By Edward Carney
Thursday was marked by a number of meetings partly or entirely focused on the rising tensions between Iran and the US. The Iran nuclear deal and the Revolutionary Guards’ attacks on oil tankers and an American drone were reportedly major points of focus in the gathering of G-20 leaders in Japan. Meanwhile, the US special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, traveled to Paris to meet with the European signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal and discuss the Iranian regime’s imminent violations of its provisions. And in a closed-door session with NATO, acting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper restated the American position amidst the escalating tensions, emphasizing that the US does not want war but will not tolerate further provocations.
Last week, the downing of a surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz nearly led to US strikes on three targets inside the Islamic Republic. But President Trump called off the strike minutes before it was set to be carried out, after reportedly deciding that the resulting deaths would constitute a disproportionate response to the destruction of an unmanned aircraft. National Security Advisor John Bolton cautioned the Iranians against mistaking such restraint for weakness, and Trump himself followed up with aggressive language promising a severe reaction if Iran remains on a path toward war.
CNBC reported on Wednesday that when asked about the prospect of such a war, Trump responded, “I can tell you that it would not last very long.” But this was accompanied by other remarks in which he expressed hope that war could be avoided and repeated his offer of unconditional negotiations with Iran’s leaders, in the interests of putting greater limits on their nuclear program as well as their missile development and regional imperialism. So far, this offer has been refused by a number of officials including the regime’s ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But Trump and his supporters seemingly remain confident that Tehran’s resistance will be worn down by the effects of far-reaching economic sanctions.
As such, and in lieu of a military strike following the drone shoot-down, the White House announced still more sanctions on Monday, this time targeting Khamenei personally, as well as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and eight commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. On the same day, it was also reported that the US Cyber Command had carried out operations targeting the digital infrastructure for some of Iran’s intelligence and radar installations. And Thursday’s meetings with foreign leaders apparently involved continuation of the Trump administration’s efforts to secure broad international backing for these pressure tactics.
European governments have issued various warnings about the possibility of war since tensions began to seriously escalate in May with the deployment of a US aircraft carrier as a countermeasure against perceived threats from the IRGC and its regional proxies. But with subsequent escalations coming mostly from the Iranian side, the US may have increasingly bright prospects for convincing traditional allies of its own aversion to war, and of the need for coordinated deterrent measures.
While some commentators have embraced the notion that the American strategy of “maximum pressure” is contributing to the risk of war, supporters of that strategy continue to insist that its non-military tactics represent alternatives to war and promote an outcome that changes Tehran’s behavior by other means. And some independent experts have expressed agreement. For example, the Washington Post published an article on Tuesday co-authored by two cyber strategy experts and professors at Marine Corps University, which argued that cyber operations like those carried out days earlier could function as “a digital off-ramp to war.”
The article explained that Iran and the US have already traded such operations, with at least 20 taking place between 2000 and 2016. Both in actual practice and in research models, these exchanges have tended to promote de-escalation, in comparison to “more traditional diplomatic, economic, and military response options.” But the article also acknowledges that there is an open question as to whether the target of such operations, in this case Iran, recognizes their de-escalatory intent or wrongly perceives them as “aggressive moves that require escalatory responses.”
Tehran’s responses to the Trump administration’s prior actions suggests that the regime is inclined to regard most everything as an aggressive US action, or at least that it wants the international community to believe that is its thinking. Foreign Minister Zarif described the latest sanctions as “economic terrorism” and an act of war. Similar language has been used in the case of virtually every new measure imposed by the US Treasury. Yet President Hassan Rouhani called the targeting of the supreme leader’s assets “idiotic.” He insisted that Khamenei has no assets abroad, and Zarif’s allegations of terrorism were undermined by a Foreign Ministry statement saying that the US had already exhausted its options for imposing effective sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Last week’s drone shoot-down points to the possibility of Iran actually pursuing military engagement in response to non-military actions by the US. But the surrounding rhetoric has been variously interpreted as part of an effort promote the perception of imminent war among the Europeans, in order to compel them to offer concessions that might help to defuse the situation. This is also the obvious explanation for Iran’s recent imposition of deadlines for such European concessions, in absence of which Iranian nuclear facilities will be directed to begin exceeding the limits put in place by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
It was initially reported that limits on stockpiles of low-enriched uranium would be exceeded on Thursday. But the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that this had not yet happened, although it is expected within days. Meanwhile, Tehran insists that if nothing is done to provide adequate financial incentives by the end of the following week, the nuclear facilities will further violate the JCPOA by enriching uranium beyond the level of fissile purity specified in the deal.
