Iran’s Aggression in the Gulf Persists, but Negotiations May Be the Goal

On Wednesday, a British-flagged commercial vessel passed through the Strait of Hormuz for the first time since Friday’s seizure of another such vessel by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The transit apparently took place without incident, but it remains to be seen what, if anything, this instance of safe passage says about the current state of tensions between Iran and the West as it relates to the security of shipping in the Persian Gulf.

The implications of the BW Elm’s transit through the narrow and vitally important waterway were made more uncertain by the British government’s account of the conditions surrounding that incident. It has been reported that the Elm was shadowed at a distance by a British warship, the HMS Montrose, but was not directly escorted. Notably, the Montrose was also involved in another incident prior to last week’s seizure of the Stena Impero. In that case, IRGC gunboats attempted to surround and block the path of a British-flagged vessel, only to be warned off after the Montrose approached and inserted itself between the speedboats and their target.

Both this and the IRGC’s subsequent, successful seizure of the Impero were widely regarded as part of an effort at retaliating against sanctions imposed on Iran and its partners by both the United States and the European Union. More specifically, the capture of the Impero was evidently a direct response to British Royal Marines’ seizure of a supertanker carrying Iranian oil past the Straits of Gibraltar, en route to a Syrian refinery affiliated with the internationally sanctioned dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Tehran has variously denied the connection since Friday, first by putting forward the false claim that the Impero had been involved in a collision with an Iranian fishing boat, then altering the story to suggest that the ship had nearly collided with multiple vessels as a result of its entering the Strait in the wrong direction. The ship’s operator, Stena Bulk, preemptively contradicted this narrative, insisting that the Impero had been operating in full compliance with international laws and regulations at the time of the incident.

Iranian officials also contradicted that narrative themselves, both before and after IRGC commandos stormed the deck of the Impero from a helicopter while the vessel was encircled by IRGC fast-attack boats. Soon after July 4 capture of the Grace 1 near Gibraltar, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezai, floated the idea of taking custody of a British ship in retaliation. This sentiment was soon taken up by the IRGC itself, at the same time that leading Iranian officials attempted to characterize Britain’s action as illegal.

These two strategies – retaliation and public grievance – are seemingly at odds. But at the same time, the Islamic Republic appears to be applying both strategies to the goal of forestalling a serious response from the international community. On one hand, the regime publicly asserted on Wednesday that Iran and other regional powers should retain sole responsibility for the security of the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the adjoining Strait of Hormuz. But naturally, this is a difficult position to take if Iranian forces are engaged in a project of retaliation and unlawful threats.

And yet, there were threats inherent even in the regime’s efforts to take responsibility for regional security. In remarks attacking the idea of an international coalition to safeguard commercial traffic through the Strait, Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said, “The presence of foreigners in the region by itself creates insecurity.” This was preceded by a message from Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the newly-elected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in which he warned of Iran’s commitment to defending the entirety of its coastline. But neither the UK nor any other Western nation has recently threatened Iran with military action. The prospective international cooperation in nearby waters has been described by both the US and the UK as non-military in nature, and based on the need for thorough surveillance of any dangerous activities by Iran or other regional players.

The US State Department and the Pentagon have jointly outlined a program called Sentinel, for which American officials are presently trying to secure partners. The White House has emphasized that it does not intend for the American military to play the leading role in this program, although US Navy vessels will coordinate international intelligence-sharing and strategy from positions outside the Strait. Actual defensive roles, meanwhile, are to include participant nations providing escort security to vessels bearing the flag of their own nation, according to their own discretion.

In the wake of the Impero seizure, the UK introduced a similar idea for a European-led maritime security force, but it sought to even further downplay the military implications of any such project. Nonetheless, Iran categorically rejected that idea as well. This is arguably indicative of the Iranian regime’s serious concerns about the possibility of an expanded Western presence and more intense challenges to its own pursuit of regional hegemony. This may in turn be a major factor in Iran’s decision to allow the BW Elm to pass safely through the Strait on Wednesday, rather than providing Western nations with further incentive to enter into the prospective cooperation agreements.

