On a trip to Bahrain alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis, US Navy Commander William Urban reiterated earlier reports about the change in the posture of Iranian naval forces toward American vessels transiting the Persian Gulf. The Associated Press quoted Urban as saying there had been no “unsafe and unprofessional” actions by those forces since last August. Up to that point in 2017, there had been 14 close encounters between the US Navy and the naval forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This compares to 35 such incidents in 2016 and 23 in 2015.
Urban did not speculate about the reason behind what he described as a “conscious decision to give us more space,” and “definitely a change in their behavior.” But supporters of the Trump administration’s foreign policy are sure to point to such indicators as evidence of the effectiveness of his assertive approach to dealing with the Islamic Republic.
Until the practice halted in August, IRGC fast attack boats had taken to approaching American warships at high rates of speed, in some cases refusing to disengage until warning shots had been fired, and after the US Navy attempted to warn the vessels off with radio communications, warning lights, and sirens.
The start of the offending encounters coincided closely with the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers, which Trump and others have criticized for giving away leverage over Tehran. The incidents also followed upon the brief arrest of 10 American sailors in January 2016, after their riverine command boats strayed into Iranian territorial waters during a training exercise.
While critics of a supposedly conciliatory US policy saw the arrest as evidence of Iranian impunity, the Obama White House portrayed the quick release of the sailors as evidence of beneficial effects from opening up diplomatic dialogue between the US and Iran. However, the subsequent pattern of harassment arguably undermines this argument, especially in light of that pattern’s alternation less than a year into the Trump presidency.
In the first months after Trump took office, the White House moved to put Iran “on notice” over its destabilizing activities in the broader Middle East. The administration has also kept pressure on the 2015 nuclear agreement, with the president threatening to withdraw from that deal unless European signatories work with the US Congress to fix its perceived flaws, including sunset provisions and limits on international inspectors’ access to Iranian military sites.
The push for a supplementary agreement between Europe and the US has helped to shine additional light on their differing approaches to Iran policy. Although leading European nations have recently expressed rising levels of concern over issues like Iran’s ballistic missile activities, their efforts at resolution have remained more distinctly diplomatic than those of the White House.
While the US and Iran continue to avoid direct diplomatic interchange, the United Kingdom moved quickly following the nuclear agreement to reopen its embassy in Tehran. On Wednesday, Iran Front Page reported that London had appointed a replacement for current Ambassador to Iran Nicholas Hopton. In a statement, the incoming ambassador, Rob Macaire reiterated Britain’s support for the nuclear deal and also expressed interest in deepening the “bilateral relationship” between the two countries while pursuing political solutions to conflicts in Yemen and Syria, where Iran continues to play major roles.
Macaire’s appointment thus stood in contrapose to a much publicized change in the Trump administration, which is set to take effect around the same time. The replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with current CIA Director Mike Pompeo is widely expected to further strengthen the American posture toward Iran, given that Pompeo has compared Tehran to Islamic State militants and has advocated for strikes on its nuclear infrastructure.
It now remains to be seen whether the US or Britain makes more headway in its objectives toward Iran, but this made be difficult to assess if the two sets of objectives are different.
Although the Trump administration has made public demands for the release of American citizens and permanent residents being held prisoner in Iran, it is not clear that his administration has taken concrete steps on that front in the midst of its preoccupation with fixing the nuclear deal. On the other hand, there have been some signs of progress toward the release of Iranian-British detainee Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe following the visit to Tehran by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in December.
Even so, the signs of progress have been relatively slight, with no real updates following the declaration by the head of Evin Prison that he had approved Zaghari-Ratcliffe for release. Nevertheless, the statement alone represents the hope that direct, public outreach over such detentions could lead to their resolution. Accordingly, the AP reports that the sons of an Iranian-Canadian political prisoner who recently died in police custody have begun petitioning Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to speak out publicly and put pressure on the Iranian government to allow their mother to leave the country.
Sixty-three year old Kavous Seyed-Emami died last month in the midst of Tehran’s crackdown on environmental activists whom the regime accused of being spies for foreign governments.
uthorities declared his death to be a suicide but his sons Ramin and Mehran believe that the prison guards are directly responsible. According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, at least 14 other individuals were tortured to death in Iranian prisons in the wake of nationwide protests that began in late December.
On Monday, a document signed by 46 different human rights organizations urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to renew the mandate for the special rapporteur on human rights in Iran. The crackdowns on the uprising and the environmentalist movement were both cited in that appeal, which also highlighted Tehran’s ongoing refusal to cooperate with international human rights bodies.
It has yet to be determined whether European diplomacy or the Trump administration’s assertiveness and ultimatums will played a more meaningful role in this push. It is by no means certain that either the US or Europe will even make broad human rights objectives a priority of their Iran policies. But considering that their different approaches have arguably yielded concessions in different areas of Iranian behavior, it is possible that both sets of policies could prove to be significant in their own ways.