It remains to be seen how the deal’s European signatories – the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – will respond to the latter ultimatum, but they apparently took no further steps to appease Iran in advance of Thursday’s deadline. It is not clear whether American intercession has already contributed to their decision making, but the White House is certainly working to counter Iranian talking points and build global consensus about the needs to discourage Iran’s escalation through pressure rather than conciliation.
In his discussion with European policymakers on Thursday, Brian Hook emphasized the need for Iran to face consequences if it breaches the provisions of the JCPOA. Although the US withdrew from that agreement last year, the Trump administration’s intention was to secure another one with stricter provisions. The three European signatories have since been working with Iran, China, and Russia to preserve the existing deal on their own, but US sanctions have left Iran dissatisfied. The White House is now working to convince its allies that this dissatisfaction means the sanctions are working so well that Iran will eventually have no real choice but to re-enter negotiations.
Naturally, Tehran has denied this, and on Thursday Supreme Leader Khamenei once again expressed commitment to resisting the sanctions and rebuffing any requests for negotiation. At the same time, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani warned of the possibility that Iran would take even stronger action than it had with the downing of the US drone. Previously, the head of the IRGC aerospace force, who was targeted in Monday’s sanctions, claimed that Iran had showed restraint by downing only the drone and not a manned aircraft that was flying nearby.
Such figures’ claims of military prowess are highly questionable, as evidenced by the fact that the IRGC failed to shoot down another, smaller drone days before hitting the RQ-4A Global Hawk. Equally questionable is the regime’s justification for the shoot-down. Larijani’s threat of further military action specifically referenced a possible second incursion into Iranian airspace. But according to detailed American reports on the incident, the downed drone remained over international waters until the moment it was struck.
The American narrative is arguably made more plausible by Washington’s demonstrated commitment to deterrence and e-escalation. And that commitment was clearly reiterated on Thursday in the context of the G-20, E3, and NATO meetings. “We are dedicated to this policy of maximum economic pressure because it is working, it is denying the regime historic levels of revenue,” Brian Hook said before urging the European Union and its member states to take up similar measures.
The previous day, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Tehran’s outraged response to the sanctions is a clear sign that they are working. After agreeing with prior remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which suggested that the Iranian economy had already been 80 percent sanctions, Mnuchin said the US would move toward 100 percent, though it would make provisions for humanitarian trade in order to minimize the impact on the Iranian people.
In his remarks downplaying the risk of war, Trump made a point of emphasizing his policy’s separate treatment of the Iranian people and the Iranian regime. “I like Iranians,” he said, effectively recalling previous speeches on foreign policy in which he identified Iran’s civilian population as the primary victims of the theocratic regime. One such speech at the United Nations General Assembly coincided with a nationwide uprising by Iranian activists, which began at the end of 2017 and continued through much of January 2018.
That anti-government movement was highlighted anew by former member of the European Parliament Struan Stevenson, in an op-ed published by UPI on Thursday. The article predicted that US-led sanctions would “cripple” Iran’s leaders while also helping to amplify the effects of ongoing protests that frequently feature the same slogans that first gained widespread traction during last year’s uprising. Among those slogans are the phrase “death to the dictator,” and such condemnations of the supreme leader arguably express support for the latest US sanctions targeting him specifically.
Stevenson thus concluded his editorial by repeating the call for global consensus that was voiced by American officials in a number of meetings on Thursday.
“The oppressed millions in Iran will welcome Trump's latest round of sanctions against their corrupt leaders,” he wrote. “It is now the duty of the European Union to follow America's lead and show their support for the Iranian people.”