New Sanctions Reflect White House's Commitment to Changing Iran Without War

New Sanctions Reflect White House's Commitment to Changing Iran Without War

By Edward Carney

On Monday, the escalating tensions between Iran and the US gave rise to yet another executive order outlining sanctions to be imposed on the Islamic Republic by the Trump White House. The president invited reporters into the Oval Office to observe the signing of that order, which was not previously announced. However, it was not entirely clear whether the given sanctions were being imposed in response to last week’s downing of an American surveillance drone by an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps surface-to-air missile. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated that this was the impetus for some of the new measures, but also that some had been pre-planned.

In any event, President Trump was clear in stating that the sanctions were intended to punish the Iranian regime for its general trend toward increasingly provocative activities. These allegedly include acts of sabotage targeting six tankers in the waters of the Middle East. Two of those incidents came shortly before the downing of the US drone, and this fact led some American military officers to conclude that the purpose of the shoot-down was to prevent the monitoring of Iranian activities in the area of the Strait of Hormuz.

Tehran has variously threatened to close off that vital waterway ever since President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and initiated the process of re-imposing sanctions that had been suspended under the agreement. Those sanctions have since been expanded to such an extent that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo characterized the Iranian economy as already being 80 percent sanctioned. Such remarks raise questions about the availability of new targets for economic pressure, and even the Iranian Foreign Ministry responded to Monday’s executive order by saying that there were no sanctions left for the US to impose.

Similarly, some commentators in Western media suggested that the latest measures were purely symbolic. But this idea was dismissed by Secretary Mnuchin in a press conference detailing the sanctions. Referring to the ability of his department to identify and isolate Iranian assets within the US financial system, he said, “We follow the money and it’s highly effective.” In this way, he added, the Treasury has already closed off literally 10s of billions of dollars, with more to come. The targets of forthcoming assets seizures reportedly include Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself, as well as eight IRGC commanders.

Mnuchin identified three of these commanders by name, as well as identifying the provocative and sanction-able activities for which they are personally responsible. He noted that Ali Reza Tangsiri is behind some of the most salient threats regarding the closure of the Strait, while Amir Ali Hajizadeh is effectively responsible for last week’s drone shoot-down. Although Trump responded to that incident by suggesting that the order may not have come from high in Iran’s leadership but may instead have been the rogue act of a “loose and stupid” commander, the new sanctions indicate that his administration is holding the IRGC and the regime responsible all the same.

Nonetheless, the sanctions represent a less aggressive response than what had initially been planned. The president explained that within a day of the drone being downed, he gave and then withdrew the order for a retaliatory strike on three sites, deeming the 150-person casualty estimate a disproportionate response to the destruction of an unmanned aircraft. In a sort of mirror-image of these remarks, Hajizadeh suggested that his forces also had shown restraint and could have shot down a manned aircraft alongside the drone if they had wanted to.

Such claims are questionable in light of the regime’s long history of exaggerating its own military capabilities, and indeed the IRGC had tried and failed to shoot down another drone just two days before its success with the RQ-4A Global Hawk, a craft with the wingspan of a small airliner. In any event, Hajizadeh’s boastful remarks seemingly undermine Trump’s efforts to give him and his commanders in Tehran the benefit of the doubt. They also stand alongside other defiant commentary still emanating from the regime in the wake of the latest escalations.

As well as insisting that other targets might have been destroyed in the past, Hajiazadeh warned that continued surveillance by US forces could lead to more of the same actions in the future. “We possess a collection of US drones,” he said in an apparent reference to the capture of an RQ-170 Sentinel drone in 2011. The commander of the IRGC aerospace division then added that if the US trespasses into Iranian airspace, “we will add other US products to complete this collection.”

Tehran quickly moved to justify the drone’s downing by saying that it was flying over Iranian territory. But the US has steadfastly denied this, noting that the craft was never closer than 21 miles away from Iranian shores. The IRGC missile involved in the shoot-down is reportedly capable of striking targets as far away as 30 miles. And while the international community recognizes Iranian airspace as extending only 12 miles away from the country’s shoreline, the Islamic Republic has been known to unilaterally dismiss some such international standards.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Pompeo denounced the Iranian regime for systematically spreading disinformation about last week’s incident. “We need to make sure that every news outlet, everyone who is observing this, understands what’s true and what the Iranian regime wants you to believe,” he said, dismissing the Foreign Ministry’s map of the drone’s supposed path as “childlike.”

Pompeo delivered these remarks shortly before departing the US for visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both of these took place on Monday as the top US diplomat sought to secure further commitments from regional allies regarding efforts to counter Iranian imperialism and provocation. The Saudis were reportedly quick to sign onto a joint effort by the US State Department and the Pentagon to develop a Persian Gulf surveillance program known as Sentinel. Its purpose is to anticipate and prevent further disputes between Iranian and American narratives with respect to incidents like the drone shoot-down and the tanker attacks.

