Insider news & Analysis in Iran

On Tuesday, an editorial in US News and World recalled attention to the incident last month in which General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps warned that Iran would close the Strait of Hormuz in response to anything that the Iranian leadership might regard as “threats.” The editorial notes that the likely response to such threats is dismissal. And indeed, Iran News Update previously reported that many independent military analysts find that Iran does not have the naval strength to actually enforce such a closure.

However, Tuesday’s editorial somewhat disputes this assessment. While it does not go so far as to suggest that Iran could actually be victorious in a naval conflict with the US or its allies, it does explain how Iran could extract a political victory from a situation in which it forces a crisis in the region. The article notes that war games in the Persian Gulf have indicated that the US might incur significant losses, and this danger might influence American decision making in the event that the Islamic Republic attempts to follow through on its threats.

The editorial goes on to argue that this is especially the case while the Obama administration continues to occupy the White House, where it is subject to questions about whether it would respond forcefully enough to new crises precipitated by Iran. Already, the administration has been accused of downplaying a long series of Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, including test-firing of naval rockets within range of Western vessels, surrounding and following a US-flagged cargo vessel, and seizing 10 American sailors who strayed into Iranian territorial waters in January.

The US News piece concluded by saying that Iran would effectively win in a confrontation with the West if “a lucky Iranian missile strike or successful swarming attack on a major U.S. vessel [paralyzed] the risk-averse White House and [sent] diplomats scurrying to Geneva to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis.”

These sorts of concerns are no doubt shared by the vast majority of the US Congress, which has been critical of what the Republican Party and some Democrats view as conciliatory White House policies toward the Islamic Republic. This view has been highlighted in part by conflict over the Iran Sanctions Act, which is set to expire at the end of this year, unless it is renewed. Both parties support such an extension, but the White House has encouraged them to go slowly on the issue, apparently out of fear that the reauthorization of any sanctions could spook the Iranian regime into canceling last summer’s nuclear deal, based on claims of continuing Western aggression.

Congress as a whole disagrees with the administration on this point and sees such concerns as an inadequate excuse for refusing to act on Iran’s ongoing abuses. But this unified disagreement with the administration has not been sufficient to facilitate unified action to the contrary, as Reuters explained in a report published on Tuesday. The news agency points out that there are several competing plans for how to go about reauthorizing the Iran Sanctions Act, and these differ in important ways, which reflect different degrees of deviation from the Obama administration’s approach to Iran policy.

Whereas Democrats have put forward proposals that would extend the act and provide for greater legislative oversight of the nuclear deal, or extend the act until such time as the White House proves that Iran is no longer working on a nuclear weapon, Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte is leading 18 other Republican Senators in an effort to definitively extend the Iran Sanctions Act through the year 2031, and also impose new sanctions related to Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles.

After coming under pressure from Congress, the Obama administration imposed news sanctions on individuals and groups connected to an October test of a ballistic missile that is capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. But five more such tests have taken place since then, and the White House has yet to issue a formal response in the form of sanctions or other pressure.

But despite the fact that Congress has not come to a definitive agreement about an alternative way forward for Iran policy, the conflict over the Iran Sanctions Act helps to demonstrate that most members of Congress are indeed committed to acting on their own to counteract the supposedly conciliatory nature of the White House’s approach. Toward that end, some congressmen have been essentially protesting a perceived lack of congressional oversight by seeking direct access to Iranian nuclear sites in order to personally monitor Tehran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The Washington Free Beacon reported on Tuesday that Representatives Mike Pompeo, Lee Zelden, and Frank LoBiondo have been trying for months to obtain travel visas from Iran in order to visit the country, speak to Americans held in Iranian prisons, and inspect Iranian nuclear sites. The Free Beacon accuses Iranian officials of “playing games” with the request, and it notes that they stalled the request for eight months and missed a self-imposed deadline for response before finally sending a letter to the State Department officially rejecting the request.

The State Department then forwarded the message to the congressmen concerned, leading ne senior aide to say, “As a state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s undated, unsigned, and unserious letter is proof of its obviously hostile attitude” and “does not bode well for the future of this nuclear deal.”

In its letter, the Iranian Foreign Ministry insisted that neither the US nor any other participant in the nuclear agreement has the right to directly monitor its implementation or Iran’s compliance. But Representative Pompeo described that response as being “divorced from reality.” Meanwhile, the congressional aide expressed disappointment that the Islamic Republic had not acted “as a civilized nation when dealing with elected officials of the country that is providing billions of dollars in sanction relief.”

Such commentary highlights the concern among many members of Congress, that the Iranians are receiving major financial benefits under the nuclear agreement, but are not giving back enough in return to justify those foreign incentives. The extension of the Iran Sanctions Act, as well as showing the Islamic Republic that the US is still serious about Iran policy, may be viewed as a way of preventing those financial benefits from exceeding their theoretical limits.

This is not entirely in the hands of the US, although the Obama administration certainly has some control over the extent to which other nations, especially members of the European Union, contribute to Iran’s economic recovery. Many American legislators are contributing efforts to forestall major foreign investments in Iran, as are a number of governors of US states, who are maintaining state-level sanctions on doing business with the Islamic Republic.

Nonetheless, news continues to accumulate suggesting that various European and Asian economies are expanding both their interest in and their willingness to invest in Iran. One of the latest such indicators was reported on Tuesday by Reuters, which said that 25 European and Asian super-tankers had been engaged to carry Iranian oil supplies to foreign markets, in spite of earlier difficulties in securing such partners.

The new development represents an insurance deal that will supposedly allow the participants to offset most of the losses that they might incur if the agreements cause them to fall afoul of US-led restrictions that survived the nuclear agreement. However, it is also possible that this agreement was made possible by the growing perception that the White House will not seriously pursue enforcement of such restrictions.

This too is a topic on which the US Congress has widely criticized the White House, alleging that the Obama administration has been actively encouraging foreign companies to invest in Iran in order to preserve the nuclear deal.

 

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