More Iranian Provocations Follow Congressional Sanctions Vote, Adding to Tensions

On Thursday it was reported that the Islamic Republic of Iran had announced the successful launch of a space launch vehicle from the Imam Khomeini Space Center, prompting the repetition of familiar criticisms by Western adversaries. American officials quickly declared that the test-launch “deeply violated” United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 because of the potential for the rocket system’s use in ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Security Council resolution coincided with the implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement and called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on such weapons for the duration of the agreement.

Reuters quoted Scott Kripowicz, a representative of the directorate for international affairs at the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, as saying, "Space-launch activities which involve multi-stage systems that further the development of technologies for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are becoming a more realistic threat.” The perception of this threat has surely been encouraged by the broader context of the latest test launch, which was preceded by more than half a dozen test launches of ballistic missiles themselves, over the course of the year and a half since the implementation of the nuclear deal.

These tests stand alongside a number of other provocative activities that have reportedly increased in frequency, intensity, or both during that same time. And following the January inauguration of US President Donald Trump, these provocations have increasingly been met with new sanctions as well as public warnings of further enforcement measures. Prior to this week, those sanctions had been implemented by the executive alone, but legislation is currently pending in the US Congress to sanction the Islamic Republic and foreign affiliates not only over ballistic missile activities but also over terrorist activities and financing associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies pointed out Thursday that the House vote on this bill passed nearly unanimously, with a vote of 419-3. A similar outcome is expected in the Senate, probably by mid-August. A previous bill passed by a margin of 98-2 before running into procedural difficulties in the House, leading to the reintroduction of the nearly identical Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act for its vote on Tuesday.

On the same day as that vote, an Revolutionary Guard fast-attack boat directly approached a US Navy ship that was performing an exercise in the Persian Gulf. The incident emulated other provocations by the IRGC, which sharply increased in frequency following the implementation of the nuclear agreement. But according to Fox News, this was the first incident since January in which the Iranian vessel refused to withdraw from its approach until warning shots had been fired by the American ship. The Iranian boat reportedly ignored several attempts at radio contact, as well as warning flares, prompting the volley of .50-caliber machine gun fire.

This latest IRGC provocation came after the Iranian parliament had reacted to the pending US congressional sanctions by voting on a bill purported aimed at countering American “adventurism” in the Middle East. The bill expressed commitment to at least two sources of American concerns regarding Iran, by allocating more than a quarter of a billion dollars each to the Iranian ballistic missile program and the Quds Force, or foreign special operations branch of the IRGC. The Quds Force had already been subject to some US sanctions regarding its support for international terrorist groups, but the congressional sanctions bill broadens anti-terror sanctions to the entirety of the IRGC, designating it as a terrorist group unto itself.

Further anti-American rhetoric followed the passage of the Iranian parliamentary bill, as when Speaker Ali Larijani issued a statement on Tuesday responding dismissively to American concerns regarding the weakness of the nuclear agreement and the possibility of Iranian violations thereof. As The Iran Project pointed out, Larijani told reporters on Tuesday, “We have Washington’s moves under close surveillance and will take actions appropriate to what they do.” Specifically, he said that Iran was ready to quickly return its nuclear enrichment activities back to pre-agreement levels and to reduce the level of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency if the US thinks the current level is not good enough.

President Trump has explicitly voiced that very opinion, and the Associated Press reported on Thursday that he was pushing for evidence of Iranian noncompliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action while also formulating plans for bringing the IAEA on board with the demand for more comprehensive sanctions. Specifically, Trump and other critics of the nuclear deal take issue with the exemption of Iranian military sites from ordinary inspections, as well as the provision of a 24-day window for additional inspections after the US or another signatory to the deal exposes evidence of hidden nuclear work.

Last week, Trump begrudgingly certified Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. But he has also indicated that if not for pressure from his foreign policy team, he would have withheld that certification the first time it was due under his presidency. The president is required to provide such certification to Congress every 90 days. Trump maintains that Iran is not in compliance, and the IAEA has not strictly contradicted this, although it has indicated that Iran is broadly in compliance, with only minor violations on its record.

This speaks to the stricter enforcement that the Trump administration has been pursuing since taking office, as an alternative to the president’s pre-election promise of tearing up the agreement and negotiating a stronger one instead. However, the AP report on his latest comments points out that the White House still intends to have conversations with European partners about the prospect for instituting a new agreement when the JCPOA expires in about 10 years, if not before.

The simultaneous push for IAEA access to Iranian military sites is easily viewed as an example of the Trump administration’s broad-based effort to increase pressure on Iran. That effort has arguably been matched by Congress with the apparent assertiveness surrounding the House and Senate votes on the sanctions package.

After Trump’s delayed certification of Iranian compliance, the administration announced that it would be undertaking a comprehensive review of Iran policy, thus leading many supporters of Trump’s foreign policy to anticipate the announcement of a broad-based hardline agenda. And while the latest comments on the JCPOA may support these expectations, they have also been struck an unexpected blow by Thursday’s announcement that Derek Harvey had been fired from the administration’s National Security Council, not long after having been appointed to a working group on Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal.

The reasons for the firing were not immediately clear, but Politico reported that Harvey was considered to be one of the most hawkish voices on Iran policy, as well as being a renowned expert on the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and Syria. It remains to be seen what effect this will have on the tone of the administration’s Iran policy, or on the overall tensions between the US and Iran, which have been noticeably escalating in recent months.

Harvey’s removal is not the only source of confusion about the future trajectory of those tensions and the American role in them. Other questions arise from the apparent mismatch between the president’s statements and the private sector’s occasional willingness to deal with the Islamic Republic. Although Trump has spoken critically, in the abstract, about the notion of Western investments in Iranian industries, he has not specifically moved against such planned dealings as the Boeing agreement to sell 80 commercial aircraft to Iran Air.

What’s more, some other companies and even some government agencies seem to be contradicting the administration’s positions by pursuing still more business dealings with the Islamic Republic. This was the focus of an article published by the Washington Free Beacon on Tuesday, focusing on the United States Department of Agriculture and a July report that praised the effects of the nuclear deal upon long-term opportunities for US producers and exporters.

While such stories seem to highlight rogue action within the presidential administration, they also serve as a further backdrop for congressional efforts to support and extend the White House’s assertive official policies toward the Islamic Republic. Legislators including Illinois Republican Representative Peter Roskam have quickly sought to put pressure on entities like the USDA over their apparent promotion of friendly ties with Iran.

The Free Beacon quoted Roskam as saying, “The USDA must elaborate on the various business and reputational risks of doing business with Iran, the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. The IRGC is increasingly entwined in Iran's agricultural sector. U.S. farmers and food importers must understand it is nearly impossible to do business in Iran without benefitting Iran's hostile regime.”

Of course, the pending congressional sanctions aim to at least partially address this issue of potential financing of the IRGC, by comprehensively sanctioning the hardline paramilitary. But while the US government struggles to come together on a complete long-term Iran policy and to bring allies on board with it, there is little doubt that tensions will continue to escalate on both sides, with Iran pushing defiant rhetoric in response to piecemeal American enforcement efforts.

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