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Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions
Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions
A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage after a group picture with foreign ministers and representatives of the P5+1 and Iran during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, 14 July 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Report 173 / Middle East & North Africa

实施伊朗核协议:现状报告

伊朗核协议已实施一年;其不仅成功实现了阻断核扩散的目标,还打开了伊朗经济复苏之门。但是除非华盛顿与德黑兰都致力维护且延伸着协议精神及协议书,否则伊朗核协议仍可能失败。

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执行摘要

截止至2016年1月16日,伊朗核协议自“实施日”以来已有一年。该计划是伊朗与联合国安理会的五个常任理事国及德国(P5+1模式)在2015年7月共同签订的,即,《联合全面行动计划》(JCPOA)。此计划既有成功之处,但也面临着失败的可能。目前,伊朗核协议已经实现了其狭义层面的目标——以有效且能证实的方法阻挡所有可能让伊朗回归核武器竞赛的途径,同时为其打开外交复兴和经济复苏之门。但伊朗核协议的交易本质亦暴露了该协议书的弱点——协议尚未开始改变美伊的敌对状态,并导致协议自身处于不稳定的政治环境中。若伊朗仍视协议符合其国家利益,那它就不应只遵守协议书和协议精神,而还应放弃在所在地区内继续进行零和博弈。特朗普政府将面临严峻的选择。他们虽然可有意或无意地放弃该交易;但他更应通过互惠互利的谈判来巩固伊朗核协议。

在过去的一年,德黑兰和华盛顿因评估协议书优劣而在各自内部造成了分歧,而这则掩盖了协议书的核心机要,即,致力于实现实质性结果。该协议把伊朗核计划置于前所未有的最严格的检查机制之下,同时它还将伊朗突破武器级铀生产技术的时间从几周延长到一年以上。2016年1月以来,国际原子能机构(IAEA)曾六次核实了伊朗就《联合全面行动计划》中义务的履行。美国、欧盟(EU)和联合国亦因此对其放松了核事务的相关制裁,这使得伊朗重获石油市场份额、恢复数十亿美元的冻结资产、并吸引外商直接投资,伊朗也从而将一度缩减的经济转变为地区中发展速度最快的经济体。

然而,如同任何复杂技术协议一样,其实施的过程并非完美。伊朗曾犯过一些技术违规——这些行为,无论单个讲还是总体来看,都不严重。相反,这些违规正显示出了协议书的有效性:国际原子能组织能快速觉察各项违规行为,而伊朗亦对这些违规行为做出了修正。但在有关放松制裁一事上,则出现了更严峻的问题。因为主要的金融机构仍对其保持谨慎,所以伊朗仍欠缺正常的国际银行关系,而这也妨碍了伊朗重新融入全球经济,挫创了公众对经济迅速恢复的高期待。

这是因为各方对伊朗区域力量的复苏和弹道导弹试验仍有顾虑,但当初把这些问题都放到谈判桌上,协议书便不可能成功达成。如今,这些问题是对协议成功实施的主要威胁,而问题的成因则是《联合全面行动计划》的转化潜力尚未被发挥出来。这是因为有很多强大的利益集团施压,并使《联合全面行动计划》成为伊朗、伊朗邻国与美国关系缓和的极限,而非让这些关系在此基础上得到进一步改善。此处的难题在于,若不解决使伊朗及其邻国与西方国家为敌的大范围政治抗争,那《联合全面行动计划》最多只能勉强维持生存或被暂停实施。但若该协议不得以全面实施,那其潜在的政治抗争亦难以得到解决。

最令人不安的不确定性则在于美国的新领导班子将会采取什么方法。在竞选期间,唐纳德•特朗普谴责了《联合全面行动计划》、并称其为“有史以来谈判取得的最糟糕的协议”。作为总统,他可以否定该计划或不采取维持该计划实施所需的必要步骤。但若在伊朗遵守《联合全面行动计划》之时终止该协议,那则可能会导致其他签署国——更接近国际共识——将此全面归罪于华盛顿政府,而这亦可能会终结对这个对实施制裁所具关键性意义的广泛联盟——其在当初谈判协议时起到了杠杆作用。

或者,特朗普可能会一边严格实施协议,一边坚决反对伊朗的区域政策。伊朗的这些措施助长了中东冲突的气焰、惊动了美国盟国、并惹怒了美国的政治阶层。但是,严格实施政策有利有弊——美国若马马虎虎地执行此协议,这将不利于伊朗获得美国承诺的利益。但若美国对伊朗的区域政策作出过度的军事化反应,那这或会导致新的风险,即,《联合全面行动计划》会沦为双方针锋相对的牺牲品。

