On Tuesday, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations officially appealed to the international body for help in alleviating the pressure that is still increasing from US sanctions and associated diplomatic isolation. The previous week, it was announced that the US Treasury was imposing sanctions on Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in keeping with a threat that had been voiced earlier in July. The White House formalized a strategy of “maximum pressure” last year after withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but it has only moved gradually toward a maximum threshold ever since.
Zarif’s blacklist is only the latest step in this process, and it is unlikely to be the last to emerge from a period of escalating tensions that have seen the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps attack several tankers in the Gulf of Oman, shoot down one American drone, and seize three commercial vessels, including one that bore the flag of the United Kingdom, as they attempted to transit the Strait of Hormuz. The IRGC as a whole was sanctioned by the Trump administration earlier this year, in a move that had frequently been discussed during other US presidencies but had never been pursued due to an informal prohibition on terrorist designation for official government or military institutions.
Subsequent to the inclusion of the IRGC on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the White House moved to impose additional sanctions on specific IRGC officers as well as the office and person of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The idea of sanctioning the Foreign Minister was initially put forward alongside these measures, but was the plan was apparently delayed on account of concerns that it would interfere with the diplomatic process. President Donald Trump has repeatedly dismissed criticisms that his policies put the US and Iran a path to war, and he has made public offers of unconditional discussions with Iranian officials. But these have been categorically rejected by Tehran.
That position was reiterated on Tuesday during a meeting between Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani. More specifically, Rouhani restated the regime’s official position that it would not so much as consider the possibility of negotiations until after all US sanctions are removed. Some but not all of those sanctions were suspended under the 2015 agreement, to which the UK, Germany, France, Russia, and China were also signatories. But after disparaging the deal for months as one of the worst ever negotiated, Trump withdrew the US from it, citing violations of its “spirit” in the form of Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile testing and malign activities in the broader Middle East.
The rest of the signatories remained publicly committed to upholding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but the re-imposition of US sanctions made this difficult, especially in light of widespread international compliance with secondary sanctions on importers of Iranian oil. The IRGC’s provocations in the Persian Gulf are arguably part of an effort to compel the three European signatories to take more aggressive steps toward undermining the US sanctions and resuming large-scale trade with the Islamic Republic. But another aspect of this effort involves Tehran’s escalating violations of the agreement – something that Iranian officials insist is justified in light of the preexisting American withdrawal.
Much of the international community appears to disagree, and UN leadership has joined the European Union and its member states in urging Iran to resume compliance with limits on uranium enrichment and stockpiles of nuclear material, in addition to halting paramilitary provocations in the Persian Gulf. What’s more, it was reported this week that the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with overseeing the nuclear deal, may see a turn toward more assertive policies for dealing with Iran, depending on who assumes leadership of the body following the recent death of its erstwhile Director General, Yukiya Amano.
The Argentine diplomat Rafael Grossi has put himself forward as a candidate to fill that office, and in so doing he has insisted that the IAEA must be “unyielding” in the presence of Iran’s decisions to resume and potentially expand upon high-level nuclear work. Grossi’s perspective has very likely been influenced by the broader context of Iran’s actions, including its rejection of diplomatic overtures and its insistence on carrying out retaliatory seizures in regional waters.
But the fraught history of Iranian-Argentine relations may also be a factor in this case. The Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah carried out a bombing on the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires in 1994, and Iranian agents are suspected of having murdered an Argentine prosecutor before he could present new information about the case in 2015.
Lacking support from the IAEA, the Iranians are unlikely to find it from the rest of the United Nations, which has no real power to act upon Tehran’s allegations that American efforts at “coercion” constitute “economic terrorism.” After the United Kingdom announced that it would be participating in a US-led coalition to provide enhanced security for shipping in the Persian Gulf, these same allegations were repeated in reference to the British government.
IRGC officers have variously acknowledged that the seizure of the mid-July seizure of the British-flagged Stena Impero, at a minimum, was carried out in retaliation for British Royal Marines’ seizure of the Grace 1 a week before. The tanker was carrying Iranian oil to market, in violation of US sanctions on the valuable commodity, but the seizure was reportedly motivated not by the origin but the destination of the oil, which was to be sold to Syrian refineries that are under sanction for their connection to the dictator and human rights violator Bashar al-Assad.
Insofar as Tehran has prioritized retaliatory gestures ahead of negotiation and compromise in responding to such pressure, it may push additional foreign powers in the direction of support for the American strategy of maximizing that pressure. Although Germany has rejected the notion of participating in the US-led coalition – dubbed the Sentinel program – France has yet to take a firm position one way or the other. Australia has announced that it is seriously considering a formal American request for participation, and even Germany may reverse its position as the situation develops.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has said that the German government does aspire to improve security in the Persian Gulf but prefers that the coalition be led by the European Union. However, this was also London’s position until last weekend, when Javad Zarif began responding to the latest US pressure by goading US allies and publicly insisting that they are too “ashamed” to participate in a US-led coalition. Germany has also stated that its prospective participation is constrained by a shortage of naval resources, but the US State Department responded to this explanation by suggesting that “Europe’s largest economy” could buy more ships to fill the need.
Zarif’s boastful response to his own sanctioning underscores Iran’s questionable priorities, especially in light of the fact that the latest measures from the US Treasury only emerged after the White House made yet another offer of diplomatic talks. About two weeks before the sanctions were announced, the Trump administration invited Zarif to participate in discussions aimed at resolving the current crisis. Despite being warned that his refusal would lead to the imposition of the previously-threatened measures, the Foreign Minister rejected the offer out of hand before returning to Iran from a visit to UN headquarters in New York.
In a column published at the Washington Post on Wednesday, former Tehran correspondent and political prisoner Jason Rezaian reported that the news of Zarif’s intransigence had come to dominate headlines from Iran. He also suggested that the support the Foreign Minister has received from some of his former political adversaries reflects a “coalescing of forces within the regime,” with members of both its mainstream factions “uniting around the common narrative that the Islamic Republic is standing up to American hegemony.”
Some observers are concerned that this posture increases the likelihood of war, and indeed, the IRGC and other hardline entities have clearly been working to present themselves as being prepared for that eventuality. Toward that end, Iranian state media boasted on Tuesday about the supposed unveiling of three precision-guided missiles, with Defense Minister Amir Hatami explicitly drawing connections between such developments and growing tensions with Western adversaries.
Calling the unveiling “another significant achievement of power and dignity for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Hatami declared, “It shows that despite the viciousness and conspiracies of the Great Satan America and its mercenaries, the Defense Ministry will not hesitate for a moment to defend the Islamic Republic and to expand security.”
However, the Trump administration and its supporters have confidently downplayed the threat of war while emphasizing that their goal is to avoid it by deterring further Iranian provocations. And they have supported their argument with reference to information that suggests the strategy of “maximum pressure” is having its intended effect. In an editorial in the USA Today, for instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “Iran was increasing its malign activity in the region” prior to the implementation of that strategy, but has since cut its military budget by 28 percent overall and has prompted austerity measures among its terrorist proxies.
“As we raise the cost of Iran’s expansionism and the status quo,” Pompeo concluded, “we seek a comprehensive deal and a far more peaceful, stable relationship.” But in pursuit of that goal, the White House is clearly committed to its rejection of Iranian demands for presumptive economic and diplomatic concessions from the US and/or its allies. And as Iran’s appeals fall on deaf ears in the UN, it appears that those allies are inclining toward stronger rejections of threats emanating from the Islamic Republic.