After the Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous were damaged in the Gulf of Oman in mid-June, the US military released footage purportedly showing members of the IRGC removing an unexploded limpet mine from the latter vessel. Nevertheless, Tehran maintained its denials.

Britain has been somewhat resistant to the Trump administration’s strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime. In particular, it has joined the other two European signatories of the nuclear deal – France and Germany – in trying to maintain the agreement in absence of American participation, as by establishing a special payment mechanism for transactions with the Islamic Republic. That “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges” has not yet become fully functional, and it is not clear that it ever will be, especially given that Tehran has set next week as a deadline for the receipt of satisfying financial explanations, without which the regime will ramp up uranium enrichment in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

It remains to be seen how the European signatories or the European Union as a whole will react to this development if Iran does not change course. But at least up until that point, the White House can be expected to continue targeting traditional European partners with its campaign to generate support for the maximum pressure strategy. The Associated Press reported on Monday that “European officials appear cool toward U.S. talk of building a global coalition against Iran.” That is to say that they are still working on ways to preserve the nuclear deal while emphasizing a diplomatic approach to regional crises at a time when the US has deployed nearly 2,000 additional troops to counter Iranian threats.

It bears mentioning, however, that President Trump and a number of his administration’s political and military officials have insisted that their assertive responses to the current situation are geared toward preventing a war, not instigating one. This point was arguably illustrated by the president’s decision to call off retaliatory strikes last week, and it was reiterated on Monday by several individuals who joined Trump in calling attention to the apparent successes of maximum pressure.

The USA Today noted that White House aide Kellyanne Conway had pointed to the president’s tough talk as a potential means for convincing the Iranians to sit down for new talks. Trump has repeatedly stated that he is prepared to undertake such talks without precondition, and many of his supporters have expressed confidence in the notion of the Iranians accepting the invitation in spite of prior defiance.

In fact, the recent provocative actions by the IRGC and Iran’s regional proxies have frequently been cited as evidence in support of this conclusion. For example, Fox News quoted Defense Intelligence Agency Director Robert Ashley Jr. as saying on Monday that the attacks on tankers and drones are indicative of Iran reaching an “inflection point” whereby it is trying desperately to “change the status quo” before globally supported sanctions have an even more powerful impact than they already have.

Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a noted Iran hawk, made much the same point via a separate Fox News report. Speaking ahead of the president’s announcement of new sanctions, Cotton said he believed the Iranians were “lashing out” over the effects of those that had already been imposed. He also expressed confidence in Trump’s stated commitments to preventing Iran from progressing toward nuclear weapons capability or harming American interests in the region.

Although he warned of the possibility that Iran could attack US-flagged vessels in the future if its officials do not face serious consequences for prior actions, Cotton stopped well short of criticizing the decision to cancel a military response to the drone shoot-down. “Here, President Trump's Iran policy is working,” he said.

Cotton’s satisfaction with that policy may derive both from the demonstrated impact of the sanctions and from the fact that other measures have recently been undertaken which are less directly aggressive than a military strike but are also somewhat more immediate in their effect than the economic sanctions. Many of the media reports regarding the new sanctions also noted that the US Cyber Command had targeted Iranian infrastructure in recent days, including the intelligence and radar stations involved in the drone shoot-down.

Despite this uniquely relevant aspect of the cyberattacks, other aspects were reportedly planned in advance of last week’s incident. This arguably serves to underscore the breadth of the Trump administration’s non-military tactics for exerting pressure on the Iranian regime. Still, this multifaceted approach has yet to break through Tehran’s defiant façade. Although the US itself reported successful outcomes from the cyber campaign, Iran simply denied any effect whatsoever. Its Ministry of Information and Communications Technology even went so far as to say that the country had established a comprehensive firewall against foreign-based attacks and had stopped 33 million of them last year.
Meanwhile, cybersecurity experts report that Iran is planning its own attacks on Western infrastructure, either in retaliation for recent pressures or as part of an ongoing campaign that has apparently grown in sophistication over the years. But the effects of increased know-how are likely to be degraded by the effects of extensive economic sanctions, which have already caused a downturn in Iran’s support for militant proxies like Hezbollah.

Taken together, these facts illustrate the potential for ongoing escalation but also the potential for Tehran to finally take advantage of the standing offer of negotiations. President Trump has suggested that when this happens, it will be possible for Iran to not only recover from the sanctions’ effects but secure dramatically better outcomes than it has seen throughout the reign of the existing theocratic rulers. The USA Today quoted him on Monday as adapting his own presidential campaign slogan to the situation in the Middle East by saying, “Let’s make Iran great again.”

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