On Monday, two major news stories highlighted the tense situation regarding Iran’s role in the Middle East and its relationship with the world at large. These come nearly two years after the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers raised expectations of expanded economic investments in the Islamic Republic, but also more than a month after US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Arab Islamic-US Summit cast doubt upon the willingness of Iran’s adversaries to let this situation move forward.
As the Associated Press reported, the Islamic Republic concluded an agreement with a French energy company and a Chinese energy company for the joint development of the South Pars natural gas field, which Iran shares with the Arab nation of Qatar. Meanwhile, Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported that Hossein Jabari Ansari, the Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and North African affairs, had left on Monday for the fifth round of Syria peace talks, which were expected to take place throughout Tuesday and conclude on Wednesday.
Both of these developments cut against the recent trajectory in American policy, which has pointed to a more assertive stance on Iran, possibly even one that promotes the cause of regime change. They came very soon after a rally in Paris on Saturday organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, wherein members and supporters of the coalition specifically advocated for a popular uprising against the regime by the Iranian people.
It is not immediately clear how the United States will react to the new energy deal signed by France’s Total SA or to the continued Iranian presence at the Syria peace talks. Neither is it clear whether the administration took note of the NCRI rally or is considering establishing a policy that acknowledges or coordinates with the Iranian Resistance.
But what is clear is that the White House has been undermining the new atmosphere of Iranian trade by increasing sanctions on activities like Iran’s development and testing of ballistic missiles. At the same time, the US military and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, together with each of their local proxies, have been clashing more and more directly as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant loses ground in Syria and Iraq.
More than just reorienting American policy toward Iran, the US has also evidently been encouraging other nations of the world to follow suit. Last week, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley spoke to a meeting of the Security Council in order to once again reiterate the Trump administration’s call for more action on Iranian misbehavior and a more direct acknowledgment of Iranian non-compliance with Security Council Resolution 2231, part of which calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on ballistic missiles and other weapons capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
But Haley’s remarks had even broader implications than would be suggested by collective action over the resolution. She told the international enforcement body that “the continuance of the Iranian regime’s destructive, destabilizing behavior will prevent it from ever having a normal relationship with the United States and the rest of the world.” This arguably implies that the administration is unwilling to accept the existing Iranian government over the long term. Meanwhile, it certainly expresses an interest in discouraging other countries to attempt such normal reactions, either through trade or by encouraging an Iranian presence at international negotiations like those going on in the Kazakh capital of Astana, regarding the Syrian crisis.
Meanwhile, though, Iranian officials and defenders of the Islamic Republic are using the recent developments with France, China, and the parties to the Syrian talks in order to argue that relations between Iran and the world at large will continue to expand along these lines. The AP notes that the South Pars arrangement is the first such offshore oil development agreement between Iran and foreign powers since the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations in July 2015. This reportedly led one Iranian Member of Parliament to say that the “taboo of American sanctions” had been broken and that the door would now be open to additional Western investment in the Islamic Republic.
In addition, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh attempted to use the agreement’s announcement as an opportunity to deny Iranian culpability for the current state of relations between Iran and the US. Specifically, Zaganeh said that Iranian authorities were not standing in the way of American companies’ entry into the Iranian market, adding, “The main obstacle is being created by the U.S. government.”
Under the previous American presidential administration, the Treasury Department made a point of telling European companies that they would not be subject to penalties for investing in Iran as long as the nuclear agreement remained in force. This policy gave rise to some criticism by American lawmakers who felt the Obama White House was not only allowing but unnecessarily encouraging US partners to do business with the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accused the US of not doing enough to help Iran recover from the economic difficulties it had faced as a result of a decade of nuclear-related sanctions.
Furthermore, Iran has still not taken any significant measures that would increase the likelihood of foreign and especially American investment. Potential such measures include the establishment of compliance with the standards set down by the Financial Action Task Force. These standards are imposed equally upon all nations and help to assure that international capital is not misappropriated as by being laundered to terrorist groups. Iran is widely acknowledged to be the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and the US Treasury has declared it to be an area of primary money laundering concern. Much of this situation is attributable to the fact that the Revolutionary Guards control upwards of half the Iranian GDP while also being the main driver of Iranian terror sponsorship.
This role has been particularly on display in Iran’s contribution to the Syrian Civil War. And this fact speaks to a major part of the reason why US forces are pushing back against Iranian proxies while the US ambassador to the UN is pushing in favor of more severe sanctions for the Islamic Republic. The IRGC has driven recruitment for Shiite militia groups operating throughout the war-torn country, and has also played a direct role in the conflict alongside those groups. As well as helping to save Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from overthrow at the hands of moderate rebel groups, these paramilitaries and the IRGC have reportedly contributed to an Iranian project of redistributing the national population and consolidating the Shiite populations in a way that would shore up a supply and transit corridor linking Tehran, the seat of Iran’s Shiite theocracy, to Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and the Mediterranean Sea.
Regardless of the particular role of sectarian populations, the Iranian fixation on establishing this corridor is increasingly obvious, as is the fact that the US and its allies see that project as being adverse to their interests. IranWire published a relevant analysis last week, highlighting the ongoing preservation of the Assad regime is a central priority for Tehran because “if Assad goes, it is the end of Iran’s key ally on the borders of Israel, and that means Iran’s communication line with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinians would be cut off.”
This preoccupation has thrown a wrench in Syria peace talks in the past, and it is likely to do so again. While negotiators for the moderate rebels have walked away from some discussions as a result of Iran’s intractable position on Assad’s rule, the Iranians have been accused of violating some agreements they helped to broker, specifically by directing local proxies to either halt the evacuation of civilian populations from rebel-controlled areas or to simply go on attacking the rebels in hopes of preventing them from continuing to pose a long-term threat to Assad after the ISIL militant group has been driven out of the country.
Concerns over Iran’s ongoing influence in Syria are further amplified by the fact that Tehran and the IRGC are apparently using that conflict as a means of bolstering Iranian strength and the perception thereof, throughout the region. In June, the Iran launched its first missile strike on foreign territory in 30 years, using the already-criticized ballistic missiles in a supposed retaliation against ISIL targets in eastern Syria, following a pair of ISIL terror attacks in Tehran. At least one IRGC general described the strike as sending a message to the US and Saudi Arabia regarding what Iran is capable of.
Shortly thereafter, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a press conference at its Washington, D.C. offices to provide details about the ongoing expansion of the ballistic missile program following and order by Supreme Leader Khamenei for additional development, manufacture, and testing. The NCRI identified 42 missile sites being run by the IRGC throughout the country, one of which is known to be collaborating with the Iranian institution that had been tasked with weaponization of the country’s nuclear program.
On Friday, Voice of America News supplemented the NCRI’s claims with an account of a 550 million dollar spending plan to bolster the Iranian missile program. This is part of a planned increase of the IRGC’s overall budget to eight billion dollars. Although that plan has not yet passed, the article emphasizes that it is almost certain to do so, given the depth of IRGC influence over the government. Notably, this has not diminished since the election of supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, or his reelection in May. His initial election was regarded by some Western policymakers as a sign of hopeful moderation, but that account has been disregarded by the Trump administration as it seeks to highlight and confront Iran’s destructive behavior in the region and the world.