特朗普还可以为巩固协议中的部分核规定或增加无核规定而尝试重新谈判。但是,在他身边的人看来,这种做法或会需要通过新的无核制裁来增加对伊朗的强制性压力和(或)军事威胁,从而迫使其不得不重返谈判桌。然而,伊朗则几乎一定会以让更多让步为由要求进一步放宽制裁,而非被迫让步。

面对美国削弱协议的企图,伊朗可选择做出如下回应。伊方可扮演受害者,归指责华府并尝试离间美国与其盟友,从而达到削弱制裁的目的。但这需要伊朗在面对美国违反《联合全面行动计划》或挑衅时保持克制。又或者,伊朗可选择增加核项目,并减少国际原子能机构的权限、或在伊拉克和叙利亚战场上袭击美国资产,但其中上述任何一种方式都会招来美国(或以色列)军事回应的风险。即使伊朗采取更温和、更有针对性的应对措施,这也难免会重燃核僵局,并使未来的谈判复杂化。

尽管上述所有情景都令人担忧,但其实还有另一种出路:各方本着诚信、自愿,互助互利的原则致力于就协议书各方面而重启谈判,这或会实现锦上添花的双赢局面。特朗普总统身为共和党派,坐拥了共和党控制国会的支持,这使他在向伊朗提供协商的动机上有着比奥巴马更高的受可信度。

在实施并改进《联合全面行动计划》时,双方应进行心平气和的对话,同时承认彼此在安全方面的疑虑和核心利益,沟通各自的核事务上底线和地区红线。由此可能出现的一种结果是为巩固《联合全面行动计划》中部分核条款,或增加无核规定以换取美国停止对其的主要禁令。若不能实现这种结果,美国则可能会把重点放在不针对伊朗的安排上——包括在区域内外广泛实施《联合全面行动计划》中的部分限制或透明措施。

就务实而言,华盛顿政府应保持与德黑兰的沟通渠道畅通,给财政部更多放松对伊制裁的权力。伊朗应严格遵守《联合全面行动计划》,停止通过核武器或在地缘政治上冒险来其谈判增加筹码。其他P5+1成员国应克制伊朗,使其不因美国改变基调和方法而过度反应,但同时其也应向华盛顿政府明确表态,即,若美方执意一意孤行、背离协议书,那它将失去其他成员国支持。

特朗普是近二十年来、首位不用担心伊朗会越步发展秘密核武器的美国总统。若其试图通过高压政策来单方面调整《联合全面行动计划》,那协议书则将难免受损、核危机再起、并加剧地区不稳定局势。然而,特朗普也机会通过上述政策以至面面俱到:达成运作良好且更稳定的协议书、就美伊矛盾制定管理框架,以上甚至可以减少中东地区的流血冲突。

华盛顿/布鲁塞尔,2017年1月16日

People gather in Ahvaz for the funeral of those killed during an attack on a military parade in the city, on 24 September, 2018. ATTA KENARE / AFP

Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions

An attack on a military parade in Iran is raising tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Four Crisis Group analysts give a 360-degree view of perspectives in Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington and warn that a single attack can trigger further escalation.

An attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on 22 September, which killed 29 people, dangerously raised tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Iran accused a local insurgent group (which claimed responsibility), but also pointed to what it said were the group’s enablers in the Gulf and in Washington. The U.S. State Department issued a muted condemnation while proceeding with its otherwise openly hostile rhetoric toward Tehran. And key Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, stayed mostly silent, failing to condemn the attack or express sorrow for its victims. A tragedy can create opportunities for diplomacy and eventually a new accommodation, but instead, after Ahvaz, all sides are feeding the risk of further escalation.

One Shock Away from Conflagration
By Joost Hiltermann

Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point
By Ali Vaez

More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf
By Elizabeth Dickinson

No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran
By Daniel Schneiderman

I. One Shock Away from Conflagration

The attack on a military parade in Ahvaz comes at a moment of heightening tensions throughout the Middle East following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May. A local group called the Ahvaz National Resistance Front promptly claimed responsibility, as did the Islamic State. Iran lent credence to the Front’s claim, accusing the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark of harbouring members of the group and providing them with a media platform. But it also pointed a finger at unspecified Gulf states and the U.S. for sponsoring the attack. The truth may eventually out, but well before that a dangerous escalation could occur in the Gulf on the basis of suspicions alone.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Program Director

While even the U.S. State Department issued a condemnation of the attack – albeit a muted one – despite the Trump administration’s strong animus toward the Iranian regime, Saudi Arabia remained silent. It may be reckoning that even an expression of sympathy would not absolve it in Iranian eyes, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has barely disguised his hostility toward Tehran. But condolences could help reduce tensions. Tehran is likely to interpret silence as a tacit admission of guilt and this could raise tensions when there is also an opportunity to lower them.

In withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump administration made clear that it deemed the nuclear deal not only inherently flawed but also insufficient in that it failed to cover Iran’s missile program and regional activism through the use of proxy militias. In this latter concern, it found allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Israel, which either had mixed views about, or openly opposed, the JCPOA but adamantly opposed any accommodation with Iran as a result of signing the deal. This partly explains enthusiasm with which they greeted an American president sensitive to their primary concerns and willing to counter Iran, at least rhetorically.

The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move [...] could set the region aflame.

Like his predecessor, Trump appears wary of being drawn into a war in the region. At the same time, his regional allies are becoming impatient, seeing Iran’s hand in political struggles and violent conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. They want U.S. help in pushing back Iran’s influence in the region because they cannot confront Iran’s missiles or militias alone and walk away unscathed. So far, they have benefitted from Tehran’s decision to ignore provocations while it tries to save the JCPOA by waiting out the Trump administration. Iran has remained restrained in response to repeated Israeli attacks on its assets and personnel in Syria and continued to abide by the nuclear deal despite Washington’s withdrawal. The notoriously volatile Strait of Hormuz has been calmer than even during the Obama administration after the signing of the JCPOA.

But Iran’s patience could wear thin. Attacks on the guardians of a regime born in the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), may be too much to bear for its hardliners, now likely itching for revenge. The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move borne of overconfidence, a misread signal, or a misinterpreted or misattributed event could set the region aflame.

II. Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point

Iran’s border provinces, where the majority of the country’s ethnic and sectarian minorities reside, have been historically restive – be it the Kurds in the west, Azeris in the north east, Arabs in the south west or Balochis in the south east. Like in other frontier provinces, the Ahvazis have legitimate grievances against the central government. Sitting on Iran’s vast oil and gas richness, Khuzestan province remains impoverished and underdeveloped. Discrimination against the region’s majority-Arab population and Sunni minorities dates to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in the early twentieth century. Severe environmental degradation and relentless dust storms have transformed the province from a “wetland to a wasteland”. These issues have repeatedly stirred protests over the years, including most recently in July, with locals angry about a lack of access to clean water. These local problems have fuelled more radical separatist movements and are exploited by regional and extra-regional powers hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran

The Ahvaz National Resistance Front is an umbrella organisation for several separatist groups, one of which, Nezal ( حركة النضال العربي لتحرير الأحواز or Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz ), launched a satellite TV channel seven months ago. It broadcasts a media campaign against the central government in Tehran, inviting the locals to resist its rule through sabotaging oil pipelines and destroying public and private property. The group’s increased activism in recent months points to new resources, which Iranian authorities allege are coming from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with encouragement from Washington.

Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threatened that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran”. Such declarations play into the Iranian narrative and fears. So does a 2017 memo by John Bolton, currently the U.S. national security advisor, that advocated “providing assistance” to Khuzestan Arabs and other minorities in Iran as a means of building pressure on the country and containing its regional influence. That neither Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or the White House condemned the attack in Ahvaz (the U.S. State Department did, however) further confirms Iran’s suspicions. These are compounded by commentary from prominent Emiratis that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that attacks of this kind “will increase during the next phase”.

Regardless of who instigated it – if this wasn’t an independent operation by the Ahvaz National Resistance Front – the attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart. Iranian grievances caused by internal mismanagement and shortsightedness could be exploited by regional actors and exacerbated by global powers, further deepening internal fault lines and fuelling tensions. Iran has been largely shielded from this plague so far; if that changes, regional turmoil will doubtless escalate further.

The attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart.

The Ahvaz attack, however, could also play in the Iranian leaders’ favour. They have been warning for a while that the hostile administration in the U.S. is not targeting the Islamic Republic, but Iran as a polity. The discourse revolves around the concept of Iran’s “Syria-cisation” – an alleged ploy by the U.S. and its allies to fragment Iran along its ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Propagating a siege mentality could help change the subject domestically from complaints over mounting economic troubles to a nationalistic rallying around the flag to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, which requires a strong central government.

The attack could also play into the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which despite a series of recent missteps (failing to foil ISIS’s twin strikes in Tehran last year, Israel’s January 2018 coup in removing the country’s nuclear secrets from the heart of the capital and now the targeting of the Ahvaz parade on the Iranian equivalent of Memorial Day in the U.S.) is likely to receive more government support to crack down on separatist groups and fix security breaches. It is also likely to have more manoeuvring space to flex its muscles in the region, either by pushing back against Iranian armed dissidents – as the recent missile attacks on the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrated – or imposing a cost on the U.S. and its allies by indirectly targeting their assets.

There will be tensions between the urge to retaliate and the imperative of sticking to Iran’s “strategic patience” strategy, which the leadership deems expedient for surviving a rough patch. Iran’s response ultimately depends on a broad range of elements, from dynamics within the region to what the remaining parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) can do to preserve some of its economic dividends for Tehran.

