On Thursday, there were two developments in the tensions between Iran and the West, which demonstrated the stark differences between the postures being maintained by each side. In the first place, the White House backed away, at least temporarily, from a previous threat of economi sanctions for Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. While this seemingly left the door wide open for the negotiations that President Donald Trump has long said he would undertake with no precondition, the Iranians turned away from that opening by attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to follow through on a previous threat to seize a British tanker in the area of the Strait of Hormuz.
Representatives of both the United States and the Islamic Republic have repeatedly insisted that they are not seeking war in the region, but only Washington has backed up that claim by showing consistent restraint, despite military deployments and escalating pressure aimed at countering credible threats of Iranian paramilitary and terrorist action. Last month, President Trump called off a planned airstrike after deciding that an estimated 150 Iranian deaths would be disproportionate to the loss of an American drone. Yet the incident to which the strike would have been responding was unprovoked and took place as the drone was flying over international waters.
It was widely assumed that the shoot down of the RQ-4A Global Hawk was motivated in large part by the desire of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to impede surveillance of regional waters after attacks on six commercial vessels. Two of those incidents took place in the Gulf of Oman just days before the drone shoot-down, and they were reportedly attributable to limpet mines that are a known component of Iran’s arsenal. In addition, the US military released footage that appeared to show an IRGC boat pulling up alongside one of the targeted tankers and removing an unexploded mine.
Despite all this, Washington has made no move toward unilateral action other than the imposition of economic sanctions. In the last week of June, the US Treasury announced that it would be broadening those sanctions to target eight commanders of the IRGC, as well as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In the same press statements, the department also warned of pending sanctions on the Foreign Minister in the days ahead. But this was not subsequently raised in any formal setting until Thursday when it was announced that there was no immediate date for those measures’ imposition.
The blacklist of Iran’s top-diplomat reportedly did come very close to moving forward, with the Treasury Department circulating a draft press release explaining it. But one State Department official told the Reuters that ultimately, “cooler heads prevailed.” The source went on to suggest that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposed immediate action on this point, finding it “not necessarily helpful.” But Pompeo also appeared to leave the new sanctions on the table as a potential response to some future situation in which established diplomatic channels appear counterproductive or unusable.
This situation may not be far off, given Iran’s continuing provocations and its outright rejection of diplomatic overtures. The Supreme Leader, who has final say over all matters of Iranian policy, has said that Iran will not negotiate but will remain committed to a doctrine of “resistance.” On the same day as the tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, Khamenei even rejected a message conveyed to him from President Trump, via the visiting Prime Minister of Japan. The generally dismissive sentiment has been echoed by other officials, especially in the wake of incidents like the drone shoot down and, more recently, Iran’s official violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. At the beginning of July, the country’s stockpiles of nuclear material exceeded the limits imposed under the agreement, and days later Iran’s operational nuclear facility began enriching uranium to a fissile purity higher than the defined limit of 3.67 percent.
This is evidently part of a larger strategy to put pressure on the European Union in hopes of obtaining assistance in evading or offsetting US sanctions. After Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal last year, the European signatories affirmed their commitment to keeping it alive, and floated the idea of establishing a payment mechanism that would insulate Iranian transactions from sanctions enforcement. Although this Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges was formally established early this year, it has yet to actually serve its ostensible function, and this has been a source of great frustration for the Islamic Republic.
That frustration was no doubt exacerbated last week when British Royal Marines seized a supertanker carrying Iranian oil through the Straits of Gibraltar. Insofar as the United Kingdom is believed to have had conversations with the US in advance of this move, Iran may have gotten the impression that the Europeans have moved beyond merely tolerating American pressure and toward actively facilitating it. However, it bears noting that the tanker in question, the Grace 1, was also believed to be on its way to Syria in order to offload its oil for refiners who are under sanction by the European Union because of their ties to the Assad regime and its human rights violations.
This made Iran’s efforts to portray the seizure as “illegal” doubly implausible. And in the days following the regime’s initial response, this narrative seemed to take a back seat to efforts at simply intimidating British authorities into releasing the vessel and its cargo. On the same day as the incident, the idea of seizing a British tanker in retaliation was floated by a former IRGC commander by the name of Mohsen Rezaei, who does not currently have any formal role in the regime. But by Tuesday, the idea had been taken up by current IRGC officers, some lawmakers, and a member of the powerful Assembly of Experts. Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Mousavi Jazayeri was quoted as saying that “Britain should be scared,” and that the prospective seizure would be akin to the downing of the US drone.
Two days later, the IRGC apparently attempted to act upon these threats when three of its fast-attack boats approached a British tanker and moved to block its path as it transited the Strait of Hormuz. A statement from the British Ministry of Defense indicated that the boats only withdrew after a Royal Navy warship, the HMS Montrose, positioned itself between the tanker and the would-be attackers. It is not clear whether the Montrose’s presence was incidental or the result of growing concerns about Iranian threats in the wake of the recent statements. But military escorts are now expected for all British vessels in the Persian Gulf, after the British government raised the threat level to the highest level for merchant ships in the region.
On one hand, the well-established Iranian threat could raise further concerns about the possible outbreak of war. But on the other hand, Iran’s actions could actually improve the odds of success for ongoing American efforts to build a multinational coalition with the specific aim of avoiding war. While focusing on economic and diplomatic means of achieving “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime, the US is also working to bolster security for commercial traffic in and around the Persian Gulf with the help of partners from both the Middle East and Europe.
US military officials recently indicated that a list of participants was expected to emerge within weeks. At the time of that statement, the only country whose participation appeared certain was Saudi Arabia, and it was very much an open question whether Britain or the other nations of Europe would participate while trying to salvage the nuclear deal and assuage Iranian concerns. But if it now turns out to be the case that British military vessels will already be passing back and forth through the Gulf to protect their own nation’s ships, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that they would not also participate in a coordinated effort to safeguard international shipping as a whole.