The Associated Press reported on Thursday that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had created a special working group for the development and implementation of Iran policy in the wake of the re-imposition of sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump pulled out of that agreement in May, and following a 90 day waiting period, the first of two groups of relevant sanctions went back into effect in the first week of August. The second round will focus on the Iranian oil economy and Iran’s banking sector, with the ultimate goal being to close off Iran from the world to the greatest extent possible.
The AP report reaffirmed this goal as the focus of the working group, as well as highlighting Pompeo’s remarks denying that the Trump administration seeks regime change in Iran but is instead exerting pressure in the hope of compelling the existing leadership to change course. But such broad-minded goals, even if they do not entail a change of government, will certainly require multilateral cooperation. And so far, the Iranian regime has been boastful about its own resistance to change, partly because of the apparent reluctance of some US allies to cooperate with the newly re-imposed sanctions or to join Trump in stepping up pressure in general.
In fact, Tasnim News Agency, an outlet close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, proudly conveyed some of the latest commentary provided by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in an interview with American media, which aired on Wednesday. According to Zarif, even some of the closest US allies are no longer following Washington’s lead, at least with respect to Iran policy. He excluded some of Iran’s neighbors without calling them by name, but was no doubt referring to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have been contributing to policies aimed at containing Iran’s growing regional influence, as by pushing back against the Iran-backed rebellion of Houthi militants in Yemen.
The traditional US allies who have supposedly parted ways with American strategy include the European Union and the three European states that participated in nuclear negotiations with Iran. These parties have so far committed to keeping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in effect despite US non-participation and despite the Trump White House’s urging for them to renegotiate it. But the situation is not as one-sided as Zarif’s commentary would have listeners believe. For instance, many Western businesses have already abandoned plans for doing business in the Islamic Republic, rather than risk falling afoul of US penalties.
In generally, these business decisions are at odds with the positions that government officials have maintained. Yet, in the time since nuclear negotiations were concluded, there have been various signs of a potential increase in European assertiveness toward Iran, as well as various other recognizable incentives for such a shift. Prominent among these was the report in July that two would-be Iranian terrorist operatives and one leading diplomat from the Iranian embassy in Vienna had been arrested in connection with a plot to bomb a large gathering of Iranian expatriates and their political supporters outside of Paris.
The revelation of such a recent Iranian terror threat against the West prompted enemies of the clerical regime, including the event organizers from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, to urge European leaders to reevaluate their political stance toward Iran and to consider closing embassies and expelling diplomats who may be working for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Now, Zarif’s remarks in his television interview have arguably underscored the threatening nature of Iran’s strategy for dealing with the West. As Tasnim notes, the Foreign Minister characterized the JCPOA as a promise regarding European security, and then he went on to say that the Europeans should be expected to “pay for their security” by not only supporting the nuclear deal in word, but by counteracting the US sanctions and helping the Islamic Republic to secure better economic outcomes.
This seems to suggest that the Iranian leadership is effectively seeking to leverage security threats targeting the West, in order to secure greater concessions from it. And this interpretation is supported by the recent provocative measures the regime has taken as part of its apparent efforts to compensate for any harm done to its hardline image following the return of US sanctions. On Monday it was reported that the Iranian military and the IRGC had unveiled a new ballistic missile and had carried out their first test of such a weapon in more than a year, as well as carrying out naval exercises in the Strait of Hormuz that were originally scheduled to take place months later.
The rhetoric surrounding those demonstrations was repeated on Thursday by Iran’s Mehr News Agency, which quoted Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari as saying that the Islamic Republic is fully capable of thwarting any threats from its “enemies”. Sayyari also declared that the country is already engaged in a “soft war,” a term that is often used by regime officials in reference to Western efforts to instigate the overthrow of the clerical regime, but that also might refer to Tehran’s tactics of asymmetrical warfare, including terrorism-by-proxy.
The possibility remains that such rhetoric will actually prompt the nations of Europe to turn away from their tendency toward outreach to the Islamic Republic. This is especially likely at a time when the Europeans are struggling to find ways of evading US sanctions. Such a development would no doubt compel the Iranians to shift their attentions east, to Asia, but there are inconsistent signs of compliance with the new US pressure tactics there as well.
India has long been dependent on Iranian oil exports, but not to such an extent that it cannot diminish its purchasing of Iranian oil over time. In fact, Bloomberg pointed out on Thursday that Iran, being India’s third largest oil vendor behind Iraq and Saudi Arabia, only accounts for 10 percent of its imports of crude. The same report notes that India expects an answer from the US regarding sanction waivers next month, and if it receives them its government plans to cut imports of Iranian oil to half their current level. This sort of partial, or gradual compliance has long been expected from India and others, and the US reportedly expects to decrease Iran’s overall oil exports by the same measure of 50 percent.
On the other hand, some Asian countries are presumably ready to reject US sanctions altogether, or to pursue cooperative agreements for helping Iran to avoid them. But as Al Bawaba explained in a report on the simmering conflict between the US and Turkey, such avoidance is difficult to implement, limited in scope, and does not prevent newly imposed sanctions from limiting the target country’s revenue. If Iran loses its Western markets and seeks to trade in local currencies with partners like Turkey and China, it will certainly have to offer discounts to offset the costs of avoiding the US dollar, resulting in pressures along the lines of what the US government and its newfound Iran working group hope to impose.
These pressures will surely be felt more intensely if they are multilateral, even if Tehran succeeds in winning some existing partners to its side in the diplomatic conflict with the US. And the effect will be all the greater if allies to the US strategy include Iran’s domestic activist community. For the past several months, protests have been a common feature in the Islamic Republic, prompting specific declarations of support from President Trump and his foreign policy advisors. And although the White House insists that its goal for Iran is not regime change, the current regime’s political adversaries have repeatedly insisted that foreign pressure upon it will only empower the movement advocating for Iranian democracy.