III. More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf

The attack in Ahvaz is likely to ratchet up regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia while reinforcing widely held, if questionable, suspicions among many in Riyadh and its Gulf allies that the Iranian regime is on the verge of crumbling from within. Calmer actors on both sides would see this moment as a sign that détente between Riyadh and Tehran is more necessary than ever. More likely, however, the incident will embolden those in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Washington who argue for ever-stronger economic sanctions and more direct military pressure against Iran. To at least some of these hawks, the goal is not just to roll back Iran’s regional footprint but to encourage political change in Tehran.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Elizabeth Dickinson, Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula

There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault. Neither Riyadh, nor Abu Dhabi nor Manama issued statements. The Qatari and Kuwaiti foreign ministries decried the incident in statements that only further deepened splits within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Among Saudi grievances with Qatar is Doha’s warmer relationship with Tehran. (After the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s chargé was summoned in Tehran the day after the attack, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted a denial of UAE support for the Ahvaz militants.)

Their silence is illustrative of an increasingly mainstream view in the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini security apparatuses that the region’s ills all link to Iran. While not new, this reading has taken on a new intensity and urgency. Gulf powers sense a regional power vacuum and are engaged in a zero-sum competition to fill space. And unrest is moving ever closer to home, as Yemen’s Iranian-allied Huthi rebels fire ballistic missiles at the kingdom. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are also keen to keep the Trump administration’s attention focused on Iran, realising they may not always have a sympathetic ear in the White House.

There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault.

In this context, it is tempting for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular to wish for and even anticipate regime change in Tehran. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi viewed economic protests in Iran earlier this year as the first crack in stability. To some Saudi and Emirati commentators, the Ahvaz attack is further evidence of an Islamic Republic whose citizens are losing patience. While they do not expect a full-scale popular uprising tomorrow, they see change on the horizon, provided sanctions can continue squeezing the Iranian economy.

Ahvaz is a particularly sensitive area for the Gulf’s relations with Iran. Home to an Arab minority as well as an important military base, Khuzestan province, of which Ahvaz is the capital, has long been a point of contention between them. It was the area of Iran which Iraqi forces invaded in 1980, hoping to be welcomed by the local population and push on from there to Tehran in a swift motion. Sunnis in the Gulf have often pointed to Iran’s treatment of its Arab Sunni minority (a subset of Khuzestan’s Arab population) as evidence of a sectarian regime that deserves censure. Solidarity with Iran’s Sunni community, in particular, is widespread in the Saudi media and society. Saudi and Emirati commentators pointed to Saturday’s attack as a sign that Iran’s beleaguered minorities are finally fed up.  Tehran is in fact to blame, they argue; Sunnis and other minorities have faced repression for too long. Ahvaz is the inevitable explosion from keeping the lid on a boiling kettle.

In the coming days, some in the Gulf expect that the events in Ahvaz could give Iran an “excuse” to play the regional victim – and offer justification for both a further crackdown on its Sunni minority and an attempt to retaliate in the region. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “may try to do anything anywhere” in response to the attack, a Saudi analyst close to the government told Crisis Group. 

All this bodes terribly for Iran-Saudi tensions, and in turn, stability in the half-dozen countries where the two powers are competing by proxy. Saudi Arabia and Iran may trade insults, but in Yemen, Iraq and even distant theatres from Afghanistan to West Africa, their respective allies will trade gunfire until the two states find a new accommodation in the Gulf.

IV. No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran

Heading into the coming “high level week” of the UN General Assembly, any U.S. counterpart hoping to see a more dovish side of the U.S. when it comes to Iran policy is likely to be disappointed.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Daniel Schneiderman, Deputy U.S. Program Director

True, the State Department condemned the attack, saying: “We stand with the Iranian people against the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism and express our sympathy to them at this terrible time”. In another context, a statement like this might be seen as a subtle olive branch to Iran. After all, last year the administration blamed Iran’s government for a series of jihadist attacks that took place on a single day in June 2017 against Iran’s Parliament building and Khomeini’s tomb. That yesterday’s milder statement was made under the watch of the highly hawkish current National Security Adviser John Bolton (a lead architect of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal) rather than his more measured predecessor, H.R. McMaster, made the discrepancy all the more interesting.

Yet there is no reason to believe U.S. policy is diverting from its confrontational track. The U.S. has made clear since May (when it pulled out of the Iran deal) that it would pressure the Iranian regime to end its destabilising regional activities and reinstate a tough sanctions regime. It followed up by creating the Iran Action Group at State, led by new Special Representative Brian Hook, charged with implementing that policy. More than the Ahvaz statement, the correct bellwether of U.S. posture toward Iran is likely what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 21 September (in an interview with CNN’s Elise Labott): “We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor”. This referred to the U.S. perception that Iranian proxy forces in Iraq are responsible for attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate in Basra – and was a none too subtle hint that such proxy action could trigger a direct U.S. attack on Iran itself.