It was perhaps in the interest of further modulating the current tensions that Tehran dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi to visit Paris that same day, where he held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron. Araqchi reportedly conveyed a message directly from President Hassan Rouhani, who has been described by some Western commentators as the head of a reformist faction in Iranian politics, although he has also directly contributed to the aggressive rhetoric pouring out of Tehran in the midst of the ongoing escalation.

Rouhani’s efforts to balance his hardline and moderate credentials are indicative of a strategy that some people perceive as playing out in the regime’s approach to maritime tensions and security. Writing in Politico on Tuesday, Brookings Foreign Policy Deputy Director Suzanne Maloney argued that public threats and private talks with Western counterparts represent a kind of “good cop, bad cop” routine, with the end goal being an opening up of negotiations between Iran and a group of adversaries led by the US.

Rouhani personally blurred the lies between the regime’s aggressive tactics and its supposed diplomatic goal on Wednesday when he said that Tehran was ready to negotiate with its Western adversaries, but would only do so on its own terms. “We are not ready to sit at the table of surrender under the name of negotiations,” he said without specifying what would constitute “surrender” in this context.

Rouhani extended the same dual sentiment into comments that were widely reported as a tacit invitation for a swap of the Impero for the Grace 1. Speaking to his own cabinet, the Iranian president stated that the UK would “receive a proper response from Iran” if it took the first step in reversing the recent escalations and admitted to “wrong actions, including what they did in Gibraltar.”

In light of the language already introduced by Rouhani and other Iranian officials, it is arguably difficult to recognize Rouhani’s scenario as anything other than a Western “surrender,” in lieu of an Iranian one. And although the “good cop, bad cop” assessment of Iran’s foreign policy strategy may not support the idea that this is the outcome the regime actually expects to attain, its hardline authorities are certainly making every effort to give the impression that they are capable of doing so.

This sort of force projection was evident on Wednesday in the remarks of Mohammad Mohammadi-Golpayegani, the chief of staff to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, concerning mutual efforts to resolve tensions surrounding the ship seizures. Golpayegani sought to downplay Iran’s own efforts to secure negotiations while dramatically playing up the significance of British efforts to similarly avoid open conflict. In so doing, he also reportedly mischaracterized the details of those efforts.

“A country that at one time appointed ministers and lawyers in Iran has reached a point where they are forced to send mediators to beg Iran to release the vessel,” the supreme leader’s advisor said, contrasting the current situation to Britain’s imperialist past. He did not elaborate on what “mediators” he was referring to, and a British diplomatic source denied that anyone had been dispatched for the purpose of negotiating directly with the Iranians.

It is possible that Golpayegani was referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who visited Tehran for two days after stating that he had received a call on Monday from the British Defense Minister “to discuss bilateral ties, the regional crisis, and efforts of de-escalation and decreasing tensions in the region, and also the existing crisis covering the confiscated ships.” But there was no indication that Britain specifically requested Abdul-Mahdi go to Tehran to address the latter issues, and even if this had been the case, he would hardly qualify as a British mediator.

Quite the contrary, given Iraq’s well-established opposition to US sanctions on Iran and the underlying strategy of “maximum pressure,” Abdul-Mahdi’s supposed willingness to advocate for the release of the Stena Impero is a potential sign that the Islamic Republic lacks support, even among its own allies, for ongoing confrontations with the West. Conversely, recent British remarks concerning maritime security cooperation are a sign that the US is gaining more support from its own allies for the maximum pressure strategy.

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper specifically embraced the British plan as “complementary” to the Sentinel program. Meanwhile, it was reported that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had delayed the question of his government’s participation in either program, but acknowledged that “conceptual deliberations” had begun. A spokesperson for the European Union similarly declined to express commitment but did underscore the European position that, contrary to Iran’s latest actions, “freedom of navigation must be respected at all times.”