barrels of oil in Syria.
December Air Strikes
In December 2019, the K-1 Air Base in Iraq was attacked by an unconfirmed party, killing one American contractor. This base hosts Americans (amongst other nationalities) who are responsible for training Iraqi troops in counter-terrorism. The Americans alleged that the attack was carried out by Kataib Hezbollah, which denies it. Kataib Hezbollah is a rebel group (recognized as a terrorist group by the US) backed by Iran. The Iraqi’s alleged that ISIL was responsible.
In retaliation for the killing of the American Contractor, the US launched air strikes on the weapons depot and command centres of Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria in the same month, reportedly killing 25 militiamen.
Assassination of Iranian Major General
Iraq and Iran condemned the attack, and on 31 December, 2019, Iraqi militia attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad. In response, the US conducted airstrikes at the Baghdad International Airport in January 2020, killing the Commander of Iranian Quds Force, General Qasem Suleimani, the second most powerful man in Iran.
These escalations, placed within the context of US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a good example of the Security Dilemma theory and how it plays out in practice.
What is the Security Dilemma?
Before delving into the theoretical definitions it is worth reminding ourselves that States do not behave as they do because a theoretical model demands them to. Rather, most theoretical models are based on observations of real-world behaviour of states, and seek to explain said behaviour. The Classical Realist theory, of which the Security Dilemma is a part, is amongst one of these, and I endeavour to highlight some of the key points of this theory.
The Classical Realist theory holds that States (or State-actors) are the basic unit of any international system. They are the most important actors, as there is no authority higher than them. The international system is fundamentally anarchic, with every actor left to their own devices with no supranational oversight. Each State finds it in their own self-interest to provide their own means for security. Security comes with the ability of the State to exercise its power, and thus Power Hegemony and Security are inextricably linked. In other words, since no State can rely on a supranational authority to provide security (an every-man-for-himself scenario), it is in each State’s best interest to understand the power distribution across all state-actors and maximize power for themselves, as the ultimate security. This results in a zero-sum game, with one actor’s loss being another’s gain. In providing absolute security for one’s own State, one leaves others insecure. The resulting power imbalance manifests in conflict, and for the Realist it follows, therefore, that Conflict is the natural state of affairs.
This, in essence, is the Security Dilemma: Striving for absolute security leaves others absolutely insecure, thus providing powerful incentives for an arms race, leading to further conflicts. It is little wonder that this is also called the Spiral Model, for in the very process of striving for security, one gives birth to escalating conflict.
How does this relate to the Persian Gulf Crisis?
The US has long followed the Realist model, believing that in a state of fundamental anarchy, it is justifiable to have nuclear capabilities and have intense militarization, as a means of gaining absolute security (justified by ‘offense is the best defence’). However, the US is also known for disallowing Weapons of Mass Destruction and nuclear capabilities in other countries, despite having such resources by itself. Here we see the Security Dilemma: to maintain absolute security, the US cannot allow others to be similarly armed. This is seen clearly in the signing of the JCPOA.
Consider the case from Iran’s point of view. As a result of the US war against Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrow of Saddam Hussain in Iraq, there has been constant American presence in both the countries bordering Iran since almost two decades. That this poses a threat to Iran is obvious: the US caused fundamental regime changes in Iraq after the war; with its manpower and firepower, alongside its strategic placement on both sides of the Iranian border, the US is at a vantage point to attack Iran – placements that are, paradoxically, intended to guarantee American security.
The American show of strength and the impending danger of conflict leave Iran with two choices: Forge alliances with US adversaries, such as China or Russia, to deter Iran-US conflict, or be nuclear-armed. Iran managed both, causing, in effect, a nuclear arms race that culminated in the JCPOA. In retrospect, the JCPOA seems like the perfect solution to the Security Dilemma in US-Iran conflicts: not only does it allow Iran to benefit from its suspensions of nuclear capabilities, it also ceases the arms race and de-escalates the conflict. In short, it is the Diplomat’s way out of the Security Dilemma, guaranteeing security without arms.
The Trump administration’s call to reimpose sanctions on Iran only serves to re-ignite security concerns for both countries. With Iran having ousted its JCPOA commitments as of January 2020, we can only hope that de-escalations will soon follow to prevent the otherwise inevitable spiralling into arms race and false absolute security.